Libertad Sugar Factory today
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Tuesday February 18, 2014

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Libertad Sugar Factory today

A Story of Sugar from a Social And Political Perspective

Compiled by the Corozal Daily

This is a compilation of the history of the sugar cane industry in Corozal. We have at best made every effort to be accurate on the information compiled. It is an important part of Corozal’s history.

The closure of the Libertad Sugar Factory in 1985 created extreme hardships for the Northern region of Belize, particularly the Corozal District where the Libertad factory was located. The direct impact of this factory closure was a severe job loss. This resulted in thousands of Belizeans, mostly Corozaleños, to migrate to the United States of America and Mexico. A lot of these farmers and their families began to lose their homes and lands as security to the local banks. Many Asian merchants began picking up these foreclosures at rock bottom prices.

Sugar cane production has been in the jewel as early as the 1800’s. Perhaps only the norteños knew its economic and social development in Corozal for the most part.

Between the Spanish conquest and 1848, the Corozal region was virtually uninhabited. The British were interested only in its timber resources which depleted soon after, and in turn forced them to venture into sugar cane production. In 1857, a hundred barrels of sugar produced in British Honduras were sent from Belize to Liverpool. During these early years sugar cane was planted, much by small growers in rural Corozal. During the 1860's several British investors established sizeable estates in the Corozal region which, in contrast to the earlier mestizo haciendas, may be referred to as plantations. During the 1870's and 1880's these estates gave the haciendas serious competition. The latter continued to plant and process cane for both rum and sugar, but the British planters moved decisively into the export market. Twelve estates were established; three of these were near Orange Walk. While the earlier haciendas were operated by animal power with the simplest of machinery, these estates were steam driven, mechanically sophisticated, and quite large. The plantations, like the smaller haciendas, cultivated both sugar cane and sufficient subsistence crops especially corn to feed the owner and labourers. The British plantations in Corozal were short-lived. From a record of two and a half million pounds of sugar in1882, exports fell to about 200,000 pounds in the early 1890's. In the early 1900’s the establishment of the Corozal Sugar Factory was the result of the colonial government's concern over the declining level of exports. The original plans for the factory called for a central processing plant to be located in a central location, Pembroke Hall, to which would be attached a plantation owned by the same company. The bulk of the canes, however, were to be supplied by the six surviving mestizo-owned haciendas namely: San Juan Saltillo, Aventura, San Francisco, Pueblo Nuevo, Louisville, and America.

Mr. Peter Watkis & Mrs. Watkis, Cultivation Manager at the Libertad Factory in Corozal, 1964. Photo courtesy Carmen Sabido-Escobar.

Most of the Mestizo and Maya families which were the majority of the Corozal and Orange Walk populations had come into the colony as refugees after the Caste War began in the Yucatán in 1847. The Caste War lasted for most of the second half of the twentieth century, and the story of the war was buried, both in Belize and the Yucatán, because it was a dirty war, and the elite in both Belize and Yucatán had things they wanted to hide.

By 1935, the Libertad sugar factory was built on the New River in the Corozal District. Factory operations began in 1937 in the formerly known Pembroke Hall sugar factory now Libertad; the results were dismal when the goal of 2,500 tons was not reached until 1953, export levels remained extremely low. As late as 1953 only 812 tons were exported. By 1954 only three of the original contractors were still in existence; these three delivered 7,357 tons that year, slightly over half of that delivered by 122 small producers. Twenty-five percent of these small producers were from the remote village of San Narciso, which had been the principal cash level corn-producing Maya village during the 1930's. It was expected that British Honduras would be allowed to export 25,000 tons annually under the terms of the 1951 Commonwealth Sugar Agreement. In 1956 a subsidiary of the new ownership formed another company, known as Plantations Limited, which began to buy private lands throughout the region. It soon became apparent that Plantations Limited had expansive tastes, and opposition from within the peasant sector began to emerge. Then Governor Hornley attempted to subdue opposition by announcing in a speech given at Louisville early in 1957 that the 25,000 tons export quota had been confirmed by London. Many British Hondurans were not convinced of the Governor's sincerity and his understanding of the situation. In an issue of a newspaper then where his speech was recorded, editorial remarks were made in all probability written by George Price of which was applauded by many. By 1960, sugar production in the north reach its zenith...everyone was getting into the act. Former subsistence farmers began to switch to sugar.

