BSI has started signing contracts with cane associations and growers groups. This evening, the company sent out a public notice saying farmers
representing production of more than 400,000 tons of cane have made petitions to the Sugar Industry Control Board to enter into independent agreements
with BSI. And, today announcement says, quote, “the process for signing agreements between BSI and these groups of farmers has now commenced.” End
quote. So the process which started in mid November 2014, when BSI appealed directly to farmers, is now coming to fruition two torturous months later:
many, not all, farmers are signing directly with BSI.
But, there’s not much to celebrate in sugar-land. After five decades, the BSCFA is substantially splintered, the crop is starting five, maybe 6 weeks
later than it should have, and the Fair Trade funds have been plundered to keep the farmers going during months of uncertainty and no income.
Indeed, from the outside, it seems to be a fractured industry but one that’s held together by a single supply and demand imperative: the farmers need
to sell their cane, and the BSI mill needs that to make sugar.
Much of the blame for the ruinous state of affairs has fallen on government – which is accused of not standing up enough for the farmers. Tired of
hearing that narrative – which the Barrow Administration believes is manifestly untrue – today government trotted out the Attorney General and the
Minister of Labour – to put out their side of the story. Minister Elrington said “nonsense” to the narrative.
"It's been put very squarely at the door of the government; that government is to blame. The government failed to side with the farmers, that the
government sided deliberately with ASR-BSI and thus the farmers having no choice are entering the season sundered and defeated by the multi-national in
concert with the government. How do you respond to that criticism?"
Hon. Wilfred Elrington - Attorney General
"That is the misinformation that is being put abroad, it's utter nonsense. Any politician knows that he would be committing suicide if he goes against
the people. Our mandate really is to represent the people and to do what is their interest. They're the people that are going to vote for us, not any
foreign multi-national cooperation."
"Leader of the opposition has said that the government, while he accepts that the government could not have forced the opening of the mill; He has said
that the government should have acted, should have appeared at the negotiating table with the BSCFA against ASR-BSI and told them; Listen we two stand
here, you stand on the other side. You must do what we two shareholders say. How do you respond to that?"
Hon. Wilfred Elrington
"That is not the kind of thing a responsible leader would do. They can leave this jurisdiction anytime and go, and who's going to be the worst of it?
The Belizean people, the entire Belizean people. The sugar industry is one of the most important industry for the country of Belize. Provided us with a
tremendous amount of foreign exchange, revenue, employment. People in Pickstock division are involved in that industry. The last thing our government
would want to see is for the industry to leave the country."
"I think the cane farmers association made a mistake when they voted to go along with this mandamus strategy, when very deliberately at that session
their attorney Chris Coye told them, this deal is the best deal you're going to get right now."
Hon. Wilfred Elrington
"Chris Coye is perhaps one of the best commercial lawyer the country has and his advice to my mind is the exact advise I would have given to my client.
You can't discount the value of the deal that they had. I certainly thought it was a mistake to go to the court. Going to the court doesn't cost the
attorney anything, matter of fact that's how the attorney earns his or her living but it cost the poor cane farmer. The position of the cane farmers
historically has never been strong. You have a perishable crop, the crop cannot for more than a few weeks, other wise it starts to rot. So you don't
have much cope to negotiate, you don't have a very strong negotiating position. People have mortgages to pay. People have loans, so you have to take
all this into consideration if I don't agree with the proposal that you are putting, what next?"
"The last crop season, they continue negotiating with an interim agreement and now we hear BSI saying that they will refuse an interim agreement. They
basically want to pressure the farmers to sign a new agreement under their terms."
Hon. Wilfred Elrington
"Because an interim agreement is beneficial to no one. These have invested millions of dollars that begin to shareholders. They can't afford to be held
hostage at the beginning of every cane crop."
Hulse Says Farmers Got A Fair Deal
And, hostages no more for sure…today’s announcement from BSI/ASR says, quote,
“Any group of farmers (which wishes) to sign an agreement with BSI can request a copy of the agreement from BSI.”
It adds that, quote, “BSI expects soon to have sufficient cane committed…which would allow for the parties to then agree on a start of crop date.”
BSI says “the agreements need to be signed by the individual farmers…to complete the signing process.” So what are they singing unto? Well, it’s the
“cane compromise” hammered out by Prime Minister Dean Barrow – and depending on who you listen to: it’s either a raw deal, a fair deal, or the best
deal the farmers are going to get. Labour Minister Godwin Hulse said today, it’s not perfect, but it’s not terrible either:…
Hon. Godwin Hulse - Minister of Labour
"It's not the best thing since slice bread but as a business person and who have been involved in this process a long time, I look at incremental
improvements, here we go. 65/35 remains, there's no change their. The next trip value, what the deductions from that are the same as they have always
been. The payment of 80% after the first week of delivery, continues and the reason for that is because it is a rolling estimate, so they can't pay
100%. The remaining 20% is paid in 2 increments, I think it's 5 Wednesdays after the crop ends and the first week in November has always happened, so
all of that remains. What has changed? Previously, there was no payment at all from bagash and now there is. Whether you agree with the formula or not
there is some payment with a view that in 3 years time you can revisit that formula."
"But ownership of the cane, a lot of that pains the farmers greatly, surrendering ownership."
Hon. Godwin Hulse
"I really can't wrap my mind around that, I must be honest, I cannot wrap my mind around that because; My understanding from the farmers, the reason
why the wanted to own the cane, and I'll be honest as I always am, if I was negotiating this and I say you want to own the cane, I have no problem with
you own the cane because nothing changes. The fact of the matter is, I think the reason they wanted to own the cane or have the concept of ownership of
the cane is so that if there is any additional products to be derived from the cane that they sell, they want to be able to share in a part of the
venue and that has been included in the agreement. Now they're been paid for sugar and molasses and bagash and there is a clause in that says any
additional thing that comes up.”
