Through the eyes of a sugar cane farmer
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Tuesday January 3, 2013

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Through the eyes of a sugar cane farmer

As Editor of the Corozal Daily, I grew up on an island most of my life, I moved to the quiet district of Corozal almost 7 years ago. I could have chosen to live anywhere in the region but had an interest for Corozal and its people. Aside from its peaceful charm, the people always seemed friendly, resilient and steadfast.

I am still fascinated at the life of a true Norteño, as a sugarcane farmer. It always reminds me of the struggles and hard work my father endured in his days as a fisherman on Ambergris Caye.

Waking up at 3:00 to 4:00 o’clock every early morning to attend to their crops is a way of life. Hardly do they live in fancy houses or have the latest model vehicles. Cane farmers live a humble and modest life and hardly ever complain about adversities. They work under the most treacherous and harsh environments in Belize. Most have to cut tens upon tens of acres of sugar cane fields by hand under the scorching hot sun and humid conditions. This is not an easy life but it is truly the life of a cane farmer.

Today, however, with the advent of technology, the younger generation have better choices in the workplace which pays better wages under much easier working environments.

A cane farmer’s investment is on the land that Mother Nature has provided them and equipment for work. Aside from management problems, sugar cane farmers have had to endure many obstacles in their industry especially the fight against natural disasters. Storms have often battered their crops. Insects have devastated their fields and recently, incessant rains have made it almost impossible to even access their sugar cane fields as their first harvest nears this Monday.

The membership of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) numbering approximately 5,339 active farmers are threatening to freeze delivery of sugar cane to Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) when the new crop season opens on Monday November 25th, 2013 if an impasse with BSI is not resolved by that time.

In February 2, 2009 the sugar cane farmers went on a strike for standing against BSI’s decision for attempting to implement the core sampler process.

In that protest the police began shooting live rounds in clear contravention of protocols involving civilian protesters. At least, one unarmed farmer of San Victor Atanacio Felix Gutierrez who was just standing by, was shot and killed and ten other farmers received gunshot injuries.

Today, the farmers are at odds with the management of the Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) over their demand for a profit sharing in revenues earned from the production of electrical power from the farmers’ sugar cane by-product “bagasse”. This waste from sugar cane is now being used to generate power, not just for the company but the excess power is sold to the national grid and rightly so the farmers are claiming their cut of this.

Any strike by the famers could have a negative impact on production and exports as the first crop for this season nears. Belize must produce to protect its international niche and commitments and it could also affect power supply charged to consumers since BELCOGEN (BSI) prices are substantially lower than the cost of power from non-renewable sources such as Mexico.

In the old days, Belize Sugar Industries was passing through a difficult and stressful time, cane farmers and Norteños were asked to make many sacrifices in the name of the industry.

They endured with endless delays in delivering their product, sometimes hanging around for a day and a night to deliver a single truckload of cane.

They suffered with BSI during these adverse times, endured late payments and even accepted lower prices when it became clear that the company was in distress.

Cane farmers who endured those hard times may feel that they have a legitimate claim on BSI. The Corozal Daily supports the sugar cane farmers claim as proper and fair. The farmers say to themselves that they have shared the bad times and now they should be allowed to enjoy the good times.

Taking into account the realities of the past year, cane farmers, the old BSI owned by Belizeans and struggling to barely keep its head above water, no longer exists. It has been taken over by new owners who have invested heavily in streamlining the company.

It is true that the cane farmers didn’t invest in the go-generation plant, the same way they didn’t invest in the mill, but there is an integral part of their product that BSI is using. The “bagasse” by-product of the sugar industry was discarded as landfill but has now become a valuable fuel for co-generation and cane farmers want that piece of the pie and rightly so. Cane farmers claim BSI has been disrespectful to them in the impasse taking a “no” position to their request.

With American Sugar Refinery (ASR) and BSI’s recent $130 million dollar investment, factory efficiency has now improved and farmers no longer have to wait for hours in long lines. Prices have been at record high and ending this year, farmers should have set record high deliveries if common ground is met on the issue.

Let’s hope that the progressive farmers and the level headed BSI management can reach an expedient resolution that best serves the industry and the country. Power to the sugar cane farmers of the north.

Photograph by Lincoln Eiley

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