While time has moved on and a whole year has passed, things within the Belize Sugar Industry seem to have remained at a total standstill. A year ago, the sugarcane season, which normally runs from November to June, was delayed over a month because of an impasse over a payment for Bagasse. The cane farmers, represented by the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) were demanding $141. per ton for Bagasse while current owners American Sugar Refinery (ASR) has refused to budge from an offer of $51. The farmers consider ASR’s offer an insult and while they subsequently agreed to proceed with the 2014 crop, it was with an understanding that an agreement would have been reached before the end of this past season. Farmers believe that a year is more than enough time to have come up with a suitable agreement and are once again insisting the ASR come to the table to negotiate.
What ASR has done now, instead of negotiating in good faith, has been to employ the old “divide and rule” strategy. They are urging farmers to abandon their association and deal directly with the factory. This would be detrimental to their welfare and the worst thing that cane farmers could ever do. The old truism is as relevant here as it ever was, “united we stand and divided we fall.”
The sugar industry of Belize has evolved perceptibly over the years since it was first introduced by immigrants from the Yucatan back in the 1800’s. In 1960 when the United States imposed its embargo on Cuba, it effectively cut off its main supplier of sugar. This opened the door for Caribbean cane growers and the British owned company Tate & Lyle took advantage of the opportunity and invested in Belize. Tate & Lyle acquired possession of the sole processing factory in Libertad but while the move gave opportunity for some citizens up north to make more money, the company used its monopoly in the business as a tool of colonialism and to maintain control and authority over the workers. The People’s United Party always felt that the sugar industry should be in the hands of Belizeans and after years of struggle and negotiations, in late 1990 Tate & Lyle handed over control of the industry into the hands of Belizean farmers. Mismanagement, greed and waste however, caused the industry to fall into debt and in 2010; government had to bail out BSI with ten million dollars from Social Security
In 2012, with one stroke of the pen, Dean Barrow and the United Democratic Party undid everything that was achieved with years of blood sweat and tears when they handed back control of the sugar industry to the same Tate & Lyle from whom it was acquired; albeit now masquerading under the different name of ASR. While the sale was touted as the biggest single private investment in the history of Belize and was hailed at the time as a hallmark achievement of the Barrow administration, it has turned out to be nothing short of a major disaster and a nightmare for the cane farmers of the north. It is still unclear how much money ASR actually invested in that sugar industry but we do know that they got some huge concessions and tax breaks.
Since acquiring control of the mill and assets of the sugar industry, ASR has been constantly fighting and threatening the cane farmers of Belize. ASR’s latest threat was that it would reduce processing of cane by as much as ninety percent and farmers were left with the prospect of watching their cane rot in the fields. It seems that with the Petro Caribe funds now rolling in, the government of Dean Barrow no longer views the sugar industry as being as vital as it once was to Belize’s economy. Cane Farmers are now left out in the cold and on their own. Despite being the one who has put us in this mess, government is now saying that this is between the two parties and has basically washed its hands off the whole deal. The cane farmers insist that this is in fact, a tri-partite agreement with government being an integral component to the equation.
There are two basic disagreements between the cane farmer and the owners of ASR, each with its own unique set of complications. Firstly, BSI is claiming ownership of the sugarcane the minute it hits the factory. They are saying however, that they cannot and will not pay the farmers until after the cane is processed and the sugar has been sold. The profits are then shared 65% to the farmers and 35% to ASR. This of course, after all incurred expenses are paid, including the cost of shipping which normally runs into the millions of dollars. Farmers have long been complaining that the factory is not seeking to get the best prices for their sugar. ASR and before them BSI has refused to open up their books and farmers basically have to take their word as to what the costs and profits are for any given year.
The second disagreement and the main sticking point is whether Bagasse is trash or a bi-product of sugarcane. ASR contends that it is trash but with the Belcogen plant fully operational, the Bagasse is being converted into energy. An existing agreement which was signed between BSCFA and BSI in July of 2002 clearly states that “BSCFA and BSI agree that the sharing of revenue arising from the sale of any by-product not covered in the present agreement will be subject to future discussions and the sharing of revenue will be based on the results of these discussions”. The executives of ASR/BSI are trying to waltz around this clause by suggesting that the electricity produced from the burning of the Bagasse is what has the value and not the Bagasse itself. BSI keeps insisting that the matter should go to court and no wonder; this is the kind of logic that only lawyers can understand.
An interesting irony is that one of the reasons why BSI ran into financial difficulties and had to be sold was because it had over-extended itself and invested a hundred and thirty million in the same Belcogen plant which is at the center of the contention. Belcogen provides all the energy needs of the Tower Hill Sugar Factory and has energy left over to supply almost thirty percent of Belize’s need. According to Belize Electricity Limited’s (BEL) financial reports for 2013, it paid Belcogen fourteen million dollars the previous year for electricity that was bought from that company. Bagasse is money!
There are approximately 6,000 cane farmers and another ten thousand people who are employed in the cane industry and serves as the very lifeblood of the two northern districts. Recently, ASR has been buying up land and planting its own sugarcane and it does not take a genius to realize what will eventually happen to the small cane farmers of Belize.
At the bottom of all of this is simply unadulterated greed! There is a lot of money being made from sugar and the corporate parasites want it all. The cane farmers are supposed to do all the hard work, while the white collar hypocrites rake in all the profits. I applaud cane farmers for taking a stand and encourage all Belizeans to stand in solidarity. Foreign investment is not a bad thing but it should not only serve to benefit the foreign investors. We need a government that will look out first and foremost for the people, who are the ones that they are really supposed to be representing. Evidently that is not happening here and it is time that they get the sense. You don’t work for foreign investors, Mr. Barrow, you work for the people of Belize. Straight like that!