Over the course of Belize’s battle for self-rule from 1950 to 1981, the sugar cane farmers of our Corozal and Orange Walk Districts became the strongest section of Belize’s socio-economy. The sugar cane industry featured the focused, hard-working descendants of refugees from Yucatan’s Caste War who had come to Belize in the second half of the nineteenth century, and then the British multinational, Tate and Lyle, invested in a new sugar factory at Tower Hill in the Orange Walk District around 1963.
The political circumstances of the Tate and Lyle investment are very interesting, but they are almost never discussed. The nationalist People’s United Party (PUP) Leader George Price had been in open battle with the colonizer British in 1957 and 1958. In 1957, the British sent Mr. Price home from London in disgrace, and then in 1958 the British arrested and charged him with sedition, for which he was acquitted in the Supreme Court of British Honduras.
By 1959, however, the atmosphere had changed somewhat, as Mr. Price announced that he would seek independence within the British Commonwealth, and the British gave Belize the gift of the MCC Grounds in 1960. In 1961, the PUP won 18 out of 18 seats in the first general election under the present Ministerial constitution. Tate and Lyle came in 1963, and then the British granted us self-government in 1964.
Tate and Lyle and its new Tower Hill factory created an economic boom in the North. Belizeans began to flock north from the other Districts. The old Belize Estate and Produce Company (BEC) sawmill which had dominated the skyline in Belize City, the population, administration and financial center of the colony, began to lose importance as the forests of British Honduras were being depleted. With the coming of Tate and Lyle, the economy of Belize essentially changed from a forestry base to an agricultural one.
It has been said that the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) is 55 years old. This would make the BSCFA older than our self-government. By comparison, there was no electricity union, no telecommunications union, no water and sewerage union, no teachers union 55 years ago. Only the waterfront union remains from that era.
The makeup of the sugar industry, including the Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) and the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB) at the top, is a matter that requires serious, historical research. That is because there has been a lot of party and personal politics involved in the sugar industry, there has been a lot of corruption, and there has been a lot of waste and inefficiency. These things were never examined and detailed, apparently, because there was enough money being made by everybody, and so the sugar industry remained Belize’s economic strength, and the cane farmers, who had once been lowly refugees here, became surrounded by an aura of self-reliance and power.
What happened on Sunday morning in San Roman represents a devastating blow for Belize’s national pride. A month ago under great duress, with American Sugar Refinery (ASR) holding back the commencement of the sugar cane grinding season and thus holding growers up to ransom, the cane farmers in the BSCFA voted to accept an agreement basically on ASR’s terms. Two weeks ago, however, a veteran activist cañero named Lucilo Teck waved the flag of resistance, and brought the attorney Audrey Matura-Shepherd to explain to the cane farmers that the Government of Belize had the power, in fact that power was mandated through the Sugar Industry Control Board, to set a date for the grinding season and instruct the factory owners, ASR, to begin operation. Whereupon, the cane farmers voted enthusiastically in general assembly to reject the ASR agreement they had previously accepted under duress.
But then the Prime Minister of Belize used his office to intervene on the side of the company, and allowed political operatives to divide the unity of the BSCFA. Two more cane farmers’ associations were quickly formed, which rushed to sign the ASR agreement, and the badly wounded and desperate BSCFA fell into line on Sunday morning in San Roman. The cane farmers of Belize had been smashed by international investment capital.
At the beginning of this essay, we pointed out to you that our cane farmers became the strongest sector of Belize’s socio-economy over the course of Belize’s battle for self-rule. The cane farmers are symbolic of the Belizean grit which made Belize’s independence possible. In their villages in Corozal and Orange Walk, the cane farmers had not been softened by the British colonial culture of the population center. The cane farmers did not embrace the flashy American culture which came after independence and mentally colonized Belize’s urban centers. They had remained in their Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association, had retained many of their traditional values, and it was in the BSCFA general assembly that they had always gone to work out their differences and make their decisions. At least, that’s how it always appeared to us down here in the media capital.
Well, the BSCFA had become locked in combat with ASR. ASR won a temporary victory, but then the cane farmers fought back with a Teck/Matura Supreme Court injunction. At that point, the Prime Minister of Belize, himself desperate for the grinding season to begin, went against BSCFA and with ASR in order to break the impasse. The fact of the matter is, cold talk, that he went against his own Belizean people.
It may be that time will establish that this was a courageous decision made on principle by Prime Minister Barrow because of terrible exigencies. What time will surely tell is whether this agreement was a good deal or a bad deal for cane farmers, and it is on that basis that Mr. Barrow will be judged. For now, all we know is that our Belizean cane farmers, who were legendary because of their unity and strength, have been broken, publicly. And what nationalism means is that when our cane farmers are broken, the rest of us Belizeans are also broken.
Power to the people. Power in the struggle.