There is an ad on the radio announcing that very soon consumers will be able to get rice for 69 cents per pound. This is due to Jitendra Chawla, more popularly known as “Jack Charles,”
a local merchant, importing rice from Guyana, and this has our local rice producers in a state of panic, fearing that they may be pushed out of the market.
Jose Alpuche, Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, told Amandala this morning that Jack Charles has not been given a permit to import rice from Guyana, however.
Also, it has been reported that Guyana is seeking markets for its rice due to the fact that the PetroCaribe Energy Cooperation Agreement between Guyana and Venezuela was squashed as a result of a territorial disagreement between the two countries.
Stanley Rempel, a local rice producer, told Amandala that this is not about getting rice at a more affordable rate; instead, it is about “food security”. Rempel added that rice is already one of the cheapest commodities, since at “$1.15 per pound, it can feed 10 people.”
Rempel explained that if something like this is allowed in our local market, it will shut down the local rice industry and Government will lose millions of revenue, since imported rice that comes from CARICOM countries cannot be taxed.
In this case, he said, the old adage “cheaper is not always better” is applicable, especially, when we look at the big picture, which would be putting 100 local rice farmers and 5 milling companies out of business, and causing about 2,000 employees to lose their jobs.
Rempel went on to say that Charles had commented that he would continue to sell the rice at 69 cents per pound for two years, which is the amount of time needed to shut down the local market, and thereafter, the price of the imported rice will be raised.
A press release from Belize Agro Productive Sector Group stated, “Rice farmers want lower rice prices on the shelves too. This is why we have been lobbying Government for some of the same subsidies that are available to Guyanese rice growers, and even available here in Belize to big companies such as American Sugar Refinery/Belize Sugar Industry ASR/ BSI and Green Tropics/ Santander; subsidies such as cheaper fuel, duty exemptions, tax breaks and other incentives.”
Alpuche said that very soon rice, referred to as 70/30 or Grade C, will cost 80 cents at wholesale and 90 cents at retail.
Well, the ads are still being aired and the last time Amandala spoke to Jack Charles, he seemed adamant about bringing in his rice. We must add that this is not the first time he is causing tension amongst the local rice producers; earlier in March he had attempted to bring in rice, also.
A press release sent out from Charles said that he will be importing only 20% of the rice consumed locally, and it is not his intention to monopolize the rice industry.
The release went on to say that the Guyanese rice is costing him 0.52 cents a pound. It further explained that the Belize Marketing Development Company (Belize Marketing Board) had imported 3 million pounds of the same Guyanese rice, which they repacked in Circle R bags and sold for .94 cents a pound.
The released continued that as a result of the “gouging price,” the Belize Marketing Board made a profit of over 1.4 million dollars.
Guyanese rice is arriving in Belize on Thursday - and it seems that has spurred the Government into action to fulfill a commitment it made over eight months ago. April first, that's when government promised a new controlled price for rice, and a new grading system for rice. It should have been ready by May, but it was just announced today - two days before importer Jack Charles lands three containers of Guyanese rice in Belize.
Here's how the new price regime works. It establishes four grades for rice: Extra A Premium, "A", "B" and "C". Now, the one that most folks will end up buying is grade "C" - that's the only one that will have a controlled retail price of ninety cents per pound. That's the lowest grade of raise, with 30% broken grains - but right now it's what most people are paying a dollar and twenty cents for. That's the effect of price gouging by the retailers - and, you might be asking how will they prevent that from happening all over again. Well, that's where another aspect of the new rice regime comes in: all rice will have to be packaged and labeled with the retail price on it. And so while that is intended to ensure that the controlled price holds true for Grade C rice - there are also the other grades. From now on, those will have no controlled price. According to a press release from the bureau of standards that will be, quote, "determined by market forces." So, producers can sell those grades of rice at any price that the market will support and according to the Bureau of standards, this is so that, quote, "the producers can recover their investments in mandatory packaging and extra transportation costs."
The new price regime goes into effect in 8 days time, on December 23rd. Of course, that's far from the end of the story because importer Jack Charles says his three containers of rice will be Premium A Grade, not the broken C grade - and he'll make sure it retails for 69 cents a pound. That's 21 cents less than the controlled price for Grade C - and today the debate on that issue hit a fever pitch - with all sides weighing in.
Importer Jack Charles went on the offensive by getting his technicians to appear on KREM's WUB Morning Show. His main spokesperson is Sergio Garcia, a Regional Trade Specialist, who was once the CEO in the Ministry of Agriculture and an advisor to the Government on Trade. Simultaneously, while Garcia was on national TV and radio, local Rice Farmers and their spokesperson, Dr. Henry Cantun, were also on Channel 5's Morning Show, Open Your Eyes. Both sides were trying to leverage public opinion for or against allowing Guyanese Rice to be imported. Tonight, we have both sides, presenting their arguments and counter arguments on this issue. Here's what they had to say on the topic:
Sergio Garcia, Technical Consultant - RC Imports "CARICOM products. So the supplies control act of Belize has it very clear and I have the evidence here according to the law that say any products from CARICOM does not require an import license."
Dr. Henry Canton, Chairman - Belize Agro-production Sector "Mr. Charles does not have the pre-requisite documentation for rice from Guyana to enter Belize as government is so put to us. Caribbean Chicken shipped a container of chickens to Trinidad and that container was rejected by their BAHA and it was not allowed to come off the ship. So we would like to see government take the exact same position that Trinidad took with us. And this rice not having a BAHA permit, that is not allowed to come off the barge from Santo Thomas to Big Creek."
