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Citrus elephants fight!

HeadlineCitrus elephants fight!

Just as another season for the harvesting of grapefruit and oranges is poised to kick off, unresolved conflicts within the citrus industry are spawning a new wave of protests at Pomona Valley this week. Members of the Citrus Growers Association (CGA) are planning to stage two days of protests outside the Citrus Products of Belize Limited (CPBL) on Tuesday and Wednesday, October 30 and 31, to send a message both to their Bajan counterparts and the Government of Belize that they are not happy with the status quo.

The protest, scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. in front of the factory, is being led by citrus growers, who were the ones who applied for the permit to protest, said CGA chairman Eccleston Irving.

Asked what they hope to achieve by the protest, Irving told Amandala that a group led by Anthony Chanona, a citrus grower who once served as mayor of the capital city, Belmopan, is saying that this crop should not begin without the necessary particulars of the ongoing crisis with CPBL being settled—particularly its relationship with Banks Holdings of Barbados, the minority shareholder of CPBL. Irving said that CPBL still does not have a substantive chairman, as Julian Murillo, the newly appointed chair, has been limited to only overseeing board meetings.

Growers are saying they want to be respected; they want to ensure due diligence is followed and that if any changes are made in the industry, they are agreed to by all parties, Irving added. He said that the central issue today is the governance structure of CPBL.

The last major industry protest was held in February 2010, when CGA members protested for the removal of three then CPBL directors: Dr. Henry Canton (CEO of CPBL), Frank Redmond, and Mike Duncker.

Today, Canton remains the CEO of the company, although CGA, the majority shareholder of CPBL with powers limited by its partnership agreement with Banks Holdings of Barbados, continues to contend that Canton’s termination stands. Redmond and Duncker are no longer sitting on the board.

This time around, CGA members are protesting in the hope that they will get the attention of Banks Holdings, who they want out of the industry. Last time, Banks reps responded to the CGA by saying that they were not at all moved by the protest, which, they gathered, was supported largely by migrant workers and a small number of growers misguided by half-truths.

The ideal situation now, said Irving, is for Banks to resell the shares to the CGA.

“They are willing to divest,” Irving told Amandala, adding that they have drafted a letter of intent, which came out of a meeting in Miami earlier this year, but which they have not yet been able to fine-tune.

The other issue that had “vexed” growers and shareholders was the issue of the trademark for Caribbean Pride, over which the parties have an intellectual property dispute, Irving indicated.

The latest and most current issue on the table, though, is the price of grapefruit. The factory opened last week, when it began receiving grapefruit from growers at the price of around $8.000 a box. However, CGA contends that the price formula was not properly fixed, and that the offer that growers should instead be getting is more like $13.00 a box—over 60% more.

Tomorrow’s protest is not just to get the attention of Banks Holdings. Irving said that they are also calling on the government to intervene, to ensure lawful operations in the best interest of all the parties.

Irving said that whereas at least 25 of their members produce grapefruit, nearly all have heeded the call to stand down and only four of their members continue to deliver fruit to the factory.

Whereas CGA has said that it is opposed to the current grapefruit price, which they claim represents an underpayment for their fruit, a rival citrus association, Belize Citrus Mutual (BCM), said last week that they have accepted CPBL’s first Fruit Price Submission (FPS) for the 2012/2013 crop year for grapefruit, subject to a review with CPBL. The association also welcomed the opening of the factory on Wednesday, October 24.

That was the same date that representatives of both organizations, as well as the company, CPBL, met with Government officials, to try and chart a way forward.

Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Jose Alpuche, told Amandala that he thought they had made some “good faith” progress at last Wednesday’s meeting. He said that at the opening of the factory last week, citrus growers could not have a singular voice on the pricing issue. Therefore, the proposed grapefruit price, said Alpuche, should have been discussed today, Monday, while orange prices to be submitted on Wednesday should be discussed on Monday, November 5.

Alpuche said that at last week’s meeting, he spoke to the CGA reps about the reports he had received that a protest could ensue this week, and he urged them to hold off on their protest. The CEO said that he is surprised that the growers are continuing with the protest, despite his call for restraint.

At the heart of the dispute, said Alpuche, is the control of the citrus processing factory. However, he said, it is privately-owned and Government does not intend to intervene.

Last year, Prime Minister Dean Barrow personally engaged the parties in an attempt to help ease tensions in the industry. He made some inroads, but the situation has since regressed.

Last Thursday, said Alpuche, Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega made a good faith attempt to broker talks, and he had committed to meeting again within three weeks.

A major forward step which the parties made last week, said Alpuche, was agreeing that the current citrus act needs to be changed to reflect the Supreme Court’s constitutional ruling, but regulatory issues are as much as the government can help resolve, he indicated.

Alpuche said that he is very well aware that things have been brewing in the industry for a long time, but a protest won’t solve the current industry problems.

He told us that he is restating the call he made last week for growers to exercise restraint, as he does not want any incident or anyone to get hurt.

“I really do hope that level heads can prevail,” Alpuche urged.

Amandala was advised last week that in addition to tomorrow’s protest, CGA members were also contemplating blocking the factory’s entrance. However, the association has made no such announcement.

In a statement issued today, BCM, which claims 45% of citrus production, said, “We also appeal to the Government of Belize to ensure that the business of the delivery of citrus can continue to take place in a calm and peaceful environment without any interference from those who might attempt to disrupt the processing of citrus under the guise of farmer demonstrations.”

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