Features — 08 July 2014 — by Kareem Clarke
Sugar season climaxes, but bagasse talks unresolved

BSI’s proposal is a slap in the face of cane farmers: BSCFA vice chair

The delayed 2013-2014 sugarcane crop season is scheduled to wrap up next Tuesday, July 8, and while the indication that the harvest is currently up to mark will be sweet music to the ears of some citrus industry stakeholders, the fact that bagasse negotiations are still up in the air will undoubtedly leave a bad taste in the mouths of many local cane farmers.

As of June 29, 2014, cañeros had delivered 1,149,779 tons of cane that has yielded 117,871 tons of sugar, and which exceeds the 1,078,000 tons of cane that had been conveyed to the factory for the last sugar crop season.

Those figures also demonstrate that this season’s quota of 1.2 million tons will be met; however, in speaking with Amandala this week, Vice Chairman of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association’s Committee of Management, Alfredo Ortega, acknowledged that a percentage of cane will still remain in the fields.

He said, “If weather permits at this point in time, and we finish the season with this type of weather, I believe we will be delivering about 50,000 more tons of cane. But, we’re also seeing that we won’t be able to deliver all that amount of cane that is left in the field at this point in time.”

While things have shaped up in regards to sugar production, the BSCFA and Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) are still at odds over the same issue that contributed to the delay of this sugar crop season – payments for bagasse.

While BSI is claiming that the farmers have based their payment requests on a bargain price rather than a price formula, the BSCFA has asserted that BSI’s formula – in which the company has proposed to pay farmers a meager 51 cents per ton of bagasse – is based on bagasse fiber and not the actual bagasse because regional prices for bagasse are in the vicinity of $4 per ton.

Ortega stated, “We in the association are not ready to accept [BSI’s offer] because we know from information locally and abroad that the price per ton of bagasse should be not less than $4.50. So, that’s why we had that our negotiations should not start with less than $4, and that’s where we are at this point. They have come with their formula, and they have said that that is what they want us to use, and it’s take it or leave it. Well, we are looking forward to something above 51 cents, because we clearly know and understand, and it has been advised to us by our expert. We’ll be holding a general meeting with the farmers around July 20, at which we will be presenting to the farmers what we have, where we have reached in the negotiations, what has been presented to us, and from there, we’ll listen from them about what will be the way forward. It is true that BSI has come with 51 cents, and it’s better than a full ‘no’ that they had before, but even that 51 cents is a slap in the face of the farmers. We’re looking forward to getting a better price on it. Yes, we have reached almost to the end of the crop, and we on the association’s side, we have fulfilled our promise to BSI, on which we signed on not to take industrial action during the course of the crop, and we have done so. There are certain things that as an industry we need to hold hands and carry on, but we first need to clear off our differences in regards to benefits because they are the ones benefitting presently 100% on the use of the bagasse as a by-product. The farmers are not getting anything. So we need to clear that portion first because how is it that I can walk with you hand-to-hand when you are trying to hold one of my hands and slap me with the other hand?”

The BSCFA’s vice chairman insisted that all the farmers are seeking is a just payment for their bagasse, and that they have been flexible with BSI in trying to work out a reasonable payment for bagasse instead of resorting to industrial action.

BSI has also accused the BSCFA of focusing on bagasse payments instead of bettering the industry so that stakeholders will be adequately prepared to deal with market changes which are expected in 2017 when Belize’s sugar will face competition from beet sugar on the European market; however Ortega maintained that the farmers have taken that situation into account, and that both entities, BSCFA and BSI, need to work together as one, but BSI has not acted in good faith so far.

“I believe that we are taking into account the forecast of what will happen in 2017, that is why we are negotiating with them in regards to this bagasse as a by-product where the farmers can have the opportunity to get at least an extra on their sugar-cane product. We have been working very diligently and yes, we are taking into account what will transpire from now to that time, but we need to first clarify this issue with the bagasse, and this is where BSI has been turning around and around the table, not coming around to let us clarify the issue so we can move forward to the other situation that we need to walk together. We need to be clear and we need to be satisfied that I am not taking advantage of you and you are not taking advantage of me. We are working together as one industry and we [farmers] are trying to get the most benefit that we can”, he mentioned.

A part of the reason why the cane farmers have dismissed BSI’s counterproposal is that it is based on the premise that the factory hasn’t been making the profits needed to balance their investment to get the bagasse processing done; however Ortega retorted that the BSCFA has made repeated requests to see audited financial statements from BSI to back that claim up, but they (BSCFA) haven’t been provided with any such statement or financial information indicating that BSI is not profiting from bagasse sold to BELCOGEN since ASR took over.

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