Sergio Garcia, Technical Consultant - RC Imports "Baha is charged with responsibility to protecting the agricultural health status of the country and an agricultural health status extends a bit to the human health aspects. So let me say this that I think you all are aware that last year rice came in from Guyana which was package by the same producers who are now crying foul and that rice was sold to the Belizean consumers. In terms of the rice coming from Guyana it does not posed any agricultural health risk nor human health risk, Do we want to protect 5 big families that produce the rice and have the rice monopoly? Or do we want to benefit the wider Belizean society?"
Dr. Henry Canton, Chairman - Belize Agro-production Sector "Monopoly only exist when there is one entity controlling the whole thing. The rice farmers are a group of farmers from Blue Creek. There are also farmers from Shipyard. There are also farmers from Spanish Lookout and there are farmers from the south. In fact I think there are 5 millers and actually 3 packagers who compete against each other in the local market. So they have to be viable competitive among themselves also."
Sergio Garcia, Technical Consultant - RC Imports "They use latest technology. They use less labour. It's less labour intensive. Everything is mechanize. They get all the fiscal incentives from the government and yet they are saying they are not competitive. Maybe we should bring 2-3 Guyanese to teach them how to plant rice."
Stanley Rempel, CEO - Circle R Products "They have free infrastructure. They have free water. They have cheap financing. They are not taxed at the front of the production cycle, whereas we are taxed at the front of the production cycle. So there is a lot of factors that they are just disregarding."
Dr. Henry Canton, Chairman - Belize Agro-production Sector "We have a small farmer that producing 5 acres and there is a farmer that's producing 1,000 acres. You can't compare the competitiveness whether they will be paid the same price. That's a challenge that a farmer does. A lot of the time that smaller will do his own labour inputs where the larger farmer has to have a large employment base. Has to have high investment in equipment etc. It's unfair to compare the Toledo farm grower with the commercial farm grower. Either not just in rice, but in any agri-business."
Sergio Garcia, Technical Consultant - RC Imports "How do we produce rice or pay our small farmer 30 cents - yet we are trying to protect the large farmer saying that we are producing at 85 cents and they are not price gouging."
Stanley Rempel, CEO - Circle R Products "The numbers that you were hearing earlier were mine opinion, very inaccurate. Yes, the farmers down south are getting paid less for their patty, but it's not in our control. That's what BNBC - that's their prices and that's what they are paying. It is a lower quality rice. It is not a grade 1 rice which the general public demands."
Dr. Henry Canton, Chairman - Belize Agro-production Sector "Our fear is not competition. Our fear is when you have a country that has in excess of rice and a supplier who is willing to probably give you a first time low price for the introduction into our market and then you are allowed into our market, mashed up the market and then we are left with dirty end of the mess to clean out."
Sergio Garcia, Technical Consultant - RC Imports "Food security - all you mentioned just now is important. Because I've heard the CEO and other senior official speaking about food security and even the Mennonites and the other millers speaking about food security. But they have one concept about what is the problem in Belize. In Belize there is no lack of availability of supply. The problem is access. The problem is that the average Belizean consumer cannot afford the price of rice okay. And what that tells you? We are saying that we can bring rice that is more affordable to the consumers and ensure their food security."
Stanley Rempel, CEO - Circle R Products "Jack Charles has been challenging us if we can match his price right. My point I have is if he is really that concern to make sure people get cheaper food on their table, rice is a very small part of your grocery of what's on your table in dollar wise. One pound of rice feeds 10 people. At $1.15 per pound is 11 cents per person. So if he really wants to make an impact and be the Robin Hood, why does he not lower his merchandise?"
Later on in the news, we will have the perspective of consumers - what would they prefer lower prices on imported rice, or higher prices from local farmers?
Rice, How Do Consumers Feel?
We have been reporting extensively on the price of rice for the past few weeks. As we told you on Friday, the Guyanese rice shipment comes through the Big Creek Port on Thursday and it looks like there will be a showdown between the government and the Guyanese rice importer Jack Charles. That's because the government believes that this imported rice will deal a deathblow local price producers - while the importer says he's only bringing in 20% of the local consumption, and all it will mean is a much lower price for you. So how do consumers feel about it? We went to Brodie's and K-Park supermarket to find out.
Fernando Galvez, Brodie's Customer "I been following it and coincidentally I came around here to see if I could see what's on the market. But I think they are bringing it from somewhere in Guyana."
Courtney Weatherburne "Would you support the local or continue supporting the local rice producers or do you prefer the Guyanese rice? Bear in mind the Guyanese rice is cheaper would sell for about over 60 cents cheaper than the local rice. What do you think about that?"
Fernando Galvez, Brodie's Customer "I will still continue supporting the Belizean market. I think that sometimes like this - last time they had a drought somewhere in the north which did affect us and economically it employs a lot of Belizeans. It might be kind of expensive yes, but I still don't know the Guyanese price. But definitely I wouldn't care of buying the Belizean product."
Consumer, K-Park "Well I can say that the quality is no Circle R and it's no Uncle Johns. The rice doesn't tend to swell as the local rice would swell. The appearance is obvious. The appearance is more broken and gritty-like. It's not whole grain and hence I guess it doesn't get to swell as the local rice would swell. So I am not a fan of that - that other rice."
Courtney Weatherburne "So at the end of the day you will support our local rice?"
Consumer, K-Park "I prefer it. I would like it right now."
Courtney Weatherburne "Regardless of the price right if it's more expensive than the Guyanese rice?"
Consumer, K-Park "Well we do have to be conscious of the price yes, but I would prefer the local rice over that other brand any day."
Loretta Brown, K-Park Consumer "You see what happen, I prefer my local rice. Because that Guyanese rice, it doesn't swell. Especially of you have a houseful of children - it doesn't swell. So it is obvious to see that our local rice is better because if I buy one pound of rice, it could feed my household, but that Guyanese rice won't go anywhere."
