Parliament today rushed the passage of controversial amendments to the Sugar Industry Act, Chapter 325 of the Laws of Belize, paving the way for two new sugar associations: the Corozal Sugar Cane Producers Association and the Progressive Sugar Cane Producers Association, to emerge as competing lobbying groups for cañeros in northern Belize, even as the fate of the vanguard association, the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers’ Association (BSCFA), hangs in the balance.

To date, the Government has resisted calls from cañeros to channel $4 million of PetroCaribe funds into the financially beleaguered organization to replenish Fairtrade monies that ought not to have been disbursed to farmers. The disbursement of those funds last week has compounded the association’s already deteriorating financial position, amid a new change introduced with the amendment that will remove a substantial revenue stream – the “cess,” a mandatory deduction from sugar payments normally paid to the BSCFA.

Currently, cane farmers in Orange Walk pay $1.00 a ton, in line with their approved bylaws, while Corozal farmers pay 60 cents. This could have earned the association roughly a million dollars this crop year, but the new law instead permits the associations to accept voluntary fees from members. Furthermore, the amendments make provision for independent cañeros who do not want to belong to any of the three associations to be equal players in the industry.

The Barrow administration contends that the changes not only protect the constitutional rights of all cañeros, but that they also pave the way for the imminent start of the sugar crop, delayed since December 8, 2014, more than two months now, resulting in a loss of millions to the nation and primarily to cane farmers, who benefit from a 65-35 revenue-sharing agreement with the Belize Sugar Industry (BSI).

The recent impasse over the start of the crop year has not only resulted in financial pain to the cañeros and other stakeholders; it has deepened longstanding tensions in various factions of the community of cañeros, and reports from BSCFA members today suggest that cane fields are being burned in retaliation.

An association official confirmed today that over the weekend, the cane fields of Javier Keme, the chairman of BSCFA’s finance committee, and those of other farmers in San Narciso, Patchakan and Yo Creek have been torched, and the allegation is that the fires were set by rival factions.

In a peaceful protest this morning, though, a small group of cañeros and supporters voiced their sentiments outside the National Assembly, but at 10:27 a.m., Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega, who also holds the ministerial portfolio for agriculture, nonetheless introduced amendments to the Sugar Industry Act, saying that the changes are intended to bring the Act, which only recognizes one association – the BSCFA – into conformity with the Belize Constitution and to secure for all cane farmers their freedom to belong to an association of their choice.

The Deputy Prime Minister also announced this morning that BSCFA has finally signed the disputed commercial agreement with BSI, a subsidiary of American Sugar Refining – this after cañeros held a membership meeting yesterday and approved the signing via resolution. Of note is that BSI had insisted that it would not open the factory for milling until it could seal agreements with farmers guaranteeing at least 500,000 tons of cane to the factory. The two new associations signed last Thursday with BSI, almost meeting that target.

Whereas the Government has maintained that it has long advocated on behalf of the cañeros, Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca contended that it was this “treachery,” which forced the cañeros to their knees before the mighty ASR, with the government right there standing beside the ASR, to sign on to what he described as “a one-sided, unfair deal.”

“And the question that arises, Mister Speaker, is ‘Why?’ ‘What does ASR have over this Prime Minister and his Government?’ ‘What is really behind this deal?’” Fonseca inquired.

This morning, when Vega moved a motion that the bill to amend the sugar laws should be taken through all its stages forthwith, Fonseca, area representative for Freetown, rose to “object in the strongest possible terms” to the move by the ruling party to ram through the bill without giving them a chance to even review it and consult on the proposals before going to Parliament. Fonseca said that the first time they saw the bill was at 10:00 a.m., when the House meeting was scheduled to start.

Toledo East area rep, Mike Espat, member for the Opposition, said that he could not support the sugar bill, especially because of the manner in which it was presented to them, “like a thief in the night…”

“We object in the strongest possible terms, Mr. Speaker, and we appeal to the Honourable Prime Minister to withdraw this bill for proper review and discussion,” Fonseca said.