Crop Season Should Start Soon
Still yet, the petition to gather as many signatures approving the endorsement of the agreement has been described as B.S.C.F.A. yielding to pressure being brought by government, as branch directors have gone on record to voice their discontent for not getting the best deal. But farmers are cash strapped and after Thursday’s press conference by the prime minister, there has been a sense of defeat among them.
“Is this the B.S.C.F.A. buckling under pressure, bowing under pressure seeing as though these individual farmers who make up the membership of the B.S.C.F.A. are cash strapped and the fact that delay of the crop is affecting them financially? Is this now the B.S.C.F.A. giving in to what B.S.I. has proposed?”
Ezequiel Cansino, Chairman, Committee of Management, B.S.C.F.A.
“Well, since the AGM where the majority of the cane farmers present at that time that gave us the go ahead to sign this agreement, we had the feeling that the cane farmers they were accepting this without pressure or something like that. But at the last AGM we saw that the cane farmers went and decided that this agreement was not to be signed and right now we are saying, well the cane farmers are saying go ahead and sign it. I feel that maybe some cane farmers feel that they are being pressured to do the signing or giving us the mandate to go and sign but the need to start a crop is in everybody’s interest. So I think that yes maybe we are having some pressure to sign this agreement but up to now we are having the majority of the cane farmers that are saying to go out and sign the agreement.”
“Does this then spell an end to the impasse?”
“I believe so. By this maybe we will be finished with all this impasse that we have had from December up to now.”
“Where would you stand concerning the ownership of cane, the payment for bagasse as a byproduct and what have you? If you were to sign on to this present agreement that’s before you, what does the B.S.C.F.A. benefit out of what has been proposed?”
“Well Isani, we have been discussing all these three issues in the agreement and when we decided to go ahead with or accepting this we did it with the eighteen directors. Then we saw that the other three directors started to say no and you have heard and you know what has happened. So in the agreement of the seven years we have said clearly that if nothing happens in the planning of the strategic plan, well in three years we can finish this agreement.”
Disbursement of Fairtrade Monies Continues
Regarding the use of Fairtrade funds being paid out to farmers, Cansino says that the suggestion to replace the spent monies with PetroCaribe dollars is a singular idea coming out of a splinter group of the B.S.C.F.A. While agreeing that the disbursal will lead to decertification, Cansino says that the ball is already in play and farmers are already collecting their share of the four million dollar payout.
Ezequiel Cansino, Chairman, Committee of Management, B.S.C.F.A.
“Concerning this four million dollars that is being distributed or disbursed to cane farmers, at this time we actually, we will stay without Fairtrade funds. So we will not be able to deliver those projects that were planned in December or November and we will definitely, we will not be able to do this project and we will be forced to dismiss some employees because we are absolutely getting broken up with that Fairtrade funds.”
“But doesn’t that then affect the certification?”
“Yes, Fairtrade has sent us letters stating clearly that we might be decertified if this happens and well it’s happening and we are already disbursing this money and we are delivering it to the cane farmers.”
“In an interview that I conducted with the former vice-chairman Mr. Alfredo Ortega on Tuesday, he mentioned that for his respective branch which is the Orange Walk branch, there was a suggestion made in a meeting held where the government can be approached for assistance to replace what has been disbursed via PetroCaribe funds. Has this conversation or suggestion been brought to the fore elsewhere within the B.S.C.F.A.?”
“Well we had a meeting with the eighteen directors yesterday and Mr. Ortega was also present and he never mentioned anything about that so I cannot say anything about that.”
The B.S.C.F.A. will be hosting a joint press conference with the Belize National trade Union Congress on Thursday at midday in Belize City and we will have all the developments coming from that press conference.
No Petrocaribe Rollout to Replace Fairtrade Monies
While it has not to our knowledge become an official inquiry, there is increasing discussion in the B.S.C.F.A. asking government to roll Petrocaribe monies into the Association. According to officials, thanks to the forced disbursement of Fairtrade monies recently, there will be almost immediate layoffs and the shutting down of projects. They figure that since the industry is the lifeblood of the north and so critical, G.O.B. could see fit to hand over some money to replace that which was disbursed. So this morning we asked Ministers Elrington and Hulse for their thoughts. Let’s just say that if they speak for government, it’s not going to happen.
Wilfred Elrington, Minister of Foreign Affairs
“That would give me great trouble. It would give me great trouble to do that largely because when you get funds that are designated for a specific purpose they are supposed to be used for that specific purpose. If you don’t the people who provide the funds are going to sanction you. There are always consequences to be paid. And I can’t see how one would want to reward people who take that position. You know, deliberately, this is the situation…this is what the money is there for. You can’t just do what you want with it and say government come bail me out.”
Godwin Hulse, Minister of Immigration
“Well first of all I have to say my friend that fifty-two million dollars of Fairtrade money went to that association. Every last penny! The miller got none. Last year they got eight million. The amount of Fairtrade quantity sugar was increased from fifty thousand tons to sixty-five. So they got eight million dollars. They’re only giving away, as far as I know, four plus one point five, which is five point five…they should have two point five left. I don’t see them breaking up because of that at all.”
As you heard earlier, Chairman Ezequiel Cansino said that the issue of Petrocaribe monies has only been brought up by one branch.