Daron Solis, K-Park Consumer "In these hard times I would support the cheaper rice. After all everything is going up. Sugar went up, price of regular gasoline went up, now cheaper rice. So that will kind of set off the going up of the other stuff."
Courtney Weatherburne "So it doesn't concern you that if you choose the Guyanese rice, it would affect the local rice industry?"
Daron Solis, K-Park Consumer "I think that should be a concern of the government. They are ones that should come out and bailed them out. What they should do is give them a subsidy. Subsidize their rice to make it competitive with the imported rice. That's the government's job."
Courtney Weatherburne "You have been following the story on Guyanese rice versus our local rice. You said before nothing is wrong with getting a cheaper rice. But you are concern with the quality?"
Valerie Richardson, K-Park Consumer "Yes, the quality is very important."
Courtney Weatherburne "Based on the people was have spoken with, they say that the quality of the Guyanese rice doesn't match up or doesn't compare to our local rice."
Valerie Richardson, K-Park Consumer "Well I am not sure about that because I haven't bought any Guyanese rice so far. So I can't compare both of them."
Courtney Weatherburne "But at the end of the day in terms of quality, if our local rice has better quality than the Guyanese rice, you would choose our local rice regardless of the price?"
Valerie Richardson, K-Park Consumer "Definite. Because it's all about quality and you don't want to be eating anything that doesn't taste good."
Again, in a release sent out by importer Jack Charles, he says that the Guyanese rice is Premiums Grade A and will sell for 0.69 cents a pound and he assures the public that price will hold for 2 years.
Tomorrow morning all eyes turn to the Port in Big Creek where a shipment of three containers, containing 75 tonnes of Premium Rice from Guyana is
expected to arrive. It’s the property of merchant Jack Charles who is determined to get the rice to market so he can offer consumers “Grade A” rice at
69 cents a pound, while the government-controlled price for “Grade C” is 90 cents per pound. So will the government allow him to introduce the imported
rice to the market? Today, speaking to us from El Salvador, the CEO in the Ministry of Agriculture said Charles hasn’t applied for the necessary BAHA
"Rice is scheduled to arrive at Big Creek port from Santo Thomas tomorrow. What is the plan for the government of Belize; will the rice be allowed into
Jose Alpuche - CEO, Ministry of Agriculture
"Prior to importation of plant and animal material, importation permit should be requested from BAHA. The last time I checked, no permit request had
been made to BAHA, this is yesterday. If the rice lands, BAHA has laws by which that guides them and they will apply the law."
"Okay, now all this is heading for a sort of showdown. We know Mr. Charles has been advertising that the rice will be 21 cents cheaper than the new
control price and certain charitable organisations will get it for even less than that. Explain to me, is this adding pressure unto the Ministry of
Jose Alpuche - CEO, Ministry of Agriculture
"Let me say that I am not playing any marketing game with any importer. We have an obligation to try as much as possible to protect domestic production
and we have consideration beyond importation of such a basic food commodity. We have to try and ensure that there is domestic production meet our food
security needs. However we do call for the application of the rule of law and we will apply that and we have to call on the importer to respect the
rules as it relates to BAHA's regulation, respect the law and we will also respect the law. And we will do what is required under the law to protect
our domestic productions."
Charles today told us that in fact he applied for the permit in July through his company Xtra House, and sent us a copy of the receipt to prove that he
did. He said government is trying to introduce administrative trade barrier tricks to block trade from another CARICOM Country.
But, while Charles may have his BAHA Receipt – the Chamber of Commerce still scolded him today, saying, quote,
“all required permits are to be applied for and issued in advance of importation, not when the product is sitting at the border. (Doing this) places
unseemly pressure on the government to approve the cargo without following the requisite food safety procedures…”
It continues, quote, “In the case of the rice scheduled to arrive in Belize, consideration must be given to whether it is of the required standard and
quality to meet or exceed that which is available locally, and what effect, if any, the importation will have on local producers and the rice industry
in Belize. This should have been done prior to importation. The matter is more than just about the price of rice. Rather, if the importer is proposing
to displace the livelihood of at least twenty percent of our Belizean rice farmers, there must be a commitment to following the requisite procedures in
the proper order so as to safeguard the safety of the consumer in the long term, and to prove that the quality and standards justify the social and
economic loss to Belize.” End quote.
Again, Charles says he did apply to BAHA with enough advance notice, and points out that even if he doesn’t have the requisite approval, BAHA
Regulations provide that, quote,
“Where an importer…fails to produce an import permit for such regulated commodity or product…such as Sanitary Certificate, Phytosanitary Certificate
and/or Certificate of Origin he shall be liable to an administrative penalty of two hundred dollars (BZ$200.00) per consignment in addition to an
inspection fee of one hundred dollars (BZ$100.00).”
So, with this, Charles argues that even if his rice doesn’t have BAHA approval, he should be able to bring it in by just paying a fine. Of course,
we’re not the lawyers here, but we’re pretty sure it’s not that simple, and the case of the Guyanese rice may go all the way to court.
Jack Charles Showed Up To Clear His Rice; BAHA Didn’t Budge
Three containers of Rice from Guyana arrived at the Big Creek in Belize this morning, and was offloaded into the Port's Compound in Independence Village. Now, as you've been seeing all this week the local rice producers are pressing the government to send it back. The Government agencies, namely, the Belize Agricultural and Health Authority (BAHA), the Ministry of Agriculture, say that Importer Jack Charles does not have the proper permits to clear the rice for sale in Belize.