“We all want an agreement, we all want the crop to start, but we insist that agreement must respect them and value their role not only today, but today and into the future,” Fonseca said.

Barrow said that although he usually tries to accede to the requests of the Opposition, in this case, he could not.

“The Leader of the Opposition well knows that there was going to be this House meeting this morning and he well knows that we have to pass this bill today because we need to get this crop underway – a crop that’s been delayed, Mr. Speaker, in consequence of the machinations, bad mind and sabotage of a number of people, including the Leader of the Opposition,” Barrow charged.

Barrow said that they had served Fonseca notice some time ago that they would amend the law in accordance with the 2010 order of the Supreme Court, and they had also explained that the amendment would not go beyond the remit set out by the court order, a copy of which was made available to the Opposition members.

Barrow then went on to charge that it was the Opposition that had engineered “efforts to derail the industry and particularly the start of the crop,” as well as the splintering of the BSCFA.

“New associations came into being and under this bill and in accordance with the constitutional mandate, they must take their place around the table together with BSCFA to participate in the infrastructure that governs the operationalization of a crop. That crop will start no later than next week. In order for new associations to be involved on the basis of equality and equitability, we must pass this bill today. So get with the program, man!” Barrow told Fonseca.

However, former Prime Minister Said Musa, the Opposition member who represents the Fort George electoral division in Parliament, insisted that the Government had always had the power to declare the season open, even under the existing law.

“This whole rigmarole, all this crap that we’ve been hearing in this House today from that side has to do with wanting to grandstand and to pretend that today, the 19th of January, we are now ensuring that the crop can start by passing this law in one day; and the Prime Minister has been at pains to point out that we need the law to make constitutional, what has not been constitutional,” Musa said.

Musa added, though, that the same section 6 of the existing law must have given Barrow many sleepless nights, because it dictates that it is the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB) which decides and which fixes the date when the grinding of sugar cane should start.

“That is what I read in the Act…. They [BSI] shall open the factory,” Musa pointed out.

Musa also charged that the Barrow administration has succeeded in “destroying, certainly dismembering” the BSCFA, a 55-year-old institution.

“All this crap that we’ve been hearing from that side of the House was one big cloak in order to hide, to disguise an infamous betrayal of the cane farmers…[but] they will still live to see another day and survive. The BSCFA will survive this day. They are bigger, they are in a sense bigger than this National Assembly. They stand for the people and in the final analysis, when the general elections are called, they will teach you a lesson,” Musa said.

The first political salvo was thrown by Barrow, who in answering the Opposition Leader’s remarks on the occasion of the debate of the sugar bill, told him that this would be his last appearance as the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.

“Barring anything dramatic, this is the last sitting of the House until March, and the budget presentation in March will come after the countrywide municipal elections on March 4,” said Barrow.

Barrow said that it is his firm conviction that when that next meeting of the House happens, they will have a new Leader of the Opposition, and “today was the sort of valedictory speech of the current leader of the Opposition…”

He said that this is because of “the losing wave of the current Leader of the Opposition,” which is expected to continue in consequence of the March 4 municipal elections, and Barrow suggested that the Opposition member for Orange Walk Central, Briceño, would re-emerge as the Leader of the Opposition.

Barrow said that “…the member for Orange Walk Central behaved today as though he fully expects that he will be that new Leader of the Opposition and I must commend him….”

“He did so merely by making a presentation that was substantial, that contained a good deal of sense, that had merit and therefore stood in stark contrast to the hapless, hopeless presentation of the current Leader of the Opposition. You had only to listen to the two to recognize that today is the chronicle of a death foretold – a political death foretold of the Opposition,” Barrow said.

Briceño took issue with a provision in section 5(2) of the sugar amendment, pointing out that while the provision calls for three persons to be nominated from among the cañeros, if they can’t reach an agreement, it is the minister who will appoint people to represent those associations on the board.

