BELMOPAN, Wed. Jan. 21, 2015–Amendments to the Sugar Industry Act, approved by the House of Representatives on Monday and the Senate on Tuesday, were signed into law by Governor General Sir Colville Young and published in the Government Gazette today, Wednesday, January 21, 2015. However, the law takes effect retroactively on Wednesday, January 14, the day before officials of two new cane farmer associations penned their signatures to new commercial agreements with the Belize Sugar Industries (BSI).
It was the first time that BSI signed commercial agreements of this nature with an entity other than the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers’ Association (BSCFA), and the new associations, founded by breakaway factions of cañeros, had not been recognized in law before the recent changes were made by Parliament.
The original Sugar Act of 2001 was found to be unconstitutional in 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled that the law violates the right to freedom of association by requiring cañeros to come under the umbrella of BSCFA in order to do business in the industry.
In announcing the revision of the Sugar Act this week, the Government of Belize said: “It will no longer be compulsory for a cane farmer to belong to the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers’ Association or any other association. The membership of an association shall be entirely voluntary.”
It also said that, “The Act also provides that there may exist more than one association of cane farmers and the Sugar Industry Control Board shall have the power to register all associations. After registration by the Board, an association shall automatically become a legal entity and may hold property, open bank accounts in its own name, and do all other things which a corporate body may do.”
The 2015 amendments just signed into law not only recognize that multiple associations can co-exist, they also recognize the right of cañeros not to belong to any of the existing three associations and to operate fully independently of them.
Government’s announcement today asserted that the manufacturers will also be free to accept cane from any association or from individual cane farmers or groups of cane farmers.
The formal recognition of the various associations also means that the exclusive role which the BSCFA had played on industry boards and committees had to be revisited to create space for the new associations. For example, whereas the original sugar act gave the BSCFA two seats on the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB), the principal policy-making body for the industry, the amendment makes provision for cane farmers to now hold three seats, so that each of the three associations can appoint one rep to the committee. This change, though, means that the Government had to give one more seat to the manufacturers, in order to maintain stakeholder balance.
However, some Opposition members have expressed concerns over the introduction of a provision for the Minister responsible for agriculture to be able to handpick the cañeros who would sit on the board, in the event that there are more than three associations and they are unable to agree on who would represent them on the board.
Speaking in the Senate on Tuesday, Opposition Senator Lisa Shoman said that the government should have forthrightly called the board “The Sugar Minister Control Board,” because, she said, that is what it really is.
She argued that the composition of the board is too skewed in favor of the minister, and allows the administration to control the board through ministerial power.
The law calls for the minister to have two reps from his ministry, one of whom is the Chief Agricultural Officer, but the minister also appoints two private sector reps to the board and he also appoints one of the board members to be chairman.
The original and new law allow for the cane farmers and manufacturer to jointly select one additional board member, and they contain a provision for the minister to also pick that joint representative if the parties are unable to agree – just as it now allows the minister to appoint the reps for the cañeros if there are more than three associations and they are unable to agree on the persons who should hold the three designated seats.
In the worst case scenario, with discord on all fronts, the minister would be able to appoint all persons to the board, except for the three reps for BSI. Under the new 11-member composition, it means that discord in the industry could result in the minister appointing as many as 8 members to the board.
When the House met on Monday, Orange Walk Central area representative, Opposition member Johnny Briceño, a cañero as well, cautioned that such discord could be engineered just so that the minister could be handed that ultimate control over the Sugar Industry Control Board.
In answer to Opposition concerns about skewed ministerial control, Leader of Government Business Godwin Hulse said in the Senate at Tuesday’s session that the new composition of the board maintains the balance and equity that existed in the original law.
“When you get discord or you can’t get agreement, Government steps in, but Government steps in as an equitable partner in the growth process,” Hulse said.
In the amendment to the section allowing the minister to appoint representatives on the SICB for the cane farmers, the provision specifies that the minister is committed to appoint members that best represent the various associations.
Senator Anthony Sylvester raised concerns that by changing the definition of a cane farmer, the new law “in a very surreptitious way, in a very clever way, now allows the manufacturers to refuse to accept cane deliveries.”
He argued that the revision to the law has created an avenue for BSI to actually become, once and for all, the cane farmers, and to do away with the small cane farmers.
We note that whereas the original law simply defines a cane farmer as “a person who cultivates sugar cane,” the new law contains a much wider definition, explaining that in 2015, a cane farmer is “a person or entity who is engaged in the production of sugar cane for the purpose of being manufactured into sugar, ethanol, or any derivative of sugar cane and registered by the Sugar Cane Production Committee…”
However, Hulse said that the elimination of the small farmer could never be the purpose of the amendment. He added that the production of more cane is better for the industry.
This year, cañeros may produce roughly 1.4 million tons of cane, based on official statements. The law defines the crop year as December 1 to November 30 the following year. This crop year was originally to begin on December 8, 2014 but it has been delayed for the past 7 weeks due to an impasse over the commercial agreement.
With the commercial agreements now signed by the three existing associations, all indications are that sugar cane deliveries will commence by next Monday, January 26, 2015.