Still, he showed up today and made his attempts to get the BAHA personnel to budge. Our news team was Independence all day today, and Daniel Ortiz has the full story:
Daniel Ortiz reporting
These 3 containers are currently housing the Guyanese Rice that businessman Jack Charles imported into Belize. It's been temporarily offloaded from the barge which brought it from Santo Tomas, Guatemala.
Gustavo Carrillo - Manager, Port of Big Creek "They arrived out of Santo Thomas Guatemala, where we have our barging operation. The tug and barge arrived at the Big Creek Port at about 5am this morning. The barge was emptied and cleared by the authorities and the cargo was off loaded this morning."
And that's we found the containers of rice. They were sitting on the compound of the Port of Big Creek in Independence Village. Think of this location as limbo, an immigration checkpoint at an airport - if you will - but for shipping cargo. Physically, it's in Belize, but until Customs and BAHA clears it, the Guyanese Rice is detained with a possibility of being sent back out.
The Port's staff was very cordial and accommodating with the press, allowing us access to see the cargo, and the barge which brought it into Belizean territory.
But, while the Port's personnel could allow us unrestricted access to get in and out of the facility's compound, it couldn't afford Charles the opportunity to remove his shipment of rice.
The decision is out of their hands, and this importer must get the proper documentation from Customs and BAHA to do that.
Gustavo Carrillo - Manager, Port of Big Creek "From the side of the port operations Jack Charles has to do his documentation with Customs, BAHA and all the authorities that are involved. The port will not release any cargo until Customs authorized the port to issue the release."
So, without documentation these containers will have to sit in the port, for a finite amount of time.
Gustavo Carrillo - Manager, Port of Big Creek "They would sit at the port and Jack Charles has 7 free days after those days he would have to start paying storage on the containers. They are allowed to store it up to a certain time and if it's not cleared, then the cargo would be action off at our disposal, depending at what the cargo is."
Of course, having his merchandise sitting in the port is not what Importer Jack Charles intends to have happen.
So, this afternoon, he arrived at the BAHA Quarantine office in Independence to see what was the department's official position. He was hoping that they would grant him the permission he needed, but he was well-aware that it wasn't going to be that easy.
Still, he had to formally make the request for permission to see what ground for refusal they would give him on the record.
Jack Charles - Trying to Import Guyanese Rice "As you can see I have already processed my customs entry to get my goods to be release and after the customs we need to come to get clearance from BAHA and yes as you guys know we don't have the permit, but we had already applied for it."
But, the senior BAHA Rep. posted at Port of Big Creek gave Charles and uncompromising "No" with no specific reasons for refusing to allow him to clear his cargo.
Israel Pitts - Senior Quarantine Inspector, BAHA "Based on instructions from my supervisor as what I explained to the importer, we are detaining the cargo, the shipment of rice and if further information you could contact my supervisor."
Charles' technical advisor explained that BAHA only has a limited jurisdiction to refuse to allow the importer from clearing his goods. According to him it is not a cart blanche mandate to do as the Department pleases.
Sergio Garcia- Technical Advisor, RC Imports "Two things we have asked the quarantine; 1) is that a plant product require Phytosanitary clearance, nothing else. The SPS requirement for plant product is basically a Phyto, which is what they have asked for and that's available there. The second thing is that under the BAHA act, the SI, there is a section which we have asked the quarantine inspector to respond to us which say under administrative penalties, we were asking him why on page 26-2, it says where an importer of a regulated commodity or product fails to produce an import permit, for such regulated commodity or product as prescribed under regulation 6, in the presence of supporting documents such as the Phytosanitary certificate, certificate of origin, he shall be liable from administrative penalty of $200 for consignment in addition of an inspection fee of $500. Which would have been applicable in this position. You must give a reason in writing to allow that client to appeal the decision that you have made. In this situation after the application, nothing has been received from BAHA in writing saying we have rejected the application."
So, what's next for Jack Charles in trying to get a hold of his impounded Guyanese Rice?
Jack Charles - Trying to Import Guyanese Rice "Currently I will just wait for a day or two. At least I will give them until tomorrow and see exactly if they have any legal grounds to present to me basically. But again, as I say, if they have the legal ground and they know the rice is coming on Thursday. From last week they know this rice is coming on Thursday. I was hoping that as I entered the BAHA office, along with a decision, I would have been just given a paper in my hand saying here it is, these are my grounds too - hold it and walk out."
Our news team arrived just before the start of news, and so on tomorrow's newscast, we'll have the full comments from Jack Charles as he gives his reaction to the refusal in a late evening Press Conference.
Guyanese Rice Importer Readying To Take BAHA To Court
Last night, we took you to Independence Village to show you what happened when businessman Jack Charles went to the Port of Big Creek to clear 3 containers of rice which he had imported from Guyana. The BAHA personnel at the port refused clear the containers, and seized them.
They did not provide him any written reasons for doing so, and that's where things are tonight. Charles, his lawyer, and his technical advisors are all waiting for BAHA to produce its position in writing, which they intended to use to appeal this decision.
Charles maintains that BAHA overstepped its authority yesterday, and took an unlawful decision. His experts say that BAHA can only choose to seize the cargo if it is a threat to human and agricultural health, which is not an issue in this instance.
So, the way situation is unfolding, this dispute looks to be on its way to the Supreme Court. Late yesterday evening, at an impromptu press conference, Charles told the press in Independence Village that litigation is the very last option:
Jack Charles, trying to import Guyanese Rice "20% of the market consumption based on the current stats what is on the record, that will be 250 tons which is about 10 containers. I have only 3 so fare came in. 75 tons in the port. Currently I will just wait for a day or two. At least I will give them until tomorrow to see exactly if they have any legal grounds to present to me basically. But again, like I said, if they have their legal ground and the know the rice is coming on Thursday, from last week they know the rice is coming from Thursday, I was hoping that as I entered the BAHA office, along with a decision, I would have been just given a paper in my hand saying here it is, these are my grounds too - hold it and walk out."
