The Citrus Growers Association (CGA) called a special meeting of its members at its compound on the Stann Creek Valley Road on Saturday.
After a full day of argument and discussion, four resolutions were passed, the most important of which concerned the fate of three large growers who resigned from the CGA earlier this year after defeating a plan to remove them from the board of Citrus Products of Belize Limited (CPBL), in which they have majority shares.
Frank Redmond, Mike Duncker and Dr. Henry Canton can return to the CGA as members, but the composition of the CGA board as resolved by the members on Saturday is: 2 large growers, 2 small growers and five of any size, selected from among, and voted on by the membership.
Redmond, Duncker and Canton, it is alleged, had proposed an even division of three growers of each size, small, medium and large, but stipulated that the respective growers of that size would vote for their respective representatives; this proposal was voted down.
Saturday's special meeting, according to the Association's CEO Henry Anderson, was to seek the advice of growers on what to do about the trio and CPBL. A lawsuit has been filed in the Supreme Court by CGA, represented by Courtenay, Coye and Company. Ashanti Arthurs-Martin, an attorney in that company, represented on their behalf at Saturday's meeting and revised resolutions brought by some members.
Canton was reportedly named managing director of CPBL rather than CEO, which, it is said, entitles him to twelve months' salary in lieu of termination.
The trio was reportedly backed by the other large shareholder, Banks Holdings of Barbados, which blocked the move and in so doing, in the CGA's view, breached the 2007 investment agreement in which each side has control over their respective directors - 5 to CGA, 4 to Banks.
A series of resignations followed and in an attempt to cross the divide, Prime Minister Dean Barrow appointed Alan Slusher to mediate. Slusher, in turn, asked the CGA to meet and state their position.
But before that, other matters of interest were discussed. These are good times for Belize citrus, with prices high and competitors in Florida reeling from citrus greening and other ailments. Belize has its own citrus greening problems to deal with, but the industry is handling the situation.
Dr. Stephen Williams of the Research Unit of the CGA told growers that a study of 2,177 trees by the Citrus Research and Education Institute (CREI), Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) and the regional agricultural authority OIRSA this year found 376 trees positive for greening: 145 in the groves, 213 in the back-yards, concentrated mostly in the Hopkins area.
A deadline of February 1, 2010, has been set to have nurseries screened to prevent greening and growers have been asked to scout for the disease and bring in trees they suspect are contaminated to be tested.
But there is also good news. CEO Anderson reported that the new price submission for oranges and grapefruit is about $9.00 a box and may go higher. The CGA's headquarters building got a facelift and the company is even selling fuel to growers at around $7.50 a gallon.
But the shadow of the trio and CPBL's defection dominated the afternoon session.
The CGA Committee of Management was authorized to protect the 51% of shares in CPBL held by the CGA's investment company (Investment Company Limited, ICL) and to get 2/3 majority of the full membership at a special meeting to dispose of it. These and two other resolutions were passed unanimously.
CEO Anderson had informed the growers that a $15 million loan made to purchase the 10% CPBL shares held by Del Oro Enterprises was soon coming due. It is thought that a default on that loan might switch control to Banks, giving them 59% of shares to a possible 41% for CGA-ICL.
In discussions, several growers made it clear that to them, Canton, Redmond and Duncker were little more than traitors for signing the investment agreement and saddling the CGA with the burden.
Eugene Zabaneh told his compatriots that he would be willing to meet the trio on public television and expose them as having "hijacked" the company, and berated the CGA's committee of management for trying to "appease" them instead of securing the 51% of shares and controlling processing through the two factories, both owned by CPBL.
Anthony Chanona reminded the group that all three were members of the Committee of Management that pushed the document and kept the unwanted details from the public eye, a "betrayal of trust" in his view. The shares were gotten in the name of the growers, so the growers should own them, he concluded.
But Chanona was turned down by CGA committee chair Bryon Bowman, who informed that any movement in the shares would have to have the agreement of the Banks group, and that Belize could not afford the stigma of being anti-foreign investment. Nonetheless, he averred that Banks was aided and abetted by our locals.
Stann Creek West representative Hon. Melvin Hulse, who was present, reminded the gathering that the trio's suggestion was just that, and would be brought to the larger group. He reiterated that GOB was not seeking to interfere, but would not be hesitant to legislate if no compromise was reached.
Nevertheless, it appears Canton, Redmond and Duncker are being accused of having designs on leadership in the CGA and CPBL and controlling the industry, blocking out other large growers like Eugene Zabaneh and walking all over the small farmers.
That would not be countenanced, said the growers; neither, the audience made it clear, would a rival association be tolerated.
The meeting adjourned around 3:00 p.m. and the next move is that of Canton, Redmond and Duncker - if it is their move to make.
We say that because, according to Redmond in a telephone interview this afternoon, neither he nor Canton nor Duncker have personally made any proposals to change the CGA, particularly the Committee of Management. Redmond said he had resigned from the Committee, on which he had served as chairman for six years, but had not resigned - yet - from the CGA, and declined a response at this time when we asked if he would.
Redmond further told us that there is a group of "dissatisfied" growers that is behind the proposal discussed at Saturday's meeting, but said he was not sure of who led the group and denied that he, Canton, or Duncker were part of it. He had proposed, as chair of CGA, that the ICL shares be put in trust for future generations of citrus growers, but it was turned down.
According to Redmond, the current direction the CGA is taking, is leading to the growers being "misled," and that if it continues, the industry will sink into further chaos and the small growers will suffer.
Duncker was a little more optimistic, telling us via telephone that while he has resigned from the CGA, he is putting his faith in Slusher and the negotiations, and that getting the two sides to agree to changes in structure and legislation would be "difficult, but not impossible." He added that Saturday's meeting proved a divide within the CGA that needs to be bridged, and that "we would love to see one CGA, not two."
We left a message for Dr. Canton at his CPBL office, but he has not responded at press time.