Since the two new associations “seem to be politically motivated,” Briceño said, they could engineer that dissent, just so that the minister can appoint UDP reps to the board.

Briceño also called on the Barrow administration to delay the passage of the bill in order to allow for a more thorough review.

He pointed out that the industry earned $105.6 mil last year, and $75.6 mil was paid to cane farmers. This, Briceño said, represents 3.5% of GDP, second only to tourism. He also said that the Government must work with BSI and the farmers to increase the milling capacity to 1.8 mil tons, which, he said, will make the industry more profitable and add $46.6 mil more to sugar receipts and $30.6 mil to cane farmers.

Jose Mai, Opposition member and area representative for Orange Walk South, said that the BSCFA has the largest membership of the three associations and it has been serving thousands of families for more than 50 years. He noted that farmers have not gotten the kinds of perks which the foreign investor has gotten: tax breaks on import duty, general sales tax, and environmental tax – none of which are paid by ASR. He claimed that the Government has been colluding with BSI’s strategy to weaken the BSCFA and have it totally removed from the industry – which he alleged is BSI’s end game.

Mai said that the Barrow administration has been “siding with the rich and powerful” rather than siding with the poor and weak, which, he said, is the opposite of what governments are supposed to do.

Fonseca noted that the BSCFA is the only association certified by the Fairtrade labeling organization for sugar grown in Belize, and it is the only body, the only association with the infrastructure and human resource capacity to properly and effectively manage and organize and deliver cane to the factory. The new associations, Fonseca said, don’t have the capacity to do what the BSCFA is doing.

Barrow said that, at the most practical level, the amendment is providing for the fact that there are now three associations.

“At the level of the nuts and bolts of the governance structure of the sugar industry, at the level of the various agencies – the Sugar Industry Control Board and those bodies responsible for auctioning the machinery set up to supervise the implementation of the crop, there must now be representation from all three associations and the protection of all three associations of all farmers belonging to them and of all farmers, period. You can’t start the crop except you provide for that,” Barrow said, insisting that it is “absolutely necessary to introduce and pass this bill today.”

Barrow said that for Fonseca to claim that the amendments are an assault on the dignity of cane farmers, when they, in his view, enshrine in law the rights of farmers, is an assault on people whose rights are being vindicated.

He did not accept the blame for the splintering of the BSCFA, and maintained that even if the formation of the two new associations is a bad thing – which he said is not necessarily the case – that did not happen in consequence of anything the Government did, but because of the unrelenting campaign led by the minority of the BSCFA, which, he said, had leagued itself with the PUP to derail the signing of the commercial agreement which they had previously blessed.

Barrow also said today that the Government does not intend to increase the sugar cane delivery quota of the miller, which, he said, was a quota given to them by the PUP in 2001/2002, when they increased it to 140,000 – 150,000 tons.

He said that there was a recent request by ASR for an increase in their quota, but the SCPC (Sugar Cane Production Committee) has refused, because in the circumstances and with respect to doing what is equitable, it is not possible. Barrow said that the SCPC, as long as the Barrow administration is in office, will ensure that no more advantage is given to ASR/BSI that is prejudiced against, or is at the expense of, the cane farmers.

The bill to amend the Sugar Industry Act was passed by Parliament, and the House adjourned at 2:17 p.m. It will be tabled at the Senate tomorrow, Tuesday.

After today’s Special Sitting of the House, we contacted Gabriel Martinez, the chairman of the SICB, who told us that he and other members of the SCPC are slated to meet tomorrow at the SICB’s conference room, “to have a better idea of how things stand and to start the organization of the deliveries.”

He said that the various associations will then meet with BSI to get an idea of when best the crop can start, but they are looking at another few days before the date could be fixed and published in the Government’s Gazette by the SICB.

Martinez did confirm plans to have the sugar crop commence next week.