"In the government there are a good amount of ministers, they are legal profession people and I am very much sure they do understand the law. I mean definitely if that is the last choice to go to court I will do that, but I hope people do get proper advice from their technical department and take a wise decision. Because what this had done, which I had shown just now is in the benefit of the community. What we are trying to do is basically import 20% of the total consumption of Belize of rice product and cater for poor community and at the end of the day everybody needs a better price on the rice no doubt about it, but we are trying to cater for the poor people and provide them rice on affordable price. And I like to mentioned that these are the same rice which were imported last year and bagged under Circle R bags, but none of the benefits were passed on to the consumer."
As you heard, Charles has publicly repeated that his motivation for importing rice and taking on the local rice producers is to provide consumers with premium grade rice at a cheaper price. He accused those producers being addicted to profit making - which leads to profit gouging on consumers. But, for nay business venture, it is all about profit, and we asked Charles - who is one of Belize's biggest importers - if he would be able to resist the temptation of this so-called addiction to profit making.
Here's how he answered that one:
Reporter "What if I take the critical view that you are only doing that to attract the attention and to fooled the Belizean consumer in believing that will be the price they would pay going forward when you intention is to increase the price at a later date - to higher than its already right now?"
Jack Charles, trying to import Guyanese Rice "Let me start from there. Our intention of bringing in rice was somewhere from March this year. But after hearing from different departments - press releases and so on, I thought it would have been fair to give them some time to fix what they had increased. We gave them enough time to do it. Otherwise I would have started my rice from March itself. Besides now, you are talking about the longevity if the price basically. I can assure that these price is going to last minimum 2 years and if any of the departments have any kind of doubts that down the road the price is going to go high, then why do we instead of putting a control price of 80cents and mentioning that C grade rice should only be sold for 80 cents, let's put it as rice to be sold as control price at 69 cents - where I can get tied up also and I cannot sell for more than 69 cents. I am open for that. If you guys or the government want to tie me up with the 69 cents per pound, then let's put the control price for everybody for 69 cents a pound - where I could afford to bring it in otherwise I will stop."
Daniel Ortiz "I am asking for you to state clearly the commitment that down the road if your operation is allowed by Belizean authorities that you will not gouge the price."
Jack Charles, trying to import Guyanese Rice "Minimum 2 year to the consumer would get 69 cents a pound and shop keeper would get 60 cents per pound. I will make my 15% markup, shop keeper will make their 15% markup and the consumer will get it for 69cent per pound."
As you've been hearing from the importers camp, they are convinced that the Government has only taken the position it has because is trying to protect the local rice farmers. Well, Charles's advisor, who was once a CEO in the Ministry of Agriculture, and a CARICOM representative for trade, told the press that this action against Charles and Guyanese Rice is an impending international black eye for Belize Trade. Here's how he put it:
Sergio Garcia- Technical Advisor, RC Imports "You cannot lose a buyer to trade and this is what we consider a buyer to trade. In fact it was said in all the press releases that the government has said and BAHA has said and the other representative have said - is for the protection. They have never said it is to protect the agriculture health and food safety aspect. And the revised treaty of Chaguaramas - that you sells me, I buy from you. I sell you, you buy from me. It cannot be a one way. I want to say this because while the rice industry is 4 large families, and I said a monopoly because all of them owned the company which is Belize Food. They set the price and they do what they what. They speak about the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that we sell 7 containers of corn almost on weekly basis. We sell them beans. There is a trade between Guyana and Belize in our favor. So what if the Guyanese to take the same approached like what we are suggesting to protecting our national industry. Let's say that all the countries in CARICOM, oh Belize want to protect, let us do the same thing. What happens? Our products will start to stay here. There is much more corn producers than rice producers in this country and I am saying this because we cannot be like the sport I will play football and because the ball belongs to me, if you don't let me play I will take home the ball. We cannot. Trade is a two-way avenue."
Today, Charles told us via phone that he is giving BAHA until the end of today to give him the written grounds for detaining his cargo. Charles added that if they did not do so, on Monday, or at time convenient for his attorney, they will file a claim in the Supreme Court.
The local rice producers have already retained the services of Eamon Courtenay.
It's been 5 days now since 3 containers containing 75 tonnes of Guyanese Rice landed in Independence Village at the Port of Big Creek. The owner of that rice, Importer Jack Charles, is still waiting for the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) to explain in writing why they have seized his cargo and refused to release it to him. He was hoping that would have released it by now so that he could start selling you his Grade A Premium rice at 69 cents a pound for the Christmas holidays. But, that is not going to happen. The Government is not budging, and today 2 senior officials, namely the CEO in the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Director General of Foreign Trade, were dispatched on the Morning Talk Shows to explain why GOB is refusing to allow Jack Charles to sell Guyanese Rice in Belize.
We met them after their appearance on the WUB Morning Show, and they discussed why BAHA and the Customs Department will not release the Guyanese rice from the Port of Big Creek. Here's what they had to say:
Jose Alpuche, CEO - Ministry of Agriculture "The question is not even about Mr. Chawla importing rice, the question is whether what is being produced in Guyana Represent fair competition on the Belize market place. The reality is that rice is Guyana is heavily subsidized and we don't offer subsidies to our large scale commercial producers here. So what would come in from Guyana would represent an unfair trading advantage."
Dr. Leroy Almendarez "If a product enters a market or if a product that is highly subsidized, subsidy that violates a certain threshold is illegal."
