Presentation of Measures taken by GOB in Response to the Drought
Partial State of Emergency Declared To Combat Drought
Over the last few months, we've been following the massive negative impact that the ongoing drought has been having on the country. We took you to the Orange Walk District where corn farmers lost millions of dollars because the crop did not mature.
And, as you've been seeing, the New River in the Orange Walk District is stagnant and suffocating.
Up to about 2 weeks ago, the pollution in the river was the worst that residents have ever seen it in their lifetimes.
The pollution was caused by wastewater from multiple sources, which then poisoned the water column. The condition of the river was compounded by the drought, since no rainwater was available to keep it flowing.
Back when we were following the plight of the corn farmers from Blue Creek Village, Agriculture CEO Jose Alpuche alerted us to the fact that farmers from other agricultural sub-sectors across the nation were also hard hit. The Ministry of Agriculture has since conducted a survey of the entire farming community within the 6 districts, and their data indicates that the entire agro-productive sector is facing approximately 50 million dollars in losses due to the drought in these last few months.
That's on the level of a national emergency, and today, the Prime Minister called a press conference to announce that his government is treating the plight of the farmers as such. Here's what he had to say in his opening remarks at the press conference:
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister "We're here to talk about 2 things, number 1, this infernal drought, which has so confounded us. The Ministry of Agriculture puts the losses suffered in consequence of the drought currently as being in excess of 50 million dollars. And so, I thought it important and timely. Indeed, we may have waited a little too long already to come before you, but we were trying to get our ducks in a row. Point is that if it is time and overtime that we say to the members of the media and the members of the public what it is that the authorities are doing to deal with this emergency."
"That is why I also needed to make this particular announcement this morning, including the declaration of a partial state of emergency. So, I want to advise the media and the public that we have - the Solicitor General is preparing a statutory instrument that will be sent to the Governor-General under the constitution, in terms of natural disaster occurrences. Those sorts of events can trigger the declaration of a state of emergency. And it has nothing to do with the state of emergencies for criminal conduct, or for rioting. This is simply because of the natural disaster crisis. But, that declaration will extend to the Belize, Cayo, Orange Walk, and Corozal Districts."
"In making that declaration, we're doing no more than conceding, or formalizing what is a fact. It is an emergency, when I as I say, we can lose 50 million dollars, and when farmers see their livelihoods being squeezed, they have no idea of how they will repay their loans. That is the quintessential definition, in my view, of an emergency."
Agricultural Losses To Drought Substantial
So, after the Prime Minister presented that broad overview of the impacts of the drought, Agriculture Minister Godwin Hulse was up next.
He provided extensive details of their assessment of each of the crops that were negatively impacted, and in which parts of the country. His ministry was able to do this based on its registration of the majority of the nation's farmers.
It is called the Belize Agriculture Information Management System, and it was a timely tool to address this crisis.
Currently, the Ministry system indicates that there are over 418,000 acres of land under cultivation, comprising 8,274 farms countrywide. Those farms lands are owned by just under 7,100 farmers, and so, after the Ministry canvassed the entire agro-producing population, they were able to get a very accurate picture of the impacts of the drought.
Here's Hulse's breakdown of the figures at the press conference this morning:
Finding Credit Relief For Farmers
So, after the Government officials were given this very detailed picture, the Prime Minister, the Agriculture Minister, and the Governor of the Central Bank started to come up with a plan of action to alleviate the financial pain that the farmers are facing. They've gotten the support of all the local financial institutions to give those impacted by the drought a little relief from their loan payments, given that they are facing these 10s of millions of dollars in losses.