Photo: Sugar Factory Pembroke Hall (archives)

After the British brought in the West India Regiment to crush the Icaiche leader, Marcos Canul, in Orange Walk in 1872, the Mestizo and Maya masses in the North were subjugated by the British until Hon. George Price, whose mother was a Mestizo from Orange Walk, became the PUP leader in 1956. Things began to change.

The liberation and rise of the Mestizo/Maya North in the 1960’s provoked ethnic resentment in the old capital (Belize City) from the black community. There was a lot of ignorance in Belize back then. The British had designed things this way, so that they could keep ethnicities separate from, and suspicious of, each other. The history shows that the British did this all over their colonial empire. Divide the natives, and rule them. Corozal and Orange Walk had been isolated from the old capital (Belize City) from time immemorial, because the roads were left very bad (whether intentional or not). What wealth existed in the colony before sugar, had been concentrated in the old capital, whose demography was dominated by black Belizeans who had developed an attitude of superiority. Not only were black Belizeans a majority in the capital and in the country, they were the primary native allies of the real rulers, the British colonial masters. Belize’s various ethnic groups have learned a lot about each other since the 1960’s (so we think), even though there is still substantial ignorance. Around the time of self-government in 1964, a British company named Tate and Lyle, the world leader in sugar refining, invested in Belize. By 1967 the modern Tower Hill sugar factory was already in production. The Libertad factory already existed, so both Corozal (Libertad) and Orange Walk (Tower Hill) then had their own factories, and sugar cane farming became a boom industry. It was the biggest thing Belize had seen. People from all over the country of Belize migrated to the sugar belt looking for work, and the areas around the factories became ethnic mixtures.

One point we want to make in this essay is this: the cane farmers in the sugar belt had been downtrodden before the Tate and Lyle investment, and they were very proud of their new, hard-earned wealth and success. Just as the black capital (Belize City) had developed an “attitude” when they dominated the country in colonial days, now the North developed an “attitude” as the socio-economics of the old capital began to deteriorate. The expansion and modernization of the Belizean sugar industry in the 1960’s meant that the cane farmers raised their standard of living substantially higher than before. But there was always a tension between Tate & Lyle’s Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) and the roots cane farmers. In Belize City, well they never saw or understood this. When First World companies invest in Third World countries, most of the cake is repatriated to the metropolitan nation. It is only the crumbs which remain in the native land.

The Belizean sugar industry, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, experienced large production and export swings. In 1981 an estimated 30 percent of farmland, formerly used for growing sugarcane, had been abandoned. Yet, at the end of the 1980s, the United States increased its quota for Belize at the expense of Guyana, which was not reaching its allotment, and in early 1990, BSIL reported its largest-ever bulk shipment (17,300 tons of raw sugar) to Canada.

Yes, in the beginning, the crumbs were perhaps more than the natives have seen before. Some families became very wealthy in the North off sugar cane, but there are many poor cane farming families who still struggle like other Belizeans. Whether that was so or not, it is for sure today that the cane farmers need the revenues from their bagasse. They deserve that. There were decades when it seemed to the rest of Belize that the North was on top of things compared to the rest of the country. And in 1985 in the Belizean North, the United States of America targeted the weed fields that grew side by side on some sugar cane fields. They sprayed the marijuana plantations with highly toxic weed killer “paraquat” not considering the health risks to the poor innocent nearby cane farmers and their families. By this time, the rise and fall of sugar prices on the world market had already begun to make the economics of the North unstable, from time to time. The spraying of paraquat has been the demise of the health of many poor cane farmers who have succumbed from ailments and birth defects as a direct result of the paraquat spraying. The reparation and compensation of the paraquat spraying from the United States of America and the Government of Belize to all those poor cane farmers is something yet to be legally exploited by those families who today, continue to be affected by it.