Jose Alpuche, CEO - Ministry of Agriculture "Haiti had a vibrant rice industry in the 80's. They decided to pursue cheaper rice and now Haiti is a net food importer, not only rice. There is a lot that hinges on maintaining domestic production. We've had cases on this in Jamaica with poultry and there is many cases within the region. We cannot commit those same errors. We have got to ensure that we strike a delicate balance where the consumers are actually protected, but where we can protect production here in Belize."
Daniel Ortiz "What is the situation right now with the rice that Mr. Chawla has imported, the 3 containers? Do you have any information on that?"
Jose Alpuche, CEO - Ministry of Agriculture "The last that I heard is exactly what you have. Is that it's still held at the port."
Daniel Ortiz "Do you know what could happen with that rice? Is it being follow up to be sent back or actioned off or destroyed? What is the sentiment of the government at this time?"
Jose Alpuche, CEO - Ministry of Agriculture "I've not discussed with BAHA precisely where they are with that issue. But I really don't want to comment on the details of that, because we have already been publicly threaten that the matter will go to court."
Also, on Friday, we showed you how Sergio Garcia, the Importers' technical advisor, who is a former CEO of Trade, explained that this rice fight is bad for Belize's reputation with it's fellow CARICOM countries. Well, while we had the opportunity, we asked the Director General of Foreign Trade, about that accusation. He's been meeting with the CARICOM Trade technocrats very regularly, and he's the government's authority on the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas. Here's what he had to say:
Dr. Leroy Almendarez "The treaty, the revised treaty of Chaguaramas protects all member states who have signed on to it. The major objective of this treaty is economic development for all members' states. Not for one, but for all. There are also sensitive industries and sensitive industries are protected under the revised treaty. Belize is LDC, which means Lesser Develop Country. You have MDC, of which Guyana is one. But we must understand here that Belize and Guyana has no dispute. Because I was at COTED recently. As a matter of fact I went twice this year and we sat side by side and Guyana never mentioned, because this is where you mentioned on the agenda, I would like to export or market access for such a product into another member state. There is process that it goes through. The member state must be allowed to respond and you respond and then the discussion takes place or then you solve it bilaterally. We met with the head of Guyana Rice Development Board, we met with the minister of trade and they assured us that it would be a country - a government to government thing."
Sergio Garcia - Technical Advisor, RC Imports "If the Guyanese to take the same approached like what we are suggesting to protecting our national industry. Let's say that all the countries in CARICOM, oh Belize want to protect, let us do the same thing. What happens? Our products will start to stay here. There is much more corn producers than rice producers in this country. This will put a black eye on our trade and sector because there are many countries who have seen this thing - CARICOM."
Dr. Leroy Almendarez "It does not give us a black eye nor a bad reputation. Let just give you some examples; Grenada has tried to get honey into Trinidad for the longest time. Grenada's honey is still not into Trinidad, because there are talking about quality and standards etc. We have tried to get our poultry into Trinidad, we have tried to get some of our other products into other markets within CARICOM and they are still not there."
Sergio Garcia- Technical Advisor, RC Imports "We cannot be like the spoil boy that say I will play football and because the ball belongs to me, if you don't let me play I will take home the ball. We cannot."
Dr. Leroy Almendarez "It doesn't. Let me just say this again. Because it's handled at COTED (Council of trade and economic development), one of those major organs of the revised treaty. It's headed by ministers of trade. No other country will come to us and say oh but you did not take care of somebody's rice and so therefore we will not.... that's not how it works. Remember, it's more about collaboration. Yes there is an open market place, but we are joined and integrated, so we can compete with blocks outside of the region, not with each other."
Charles' sales pitch s that the local rice farmers have been gouging consumers with their unregulated, high prices for rice. He claims that the Government is trying to protect the profit-addicted producers, when its highest priority should be protecting the public.
Charles and his advisors were the ones who blew the whistle on the fact that about 3 million pounds of rice was brought into Belize in 2014 and sold as local produce. It was bought for the same prices that Charles paid for his containers of Guyanese Rice, and none of that benefit was passed on to you. In fact, the rice was bagged in packages from local producers and consumers were none the wise - we thought we were buying Belizean rice.
So, is this a double standard? That's what we asked the CEO in the Ministry of Agriculture. Here's how he responded:
Jose Alpuche, CEO - Ministry of Agriculture "In 2013 we when we had tremendous rains going all the way in 2014. You will recall the unprecedented rains that we had. That led to several crop failure including a partial crop failure for rice. Rice had to then be imported. It was agreed that the BMDC would import the rice and the rice would be passed to the traditional millers so that they could retain market share. That is what happened and it was I believe somewhere in the region of about 3 million pounds. I can't remember the exact amount - about 3 million pounds of a rice industry that produces 21 million pounds annually."
Daniel Ortiz "But sir none of those benefits of that lower price of rice from Guyana was passed on to the local consumer. The question is, do these producers, should they benefit from this protection? Do they deserve this protection when the last time this happened with this Guyanese rice, they didn't passed that on to the local consumer."
Jose Alpuche, CEO - Ministry of Agriculture "There is no commercial or governmental system in place to compensate farmers for losses. And as you can see with the erratic weather and climate change with us, we are suffering quite a bit of losses."
Reporter "Do you believe that the producers should have labeled that rice as Guyanese rice in terms of the packaging?"
Jose Alpuche, CEO - Ministry of Agriculture "That I agree with yes."
Daniel Ortiz "Isn't that an instance where the consumer was taken advantage of?"
Jose Alpuche, CEO - Ministry of Agriculture "Those are your words. But I do agree that it should have been labeled differently."
