SAN ROMAN–Today marked a critical juncture in the seemingly unending impasse that has overwhelmed the sugar industry as the cane farmers shot down a previously-accepted draft commercial purchasing agreement between their representatives, the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), and the factory owners, Belize Sugar Industries (BSI)/American Sugar Refineries (ASR), and called on the governmental oversight body known as the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB) to use its authority to declare the opening of the long-deferred 2014/2015 sugarcane crop season.
In the face of a mixture of heightened police presence and high tensions, an unprecedented crowd of over 1,500 local cañeros gathered en masse at their usual meeting place, the Escuela Secundaria Tecnica Mexico auditorium, on the outskirts of Corozal Town starting at 9:00 a.m. today.
Although the cañeros had voted to accept the agreement at a similar meeting two weeks ago, factions of the association, backed up this time by their umbrella union, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), as well as the activist organization, the Rod of Correction (ROC), made a decision to have the BSCFA general membership revisit the acceptance of the agreement because they felt that the farmers would be getting the short end of the deal if they proceeded with the terms and conditions of the agreement “as is.”
One of those persons is attorney and CWU president, Audrey Matura Shepherd, who has been on the ground meeting and explaining the pros and cons of the situation to those who are being ultimately affected.
After making an extended presentation in Spanish during today’s session, she later told us about her new-found role in the dispute, and the available options for the farmers.
She said, “Let me first say that I am not here to tell the farmers how to vote; that would be presumptuous to tell them how to make their decision. My role here was that my client, Lucilo Teck, asked me to come and explain his case, and what are the legal options that he has taken. So, I outlined to them their legal options based on the law, which is what he is relying on, and asked that a resolution be passed that the Assembly accept to join in the case with him to bring the matter before the court.
“I told them that there is a provision in the law where the Sugar Industry Control Board, as an autonomous body that can sue and be sued in its own name, has to set a date, and it’s not optional.”
She explained, “The law also says that the manufacturer has to accept deliveries, and so while there are these legal options, they also have to be prepared to deal with the fact that some people will not want to obey it, but there are mechanisms in law how to get people to enforce an order, but the best thing is to resolve the problem peacefully, and to let them know that there are provisions of law that they can rely on.
“I explained to them that while time might be one of the issues that they are worried about, as far as we know, we made an urgent recent application, so we’re trying to get the matter heard because it’s three against two; its BSI/ASR, the SICB that doesn’t want to comply with its demands under the law, and the Government that has teamed up against the cane farmers, so clearly this will not be a walk in the park, but I can only give them legal options.”
“My thing is not to tell them how to sign; my thing is to let them make an informed decision, and I told them that they can continue their negotiations for an agreement if they decide not to sign, simply because you need to reach an agreement, but now they will be making that agreement under less stress and oppression”, she went on to state.
While Matura Shepherd may be viewed as a difference-maker to some, and a troublemaker to others within the industry, her explanation, and those of others such as BSCFA attorney Chris Coye, and members of the BSCFA negotiating committee, including Javier Keme and Alfredo Ortega, among others, apparently affected the position of the farmers, most of whom reversed their previous decision, and passed a motion not to sign the current commercial agreement, and to have the SICB declare the delayed crop season open while negotiations continue between the two main stakeholders.
In a press release issued last Tuesday, December 30, ROC, in playing a supporting role to the suggestion of the NTUCB, called on the SICB to “obey the law [Sugar Industry Act] and proceed to consult ASR/BSI and the BSCFA [regarding a possible date for the opening of the crop season]” and, thereafter, set the date for the grinding season.
The Government of Belize (GOB), however, countered that proposition in a press release which was sent later that day, stating that the NTUCB’s and ROC’s positions are “wrong-headed” and that the two organizations seem determined to “prevent a crop, derail the sugar industry, and cause the destruction of the livelihoods of the very farmers they say they support.”
We asked Matura-Shepherd about the possibility of the SICB being able to open the crop season in light of statements to the contrary, which have been made by the principals of the SICB, the Ministry of Agriculture, and even the Prime Minister.
“Maybe that will be another legal dispute, but if you read the section of the law, it says the manufacturer shall accept deliveries of sugar cane – shall in law means mandatory – so we will see what kind of gumption and legal standing the SICB has to make sure that the order that they give is obeyed by an entity which is not above the law”, she replied.
Former BSCFA Chair, Alfredo Ortega, who had been pushing for the cañeros to rethink their initial acceptance of the deal, was optimistic about the outcome.
“Well, as you can see, farmers rejected to sign the agreement as is. What they voted for is that the Committee of Management join hands with Mr. Lucilo Teck in the Mandamus against the SICB, so that they can put a date for the start of crop and continue negotiations to get better benefits for the farmers”, he said.
He mentioned that he, Matura-Shepherd, and those on his side will continue a campaign to inform the farmers of their legal options, and find new, more effective ways to pass on information to the farmers “so that they can have more knowledge of what is transpiring within the ongoing saga.”
“We will be holding hands with Ms. Matura so that she can go around with us explaining to the farmers the legal terms and what the implications are”, he noted.
Ortega suggested that the legal battle which has been initiated can be worked out if all the relevant parties go to the table and come up with a solution.
“If BSI and the SICB is serious, I don’t think that we will have to wait for the court, I think that we can sit down around the table, set a date to start the crop, and let us continue negotiations”, he told us.
He said that he believes the cañeros have regained leverage that had been lost during negotiations since they were under duress and “not thinking much on what the situation would have been in regards to accepting this agreement as is.”
“I think that now they have at least realized that, and they have understood more in depth what the situation would be, and what the negative impact would be against them” Ortega asserted.
Current BSCFA Committee of Management Chair, Ezequiel Cansino, who had endorsed the present commercial agreement, expressed grave disappointment with the farmers’ decision, and cited that he will have a meeting with the BSCFA’s 18 directors as soon as possible to discuss how the association will go about meeting the cañeros’ demands.
“This is not the result that I was expecting, but the decision is by the majority of the cane farmers, and I simply accepted their decision, but I am completely disappointed because we decided on something that would have kept the farmers united, but now automatically, the projects and benefits will be broken down by our own cane farmers. It’s a pity. It is not the way to end this thing, and I am really disappointed”, said a dejected Cansino.
While there is still no date in sight for the start of the deferred crop season, we understand that a letter will be sent to the Government, BSI/ASR and the SICB to inform them of the resolution that was passed today.