Here's what the Central Bank Governor, the Representative for domestic banks, and the Development Finance Corporation have decided to implement so that the farmers can get a little ease:
Joy Grant - Governor, Central Bank of Belize "On September 2nd, we at the Central Bank realized that something had to be done, and done early for the farmers. We decided that to do this, we would have to form a working group and that working group comprises the Ministry of Agriculture, the domestic banks, also the credit unions who signed on immediately to change their rates and terms of their loans. The Social Security Board had a representative, the DFC, and I think those were the key people who came together immediately. And we started to consider several options that we could take to help the farmers and the ranchers. We went to our records, and we found that at least 10% of all the outstanding loans in the country, some 277 million dollars are for agriculture. So, if you have any kind of failure within this sector, it, of course, will have ramifications all over the country. Immediately, the domestic banks, the credit unions said, we will be involved. We will do what we have to do; this important. And that was so refreshing because there was no sell-job at all, it was what are we going to do and how soon can we do it."
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister "This old saw about [being] cold as a banker's heart', certainly was put paid to, in terms of the response from the Commercial Banks. They immediately were all in with respect to their agreement to and support for the measures that ultimately were agreed in order to provide relief for the farmers."
Joy Grant "One of the first things that we suggested, and everybody was happy, was to change the classification period by 12 to 18 months for agricultural loans. The agricultural sector is a risky sector. We also understood that if we were to help the farmers, and the ranchers, that they would have to be given additional time to repay the loans that they now have on the books. So, we're giving another 12 months; we think that is good, but there are exceptional cases where we may have to go to 18 months. So, the farmer no longer has to be worried that if I don't pay, they will come after my land or something. They can continue to meet their obligations, and that the bank will be working with them."
"Because, as I said earlier, agriculture is risky, we have told the financial institutions that if something goes wrong, they have to provisions - they have to put aside for 100% of what is on the books. We looked at that, and everybody agreed that we would reduce that from 100% to 50%. And that allows the banks than to have a capital buffer for them to do additional lending, etc. So, we talked about moving from a 100% risk ratio to a 50% risk ratio, which is good for both parties going forward. This will have a really positive impact on the farmers and the ranchers because it allows them to repay their loan, to continue living the life they're living now, and also access funds to be able to replant."
Sandra Bedran - Chair, Belize Bankers Association "We're very pleased that the Central Bank has agreed to give us the time to work with the farmers. And we can't go out there and do it as a blanket. We'll have to literally visit each one of our customers."
Natalee Goff - General Manager, DFC "Our Board approved some interim measures, and they might have to be tweaked as we go along. But, with the sanction of the Central Bank, our board has said that they're willing to up to 24 months in interest. But, of course, we have to have that discussion with the Central Bank because we know the approval is only up to 18 months. We're looking at very subsidized rates. If we can get cheaper financing, if we can get it one percent, the interest rate can be much lower because all we're looking on is to add the admin cost of putting a loan on the books. And of course, they will be some risk. So, it will be at - we don't want to say a rate at this time, but it will be at very subsidized rates. It's in our best interest to see these loans repaid. If we don't do this now, the investment we have on the ground right now, we will not recover."
Coming Up With A Climate Resilient Solution
The Prime Minister also made it clear that he and his government will be lobbying international financial institutions to access outside funding to aid the farmers in this time of great need.
He also discussed a proposal that the World Bank has made to help the farmers become more climate-resilient so that their investments can perform better, in even these harshest of weather conditions:
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister "Almost by coincidence, I had a meeting with Miss Tahseen Sayed, who's the World Bank country director for the Caribbean. She made the point that their next areas of intervention, subject to our approval, and they want to move quickly, they want to intervene in agriculture. They are absolutely determined to assist with agriculture, with respect to technical assistance, funding for replanting loans, but in particular, so that farmers are able to purchase the irrigation, and other equipment necessary to protect them against natural disasters, such as this drought. They are especially keen on offering to pay for technology and training on how to use that technology for the farmers, again, all in an effort to ensure that there can be climate resilient farming. They are especially keen on offering to pay. The possibility is strong that they can design an insurance scheme for the farmers in Belize. They would provide the coverage. Now, nobody is going to give you insurance for agriculture."