Daniel Ortiz "Can someone on the outside observing this situation take the position that it was wrong to allow the local producers to import Guyanese rice and sell it at their price, but now you are blocking an importer from doing the same thing. Isn't that an example of unfair treatment?"
Jose Alpuche, CEO - Ministry of Agriculture "There was a short fall because of a natural disaster. We had to import rice. We could have imported rice from the US. We could have gone to COTED and ask for derogation to import the rice duty free from the US, because we had a natural disaster and they would understand."
Daniel Ortiz "Sir, but you just also made the point or Mr. Almendarez also made the point that you all suspect that these are highly subsidized products. So if it was highly subsidized, then it's highly subsidized now and therefore its illegal in the trade aspect of it."
Jose Alpuche, CEO - Ministry of Agriculture "In the case of needing to import for shortfall, we have to try to obtain the rice from somewhere."
This afternoon, when we contacted Jack Charles for comment, he told us that he is holding off on filing a lawsuit in court. He says that he is still hopeful that cooler heads will prevail, and that he will be given the Government green light to move forward with his plans. He says that he is also trying to give BAHA more time to provide him with written reasons as to why they have detained his cargo.
He says he would rather give consumers the benefit of the savings, rather than spend thousands of taxpayers dollars on litigation and lawyer fees.
For the past 2 weeks, importer Jack Charles and his advisors have been waiting patiently for their opportunity to get before a Supreme Court Judge. Their position is that Customs and the Belize Agricultural Health Authority overstepped their mandate when they refused to give him a permit import Guyanese Rice.
His attempt to get cheap rice unto store shelves in Belize has sparked a very serious debate about the price of this important staple. But today, he got a very swift and stern slap-down from Justice Sonya Young. The judge simply won't entertain his case.
The hearing was done in chambers, and in the absence of the press. It was expected to be a hotly contested legal battle, but the attorneys exited about 20 minutes after the hearing started. They told us that Justice Young was very clear to Charles that he is trying to use the court to legitimize his illegal action when he imported the rice into Belize without a permit.
Here's our conversation with both sides outside of court:
Leeroy Banner - Attorney for Jack Charles "The court held that because there was no import permit and that was so important that because the importer did not have that import permit then what he did was unlawful and she would not grant leave to apply for judicial review. She is pretty much saying that you needed the import permit and without that you cannot import the goods into Belize."
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for Local Rice Producers "The rice producers who I represent didn't even have to make any argument to the court. The court looked at the application that was filed and it was not properly done and so she said that looking at it, it doesn't even affect our clients even if she were to give permission. So we weren't called upon to make any submissions. Essentially what the government argued, quite rightly in their submissions was that basically the issue that is before the court is an importer who says, "I need a license, I applied for it and didn't get it, I don't care, I'm bringing in my goods notwithstanding the fact that I have not obtained the necessary permit." Then come to court and say I don't have the permit and I want the court to order the importation of a product that requires a license. In effect asking the court to assist him to break the law. The court was very clear that the court is not here to assist anyone in breaking the law and therefore a person who does not have the necessary import permit for the importation of rice will not be allowed to use the court as a basis on which to get some sort of relief."
Daniel Ortiz "Sir, so would you describe his actions as sort of bullish to just force his way in as best he can?"
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for Local Rice Producers "Well I would use the language of the C.E.O. in the Ministry of Agriculture in his affidavit that it was done in defiance of the law. Mr. Charles obviously believes that simply by bringing the product here he would be able to get what he wants, notwithstanding what the law says. I think the big issue here, insofar as my clients are concerned is the decision that the Customs has now taken which is that the product must leave Belize. They are giving them a chance to have the product leave Belize and if they don't do that then the product has to be destroyed."
Daniel Ortiz "What is the deadline that they've been given to remove this rice?"
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for Local Rice Producers "Well as I understand the letter to Mr. Charles, the primary position is that it is to be confiscated and destroyed. They are giving him an opportunity and this was from the 23rd December to take it out and attempt to do something with it. So, Customs once again is bending over backward saying to him listen, you brought this thing in illegally, take it out, we are not going to destroy it. I would think that a week has passed and he has done nothing - I would urge Customs to a dispatch at this stage and I hope that they do."
As you've heard, Charles has been denied in this instance by the Supreme Court. So then, is this outcome simply an affirmation of the Government's protection of the Local Rice producers to the detriment of you, the consumer? We put that question to the attorney for the Local Rice Producers, and here's how he answered it:
Daniel Ortiz "His idea was or his pitch was "better rice for a cheaper price.""
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for Local Rice Producers "Right, and more profits for Jack Charles. Why he didn't finish the sentence? How can somebody in good conscience promote the importation of rice to benefit the rice farmers of Guyana, to make a profit for himself and himself alone, one person and say to hell with the domestic producers of rice. To hell with all the people who are planting, who are milling, who are distributing, all the people who have jobs in the fields, all the people who have jobs in the mills, all the people in the distribution sector, to hell with them. Listen, one has to be honest when one is attempting to be charitable. Mr. Charles wants the people of Belize to believe that he loves them so much that he is going to bring in rice into Belize for sixty-nine cents. Listen, fool di talk but dah noh fool di listen. After he brings in the first few containers for sixty-nine cents, what stops Mr. Charles from taking it up to eighty-nine cents and ninety cents? There is no alternative, right? Mr. Charles says that he is going to bring in rice for twenty percent of the market, what stops him from going to twenty-five? What stops him from going to thirty? Listen, there is nothing charitable about what he was doing. He does not have the interest of the Belizean consumers, he has his pocket as his primary interest. Nobody could quarrel with him with that except that we live in a country where you have a government that has taken a decision with respect to the rice industry, that it is going to safeguard the rice industry as an important contributor to development, to gross domestic product and also to employment."
