Features — 19 December 2014 — by Kareem Clarke
Citrus industry sees brighter days

STANN CREEK–While the local cañeros and the sugar millers, Belize Sugar Industries (BSI)/American Sugar Refineries (ASR), are presently trying to stabilize the northern-based sugar industry, the stakeholders within the southern citrus sector, which had its own share of difficulties amongst its shareholders up until February of this year when a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was penned between the principals, have been able to further progress in moving that particular industry forward when they decided to formally bury the proverbial hatchet earlier this month.

The Belize Citrus Growers Association Investment Company Limited (BCGAICL), which is owned by the well-established Citrus Growers Association (CGA) – a company that represents 90% of the citrus farmers – and which had been the majority shareholder in Citrus Products of Belize Limited (CPBL), the company which buys citrus products from the farms, was embroiled in a protracted legal battle with Banks Holdings Limited (BHL), a Barbados-based multinational beverage giant and minority shareholder, over past due audit reports, among other things, but according to what we understand, all that is history now because BHL, which owns 46% of CPBL, has reached an out-of-court settlement with BCGAICL.

Major shareholders strike an out-of-court settlement in once protracted industry dispute

Two weeks ago, on December 3, CPBL released a statement which announced that the tides have turned in the once tumultuous relationship between BHL and BCGAICL, and today, Amandala spoke with Henry Anderson, the Chief Executive Officer of the CGA, who explained that after years of bad blood, the settlement reflects a mutual understanding and a joint effort between the two companies to work in the best interest of all shareholders.
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ur readers may recall that when the MoU was signed and the Social Security Board (SSB) was brought into the picture as a part shareholder in late February, the CPBL board of directors, which had been deemed to be the root of the dilemma, was restructured, and Anderson told us that since the wrinkles in the industry were ironed out back then, board meetings have become regularized, and the 2012 and 2013 yearly audits, which had been a major bone of contention during the impasse, have now been completed, while the audit for 2014 is in process.

With the audits behind them, Anderson cited that efforts were made to reach a conclusive accord with BHL in regards to the litigation claims, which were filed by the two shareholders, and brought before the Supreme Court beginning in 2010.

Those claims included a lawsuit for breach of the Investment Agreement, and a countersuit, also for breach of the Investment Agreement, but on November 13 of this year, we understand that the parties withdrew the matter from the courts and entered a resolution whereby BHL agreed to quash a controversial clause which had provided them with veto powers on the CPBL board, as part of an arrangement to move the formerly embattled industry forward.

CPBL’s release indicated that since the new board took office in April 2014, several steps have been taken to strengthen governance and management, increase fruit production, improve productivity of the groves, increase the inefficiencies in the processing plants and improve marketing.

CEO Anderson corroborated those declarations, and noted that BHL is now on board in terms of fighting the devastating HuangLongBing (HLB) or citrus greening disease, which had recently been ravaging several citrus orchards in southern Belize.

He also emphasized that the Citrus Research and Education Institute (CREI), which is over 50 years old, has been taking the lead in controlling the spread of HLB, and lately signed an MoU to partner with a US university in order to effectively manage the disease and ensure the survival of the industry.

Apart from that, the CGA has composed a replanting program to be able to renew citrus trees in order to boost citrus production from the current average of 4.7 million boxes to about 8 million boxes per year.

Anderson pointed out that at this point, it is all a work in progress, but such a rebound is necessary since oil production in Belize has declined, which, he said, means that the burden of shouldering the economy will fall back on citrus, which has been the primary export earner since 2006.

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