Santander Welcomes The Media, Lays Out Investment

Green Tropics – since the company came on the scene in 2012 – they’ve been mostly bad news. First they trenched a canal right through the Labouring Creek Jaguar Corridor Wildlife Sanctuary for which they landed a record environmental fine. And then, they sprayed the crops of 30 Valley of Peace farmers laying waste to about 150 to 200 acres of vegetable crops. And maybe that’s why the brand Green Tropics has been taken out of the public equation. Now the company has been re-branded as Santander – which is fair enough because it’s the name of their Spanish parent’s company. But, Santander is not only taking on a new name – they’ve got a new welcoming approach to the media. Today, the entire press crop was shuttled out to their development site behind Valley of Peace. IT’S twenty thousand acres of land which will be used for sugar cane production, harvesting, milling and bagasse co-generation. IT’S a formidable investment – said to be the Santander group’s largest agricultural development in this region – and we found out more today:…

Julez Vasquez reporting….

A tractor like this costs two hundred thousand dollars – but they let me hop into it and take a turn behind the very big wheels – not because I know how to drive a tractor – but because it’s all computer controlled – and not even a novice like me can mess it up.

The GPS package to control it costs another forty thousand US dollars – but it is to make sure that every single burrow made in this field is pinpoint precise to within a millimeter - so while I was behind the wheel – the computer was doing the steering while I controlled the throttle.

It’s the kind of advanced technology that Santander hopes will give them a competitive edge in the global sugar industry:

Jules Vasquez

"The movement away form manual labour, in terms of the planting and perhaps reaping and the preference for mechanised labour."

Edgar Hernandez - Director, Santander

"I think the preference for efficiency, for being more productive. Rather than manually, right now the most efficient way of productivity, form a productivity standpoint is balancing our activities through a mechanical way."

That means less manual labor which means fewer jobs – right? Here’s how they answered that:

Jules Vasquez

"Some persons thought that, well you all are recipient of development concessions and in change of those concessions you all would have created not hundreds, but thousands of jobs because it's 20,000 acres. And the conventional model of harvesting and planting sugar in Belize is labour intensive."

Edgar Hernandez

"You could see the positive externality of investment from a labour standpoint and I think we're going to contribute importantly on that side. But you can also see the economic factor of that positive externality. For example you're going to be selling sugar and you can increase your exports significantly from the production of sugar coming from this business."

Consuelo Rodriguez - Human Resource Manager

"We have hired 575 Belizeans. We have 80 percent of our work force is from Belize. The people who are coming from abroad are going to go back. They're just on a temporary basis here. What we look forward, we want Belizeans because we want people from here, we need them"

But not all as unskilled labour – in this construction phase there are varied needs:

Consuelo Rodriguez

"We need people for farm hands and also here with, it could be like 100 more and also we need especially operators for purification, evaporation, generation of energy processes."

Jose Rodriguez - CEO, Santander

"We need to have skilled, for example certified welders putting together certain equipment that the manufacturers require that they are certified welders. And we couldn't find them here."

Consuelo Rodriguez

"Right now we have 144 helpers that are learning. Skilful workers, welding on industrial basis."

Jose Rodriguez

"The culture of growing sugar cane, is not a thing people around this area grew up with. That is something we have to create."

Mary Carrillo - Chemical Engineer

"I was studying chemical engineering abroad in Guatemala city for a couple of years. Came back looking for a job. I actually saw the announcement in the Amandala. I sent in my papers, 2 weeks later I was called and now i'm here working."

Jules Vasquez

"Now you have some people who say, well Santander only pays a small amount of money, only 25 dollars a day and we can't work for that."

Consuelo Rodriguez

"No, that's not true. The lowest wage here is for helpers, that are also learning and it's 35 dollars a day."

Jules Vasquez

"What is your experience been like in terms of they pay and in terms of the employment opportunities for Belizeans?"

Harvey Sanchez - Electrical Engineer

"The pay scale here is higher than my previous experience. And basing to my Belizeans i've always tried to fight for them to get a better scale rate."

Jules Vasquez

"What has your experienced been like am a Belizean here? Because they've been a sort of rumour out there that Santander doesn't want to hire Belizeans or that they're not really any opportunity for Belizeans here or that the pay is terrible."

Consuelo Rodriguez

"Well look at me, I'm here, I'm a Belizean and I haven't received any bad treatment. I think there is career growth, career opportunity not only for professionals like myself but for many of us. It's a learning experience."

Consuelo Rodriguez

"We want people, we need people. We are looking for people who would like to work doing this construction milling process and we are looking for people from Cayo and nearest areas and also from Benque."

And while employment is the public issue, in a sense that is missing the forest for the trees. The enterprise at Santander is a huge investment – and it’s not just fancy tractors either. The project includes tens of thousands of acres that will come under production, a mill for processing the sugar – this one was bought second hand form Louisiana – and a new co-generation plant from India which is being assembled right now:

Jose Rodriguez

"We are investing here around figure about 147 million US dollar. We are about 65% of the investment already made here."

Jules Vasquez

"Okay, now your first harvest you are planning it for?"

Jose Rodriguez

"For February of 2016, next year. Actually we have 300 days to go."

And that’s why they invited the press to see the farm outside Valley of Peace today:

Edgar Hernandez

"I think that everything that you know, you always have some type of hysteria about that. So the best thing to do is to put out us there and for the public opinion people and Belize to know us."

The Santander group consists of Santander farms, Santander Sugar and SS energy.

As you heard, Santander hopes to harvest its first crop, or “zafra”, in February of 2016. Then, they will focus on the CARICOM and European markets.

Channel 7