We spoke with Charles this evening, and he told us that he isn't giving up. As you heard, the rice producers attorney, Eamon Courtenay asserted that Charles has been warned that he must remove the rice, or it will be destroyed. Well, Charles commented on that saying that his letter from BAHA does not make any such order for removal by the Government Agencies. He's offered to send us a copy of that letter as proof, but he was unable to do so this evening because he was away from his office.
He told us that he is not giving up, and he and advisors are reviewing his options.
Customs Moves To Destroy 75 Tonnes of Guyanese Rice
Last night on the news, you probably heard Eamon Courtney's dire warning about the Guyanese rice that Jack Charles has sitting at the Big Creek Port. He said Customs warned him a week ago that the rice - all 75 tonnes - would be confiscated and destroyed. Here again are those remarks from yesterday:
FILE: January 4, 2016 Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for Local Rice Producers "The primary position is that it is to be confiscated and destroyed. They are giving him an opportunity and this was from the 23rd December to take it out and attempt to do something with it. So, Customs once again is bending over backward saying to him listen, you brought this thing in illegally, take it out, we are not going to destroy it. I would think that a week has passed and he has done nothing - I would urge Customs to move with dispatch at this stage and I hope that they do."
And Customs did act with dispatch. This morning, the department got an ex parte hearing before senior magistrate Sharon Fraser. Ex parte means no one from Jack Charles's camp was there. They asked her for an order of forfeiture so that Customs can take possession of the rice and destroy it. We are told that within hours, Customs were at Big Creek with a container ready to haul away the rice, and take it for destruction. That sent Jack Charles and his attorneys Leeroy Banner and Michel Chebat scrambling to court to appear before Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin. He granted them an injunction against the decision of the Senior Magistrate. IT will hold until next week Tuesday - which is when there will be a full hearing on whether the forfeiture is lawful. The effect of the injunction is that Customs can't touch the rice until the hearing is concluded. At that time, the Chief Justice will tell them whether they can proceed to destroy the 75 tonnes of Guyanese rice.
The fight over the importation of Guyanese Rice is over, and it appears that business man Jack Charles has thrown in the towel, at least for the time being. The Government is giving him 2 weeks to make arrangements to export his 3 containers of rice out of Belize.
As viewers will remember, a week ago Charles' attorneys had to scramble to the Supreme Court for an interim injunction - to stop customs from destroying the 75 tonnes of rice.
That was done after customs got an order of forfeiture from the Magistrate's Court. Today, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin scheduled a hearing to review the lawfulness of the Forfeiture Order from the Magistrate's Court. All sides showed up to court ready to do legal battle, but, the case was never called up. About 2 hours after the parties had an audience before the Chief Justice - they agreed on a compromise: Government would allow Charles 14 days to make arrangements to get the rice out of Belize.
We understand that Customs made this proposal to him late last week, but at that time, they were offering him only 7 days to remove the rice. Our information is that he responded saying he would need a month.
It now appears that his attorneys interceded on his behalf before the Chief Justice today, and a compromise was arrived at. Our information is that all cases filed will be dropped. So, how did it reach to this point? Well, we caught up with Prime Minister Dean Barrow at another event today, and we asked him for his take on what has happened. He said that the reason that the hearing didn't happen today was because he as the Minister of Finance has given Charles his word that there is a workaround which can happen to allow him to remove the rice from the country:
Daniel Ortiz "He is now being asked to export that rice."
Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister "He is not being asked. He is asking us for permission to re-export the rice. He was told that he needs to make a formal application to me as the Minister of Finance. Because there is the forfeiture order and unless the Supreme Court were to would overturned that order, only the minister of finance can give you and opt out. He has agreed to do that and I think as a consequence the court hearing this morning did not proceed, since he is undertaking that he will write to me. I've signaled that I am perfectly prepared to give him the forfeiture override so that he can get the rice out. It's not a fight between Belize and Guyana. The Deputy Prime Minister and the CEO in the Ministry of Agriculture are in Guyana now. They are going to be talking to their counterparts over there. But this is not a.... we don't want to make too much of it. This is a as of now a problem with Mr. Charles and is not having gone through the proper processes. I'm not going to in fact not concede that clearly, this government has an interest in protecting the local rice farmers and in protecting the local rice industry. But we are not at the stage yet where anybody can elevate it to the level of a country to country conflict. I'm sure that as soon as the Deputy and Jose Alpuche returned, we will be able to update you on those bilateral talks go. Even if no progress is produce there, there are mechanisms under the treaty for us to make certain applications in terms of our need to protect the local rice industry. But as I said, that's a little premature. For now, I'd like to keep it at the level where it is a question of Mr. Charles having to go through the right procedure if he is to have any chance of being able to import rice."
Daniel Ortiz "Sir, the CARICOM Secretary General has mentioned that he hasn't given a pronouncement on the government's position, but he has said that no government and no country should be using the phytosanitary issues and permits that you need to get as a barrier to trade."
Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister "Nobody can quarrel with that. He is not saying that Belize is using that...."
Daniel Ortiz "But the importer is..."
Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister "That's the importer. The importer can say what he wants."
But that's not the end of it, not for Charles at least. He still has rental fees owing to the Port of Big Creek, and his shipping Line. Well, his fees increased at a rate of $450 per day, and so, a rough calculation we've done puts his current bills at just under $8,300 dollars.
As we've said, the case hasn't gone in his favor, and so, he'll have to pay that in addition to the shipping costs to get the 3 containers of rice out of Belize. We could not reach him for comment today on whether or not he will try again to bring Guyanese Rice into Belize.