For the past 2 days, we've been reporting on the plight of the local livestock producers. 

Poultry farmers are experiencing a 50% reduction in revenues because Belizeans aren't buying chicken in the usual quantities, due to COVID-19. If they aren't able to move substantial quantities of their chicken, they run the risk of running out of cold storage for all that meat. Dairy producers have had to dump their products which have spoilt due to the decrease in sales, and the short shelf life.

Also, one of the major livestock producers from Spanish Lookout was suggesting that the cattle export industry was also hurting due to the closure of borders from neighboring countries. We have since received multiple reports that the reason that the cattle industry is at a standstill is because of a bottleneck being created in Bullet Tree Falls Village. Informed persons tell us that Belizean cattle farmers export their livestock to Guatemalan customers using Bullet Tree as a backdoor border route. Reports are that for several weeks now, the Chairman and his Village Council have been preventing livestock farmers from moving their produce through Bullet Tree, without first paying some sort of fee.

The halting of cattle exports is of great concern to the authorities, and PUP's Jose Mai has been trying to get to the bottom of this problem. He's a member of the COVID 19 Agriculture Response Team, and via video call today, he told us about a curious meeting he had with the Bullet Tree Village Chairman on the topic. According to Mai, the Chairman is adamant that this council deserves some sort of remuneration for the use of Bullet Tree as the transit point. Here's how he explained that to us today:

Hon. Jose Mai - Area Rep., Orange Walk South
"There was a meeting convened. It was facilitated by the IICA representative. They invited me to this meeting. I think they said that Minister Hulse and Minister Figueroa would be present. They were unable to be present, but nevertheless, I was the only elected person in that meeting along with the chief agricultural officer, the head of the extension. The Chairman of BLPA was there, and the village council chairman and his councillors. I think he had an advisor too. The meeting was very short because we really wanted to get to the bottom of this. What was the reason why they stopped? And I think they call the meeting with the chairman of Bullet Tree because I believe he was the reason why the exportation had stopped. That's why the meeting was called to him. He was very clear that he is convinced that every truck that passed through Bullet Tree needs to pay a fee and that he would not allow any truck to pass through unless that fee is paid. He believes that he has the right, that he has the authority to stop vehicles and charge. We know better. But, that's the reason. He said no vehicle will pass through here if they don't pay their fee. I don't know how it is possible in 2020 to have one individual, obviously misguided or misled, and who is totally and absolutely wrong. How could one man stop the exportation of livestock, an industry that in 2018, exported 48 million dollars' worth of livestock to Guatemala?"

We have also obtained a recording in which the village chairman re-iterates that strong stance, and isn't prepared to back down. Here are those comments:

Sabino Pinelo - Chairman, Bullet Tree Falls
"If you tell me that the village council does not have any authority to stop cattle trucks or the pig trucks, go ahead in what you think you believe is good. I will do what I have to, with enough respect, sir."

We understand that the relevant authorities consider this prevention of cattle exports an urgent matter which they will attempt to address.  We need to note here that the crossing is not a formal one, which gives the Chairman a sort of upper hand.  

Channel 7

Cattle Trade at a Standstill, Millions Lost in Revenue

The exportation of livestock to Guatemala via Bullet Tree Falls is an informal industry that has been established for many years, generating approximately fifty million Belize dollars in revenue on an annual basis. For the past four weeks, the movement of cattle and swine through that western community has ground to a halt, as village chairman Sabino Pinelo has raised several concerns regarding the transportation of farm animals within the vicinity. In a meeting facilitated by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, IICA, on Wednesday, not only did Pinelo broach the issue of road damage, he also proposed a fee to be paid by farmers traversing the area with livestock. While that suggested payment is tantamount to a toll, we note that the Tower Hill Bridge is the only location in the country where such a charge is applied. But Pinelo insists that the community has to benefit from commercial traffic and the Bullet Tree Falls Village Council is yet to determine a fee.

During the meeting, Chairman Pinelo informed the panel that prior to the suspension of cattle export in the area, farmers were often seen paying out monies to police officers stationed in the village.  As we’ve mentioned, the trade in cattle between Belize and Guatemala, despite an existing partial scope agreement, has not been formalized, therefore those transactions with members of law enforcement are curious.  In explaining the concept of the toll, Sabino tossed out a loose figure of seventy-five dollars per truck, as an example.  We note, however, that the fee charged at the Tower Hill Bridge is only seventy-five cents.  The livestock industry, for all intents and purposes, appears to have been stagnated at the whim and fancy of the village council chairman.

Voice of: Jose Abelardo Mai, Member, COVID-19 Task Force on Agriculture

“What kind of benefits are you looking at Mr. Sabino, for us to consider?”

Voice of: Sabino Pinelo, Chairman, Bullet Tree Falls

“Well at least the benefits that the police officers are getting because I will be honest with you, several times, you know I’m a businessman here in the community, I travel through that checkpoint every minute and I see how those cattle trucks they just come and they take money into the compound of the police officers, you understand.  And not only me, several persons have seen that.”

Voice of: Jose Abelardo Mai

“Okay, so you are saying that they are giving money to the policeman and you want the same benefit?”

Voice of: Sabino Pinelo

“Well the benefit is not for me, it’s for the community, right.”

Voice of: Jose Abelardo Mai

“Okay, how much… let us get to the bottom of this, how much money is the village council asking for, because we don’t have enough time you know, the pastures are drying up and we need to move on this.”

Voice of: Sabino Pinelo

“Well sir, I’ll be honest with you, if you don’t have time well I’m sorry.”

Voice of: Jose Abelardo Mai

“No, no.  What I want to get is to the bottom of it.”

Voice of: Sabino Pinelo

“…to not agree to work along with the council.”

Voice of: Jose Abelardo Mai

“We want to work along with the council but we need to know what is it that you want exactly so we can propose right away to the government and they will tell us what to do.  What is it that you are requesting exactly?”

Voice of: Sabino Pinelo

“At least for every truck that passes, at least they pay a fee for coming through the community, sir.”

Voice of: Jose Abelardo Mai

“What fee sir, what fee are you looking at more or less?”

Voice of: Sabino Pinelo

“Well right now I don’t have a figure, right but we can try and figure out with the council and see what will be the… Let’s say, like we decide, let’s ask them for every truck that passes, let’s say, for example, for every truck that passes let’s say we let them pay at least seventy-five dollars per truck.  The community will benefit from it.  That is an example, I am not saying that that is what we are going to charge, but I am saying it’s like a fee right.  For every truck that passes at least pay a fee for the community.  That’s my major point.”

News Five understands that an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture is being hammered out and a solution to the crisis should be met in the days ahead.

Channel 5