Features — 14 February 2018
Did we heed The Clarion’s advice?

The author of an article that appeared in The Clarion in 1904 advised Belizeans that the stock of valuable trees in our forest was being depleted, and the way forward was modern agriculture. Belizeans were told to follow Pope Leo XIII’s advice, which was that we pool our resources so we could acquire the technology and machinery needed to make us competitive. Belizean farmers were advised that only through cooperation they would get the “due return for their labour.”

So, did Belizean farmers (include fisherfolk, too) heed this advice? The fact is that they did. Primary producers of like mind have formed syndicates, associations, and cooperatives. This piece is but a brief sketch of how these organizations served Belize. A difference which made one group rise above all others will be discussed also, briefly.

As a tool, syndicates are not designed to make a people competitive in the financial world. Generally, they are short-lived organizations which are about creating savings for basic needs.

In a sense syndicates are like the largely unregulated loan shark business. There are a few ready cash businesses that have signs, but much of the business is done off a bicycle or motorcycle. No one makes an announcement when a syndicate is formed. Syndicates spring up every day. Someone who has an immediate need for cash, gets a group of trustworthy friends and associates together and they contribute an amount weekly/monthly, and they collect in turn.

My understanding of syndicates is that the order of drawing from the pot can be determined by drawing lots, or it can be determined by the order in which people join the syndicate.

The syndicate is an easy flow system because some people don’t mind if they are at the back end. No usury takes place in the syndicate but people at the back of the collecting order will tell you that the benefit for them is that they are “forced” to save. These are the type of people who get an eech to spend whenever money touches their hands.

In the 1950’s/60’s, young men would form syndicates with the endeavor to construct houses. Every weekend the members of the syndicate would cut lumber and hammer nails, and they wouldn’t stop until all the members owned a house. This type of syndicate still forms in some villages.

Associations are very much alive in the major agricultural industries in Belize – in sugarcane, in citrus, and in banana. There is a Grain Growers Association which formed to represent rice growers in the Belize, Cayo, Stann Creek, and Toledo districts. This association disappeared from Belize, Cayo, and Stann Creek some years ago. At last check it still existed in Toledo, but it is not as visible as the recently formed Cacao Growers Association in that district. There might also be a shrimp farmers association.

Associations, as they function in the agriculture world, are mostly about marketing. The association represents the collective product of the farmers. The association does the haggling with processors, “storers”, shippers, etc., about prices.

Associations deduct a small percentage of farmers’ paychecks to cover the costs of the day-to-day business of the association. Some associations also provide machinery and plant protection services to the less wealthy farmers; do research to improve farming practices; and disburse loans on occasion.

There has been some splintering of the associations for sugarcane farmers and citrus farmers. For many years there was one association of cane farmers; now there are three. For many years there was one association of citrus growers; now there are two. I don’t know if that is an improvement.

There are a few fishing cooperatives in Belize that were formed in the 1960’s, to export spiny lobster, conch, and fish. When lobster became a prized commodity on the world market, these cooperatives became powerful organizations. Apart from marketing marine produce, the cooperatives provide some basic services for its members.

Fishing cooperatives were more successful in the past, before tourism became a big item, and before a well-off/wealthy class sprang up after independence in 1981. The fishing cooperatives are not so successful today because too much of the fish take is going directly to restaurateurs, who need the product to satisfy the many tourists who visit our country, and to satisfy the new elite. The consequence of increased local demand is decreased throughput to the cooperatives. There have been some accusations about mismanagement but I don’t know about that.

Despite there being more fisherfolk today, the gross product hasn’t increased. In fact, in some areas there has been decline. The production of spiny lobster and finfish is down, compared with production in the 1980’s.

The fishing cooperatives operate much like the major agricultural associations. Fishermen work separately, and deliver their catch to the cooperative, which has the responsibility of marketing the produce. As per the agricultural associations, the cooperative takes a cut to pay for the day-to-day running of the business.

Agricultural cooperatives were a “thing” during the Green Revolution days of the 1970’s, but only a few have survived. A very good guess is that all the agricultural cooperatives that featured a group-owned, group-worked parcel of land, have dispersed. None of the small agricultural cooperatives were able to develop a product they could sustain on the local market, much less the export market. Those few that survived are mostly about providing machine rental, and transportation of goods for their members.

The one large farmers’ cooperative has succeeded spectacularly. This group farmed collectively, and individually. This group marketed their product collectively. This group grew together, and helped each other. As their product, products grew, they were able to help each other more. This group purchased goods from their own community shop. All the services the group needed was provided within their community. I am writing about the Mennonites, of course.

If we go back to 1981, some might argue that at that time the Mennonites (the ones who use machinery) had an advantage because they were more technologically advanced than roots Belizeans, and had control of better lands for farming. Both of those are not true. The difference is that they are a true collective, while the other organizations were/are not.

As developed in Belize, the associations and the cooperatives are not that close to being called socialist. Individual farmers and fisherfolk only come together for the marketing of their product, and to service a few basic needs. This is no small step, but there is one giant step none of these groups (outside of the Mennonites) made. They did not keep their other business, and their banking, within the association, cooperative.

Pope Leo XIII, and the advocate in The Clarion, were no communists. They recognized that the most just system is one that encourages individual enterprise, and encourages group enterprise. Farming groups, fisherfolk, the primary producers, have done everything right, except put all their money to work for the glory of the group. The one group that did, won the day.

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Deshawn Swasey

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