Unfortunately, US demand for sugar crashed in the 1970s and the Libertad factory closed in 1985. While sugar cane is still the dominant crop, all is now processed at the Tower Hill plant near Orange Walk, where molasses, Belizean rum and refined sugar are processed for export.

Until 1985 Belize had two sugar mills: the Libertad factory in the Corozal District, opened in 1937, and the factory at Tower Hill near Orange Walk Town, opened in 1967. In July 1985, the Libertad factory was closed. By early 1989, Libertad had been reopened and leased to the Jamaican petroleum company Petrojam. Petrojam was to use Libertad for the production of molasses, which was then to be refined in Jamaica into ethanol. Ethanol had duty-free access to the United States market under the Caribbean Basin Initiative.

In Belize small farms in the north produce the bulk of the sugarcane. In the early 1990’s, the coordination of the agricultural aspects of sugar production and the organization of cane delivery were the responsibilities of the Cane Farmers' Association. The industrial segment of the sugar-production process was controlled by Belize Sugar Industries Limited (BSIL). Overall coordination of the industry was exercised by the Belize Sugar Board.

As the 1990’s began, sugar was still the Belizean economy's single largest export foreign exchange earner. Sugar production involved a unique hybrid of agricultural and industrial activity. Sugarcane cultivation, on one hand, and the mechanical chemical transformation of cane into sugar, on the other hand, made for this peculiarity. Both processes needed to be coordinated because of the perish-ability of the crop.

Photo: Remnants of Libertad Sugar Factory as it stands today

In 1997 constant neglect of the then ruling Government, forced the closure and operation of the Petrojam sugar factory which once pumped millions of dollars to Libertad and the northern region of the country. The remnants of a once vibrant production factory can only be overshadowed by a dilapidated and looted structure. Today over 40,000 acres in the northern lowlands is reaped each year by approximately 6,000 cane farmers and processed at the Belize Sugar Industry that began operation in Tower Hill Orange Walk and more than 35,000 norteños depend on the sugar crop.

The main point we want to make in this essay today is this: the Northern cane farmers’ present fight for a share of the revenues from bagasse is a Belizean fight. All of us Belizeans should be supporting the cane farmers in their struggle, and the cane farmers should be reaching out to the rest of the country for support.

Libertad Village, Corozal! Sweet as Sugar!

As chance would have it, we prepared a compilation, with a short video of the old derelict Libertad Sugar Factory. Some of the information has come from various sources. The Corozal Sugar Factory sandwiched between Libertad Village and Estrella, began operating in 1937 in Pembroke Hall, (present Libertad Village), Belize. The old grime, abandoned factory with its rusty and towering boilers are a brutal reminder of what was. The factory rises an empy wreck. Could it be today what it was?

Today the factory is abandoned, but delayed plans to repair it and add a new distillery for ethanol production have been underway since 2007 but at present there is nothing taking place.

Sugar production in Belize grew in the mid-1800s as Yucatán immigrants fled the Caste War and began cultivating sugarcane in British Honduras. British interest in exporting sugar led to the development of large plantations in the Corozal and Orange Walk regions. Sugar production peaked in the 1880s with 2.5 million pounds being exported, then decreasing to 200,000 pounds by the 1890s. With declining colonial sugar exports worrying the British government, the Corozal Sugar Factory was built in Pembroke Hall by Henry Melhado & Sons and marked the beginning of the country's modern sugar industry in 1937. However, factory output was stunted and it took 16 years to hit the goal of exporting 2,500 tons of sugar. The following year in 1954, the factory was fully operational and 7,357 tons of sugar were exported; a little over half the output of the 122 small producers in nearby villages. 25% of these small producers worked in San Narciso, 5 miles west of the Corozal Sugar Factory.

In 1967, British corporation Tate & Lyle purchased the factory, expanded it, and opened a second factory in Tower Hill near Orange Walk. With these investments, sugarcane became a booming industry for Belize and the standard of living in the Corozal and Orange Walk region improved.

A 1975 Tate & Lyle 'Annual Visit' document reveals some of the challenges the plant faced in maintaining high production at the peak of world sugar prices in the 1970s:

An additional sugarcane grab was ordered to move and bundle the cane within the factory. The 1 hydraulically operated grab couldn't keep up with the number of trucks arriving each day to deliver sugarcane.

