Features — 28 January 2014 — by Kareem Clarke

Road works contractors are not moving with sense of urgency: BSCFA vice-chair

The annual sugar crop season will get off to an unfavorably late start, and although the sugar cane farmers have agreed to start cane deliveries this Friday, they are still facing a rough and rugged road ahead – actually a lot of rough and rugged roads.

Earlier this week, we had reported that the start of the 2013/2014 sugar crop season had been postponed yet again for another four days to facilitate the repair works that are currently being conducted on the badly battered sugar road networks in the northern districts.

On Tuesday, Amandala headed north to get a firsthand view of the state of some of those vital passageways which have also partly contributed to the delay of the crop season.

During a press conference in late November 2013, the Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow, placed an ultimatum to the embattled cane farmers when he vowed not to do any repairs to those roads unless a date for the start of the crop season was established.

In hindsight, that could be described as a regrettable decision since it has now caused further setbacks to the already hemorrhaging sugar industry.

What is even more disconcerting to the farmers is the fact that the repairs appear to be progressing at a quite dispiriting and sluggish pace, even though the Government-appointed contractors were instructed to get the works completed as soon as possible.

While there, we met up with the Vice Chairman of the Committee of Management for the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), Alfredo Ortega, who gave us some insight into how the condition of the sugar roads is affecting not only cane farmers, but the sugar industry in general.

He emphasized that the works on the sugar roads not only seem to be going very slow, but the contractors are also moving haphazardly without finalizing works in the areas in which they have been operating. “It’s keeping us back because there are certain areas in which farmers are able to deliver cane, but due to the fact that the contractors have not completed the repairs in those areas, the farmers are unable to traverse those paths with loaded cane trucks because of the terrible road conditions”, he stated.

Ortega said that whatever the circumstances, Friday has been designated as the official start date for the crop season, at which time the farmers from Corozal will be delivering their cane from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., while the farmers from Orange Walk will deliver their cane stalks from 10:00 p.m. to 10:00 a.m. on Saturday.

“In the present situation regarding the works that are going on, we don’t believe that on Friday we will be able to deliver the amount that we would want, but at least with the kind of weather that we are experiencing at this time – even though farmers will be working diligently to get their cane to the factory, they will try to do their best, and if this weather continues, then there will be a possibility that farmers will be able to deliver at least 5,000 tons of cane”, said Ortega.

Ortega mentioned that farmers in areas where the road works have not been completed will face an additional burden, since they might not be able to make their deliveries on time. He said that the farmers would have preferred that the contractors finish repairs on the sugar roads on which they are working before moving on to do works on other roads, but since only a portion of the roads are being fixed, some farmers will still be unable to use the roads, even though some works are being done on those roads.

One of those roads that has been in dire need of repair is the Progresso sugar road, and according to Ortega, works on that road have still not yet begun, although it has been listed as a priority. This has frustrated the farmers in that community because there is cane that is ready for harvesting; however, the impassable roads have presented a major setback to those farmers.

Ortega is thus calling on the relevant authorities to do what they can on those roads so that the farmers can start to deliver their crop at the earliest possible date, especially since the crop season has been significantly shortened.

He said that with the current pace of the road works, it is doubtful that even 50% of the sugar roads will be repaired by this Friday.

Amandala has been repeatedly attempting to get in contact with the personnel from the Ministry of Works to get their comments on the status of the works that are being conducted, and to find out approximately what percentage of those works will be completed by this Friday; however, up to press time, we were unable to speak with the officer in charge of the road works, since we understand that he had gone to oversee the works that are being done in the northern districts.

Of note is that a whopping $3.5 million dollars in production revenues that would have gone into the economy has been lost for every week that the season has been delayed under the amended schedule.

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