Export sugar quality incurred substantial penalties for failing to meet American refiners' quality standards. Moisture, Color, Ash, and Grain Size penalties totaled £9,050 in 1973(41,650 tons shipped) and £28,000 in 1974(46,200 tons shipped). The plant consultants, J.D. Blanchard and R.R. Trott, suggested handling the sugar in barges and sometimes storing it in Belize City contributed to the low quality.

A substantial increase in world sugar prices in the 1970s was followed by a slump in the 1980s. These unstable sugar prices can be attributed to several factors:

A decline of sugar consumption in developed countries (notably the United States, Canada, and Japan) and increase of consumption in developing countries.

The United States protecting domestic producers by setting internal sugar prices. Japan also levied high duties and taxes on imported sugar.

The criticism of sugar and emergence of sugar alternatives such as High Fructose Corn Syrup in the 1970s (cereals even removed the word "sugar" from their titles).

Depressed sugar prices led Tate & Lyle to close the Corozal Sugar Factory in 1985 and divest 90% of its interest in the Tower Hill factory to employees.

In 1989, the factory was leased to Jamaican petroleum company, Petrojam, and reopened for the production of molasses. The molasses was then exported to Jamaica where it was refined into ethanol. Through the Caribbean Basin Initiative, this ethanol was sold to the United States duty-free. The factory was closed again in 1997.

Today, all sugarcane in northern Belize is processed at the Tower Hill factory owned by Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) in Orange Walk.

Plans to reopen the Corozal Sugar Factory have been delayed. In 2007, the largest ethanol producer in Mexico and a Panama company created a joint venture, Destill Belize Ethanol, to reopen the factory and produce ethanol. The factory remains abandoned with a few large ethanol tanks in use adjacent to the main building". (Source: Wikipedia)

The adminstrator of this news shack has collected stories from old sugar cane farmers in Corozal that during the peak of the sugar cane production in Corozal, some cane farmers would walk around their villages with bags full of cash and no one would dear touch them. As we see it today, I know of some villagers that you do not dear to take away their belongings. Mind you, times have changed and crime is on the rise and those bags of cash are no more.

Corozal for the most part was one of the most prosperous communities in Belize then, even prior to the tourism industry coming to Belize. It Libertad Sugar Mill was an era that bought independence and self-sustainability to the famers and people of Corozal. The sugarcane market was very strong back then, Corozalenos were proprietors of most of the merchant and grocery businesses, perhaps as far back as the mid-1980s. I remember coming to Corozal for the first time in the early 1980s, when I was studying auto engineering in Belize City at the Belize Technical College. This community was booming, man. Pehaps during that time it may have had more economic acitivity than our neighbours in Chetumal. During that time, it was easier for the Mexicans to cross over to Corozal as tourists, without having to endure the current hassle they are faced with today at our border.

The doom for Corozal began in the mid-#1980s which progressed when the sugar factory in Libertad was closed in 1997 and as a consequence, many Corozal workers and farmers were relocated to the factory in Orange Walk or lost their jobs and moved, but not all. The majority survived the doom and gloom of the 1990s.Those who lost their jobs and farms, who mainly were the small went bankrupt a few years later and others left the country for greener pastures.

Their losses were tremendous and many who were committed to the commercial banks lost personal properties, businesses and belongings due to bank foreclosures.

Belize Sugar Industries (#BSI) and American Sugar Refinery (ASR) are currently the owners of the Tower Hill Sugar Factory in Orange Walk where Corozal cane famers make their deliveries during the cane season.

Between 2007 and today 2020 no plans have been forthcoming for the old Libertad Sugar Factory. The government turned its back on our farmers. It is still a facility with a history closely tied to the struggle of our Corozal sugar cane farmers. We must not forget.

How great it would be, that one day soon, a small industry will rise above the derelict rusty factory that has breached itself and provide opportunities for the residents of Libertad and Estrella Villages. RISE UP! Let's Get It started!

Photographs and story by the Corozal Daily

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