It took some weeks of negotiations before the BSCFA (Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association) signed a two-year commercial agreement with ASR/BSI (American Sugar Refining/ Belize Sugar Industries), the document not being signed until after the two parties had agreed on the terms of reference for a Commission of Inquiry. Last year, when the parties couldn’t arrive at a new commercial agreement, after the expiration of the old one, the GoB had announced that it would set up a Commission of Inquiry to study the industry, with the aim to modernize and increase its viability.
There was a time when cañeros received the full payment for their produce from BSI without asking many questions. Prior to the 1980s, sugar was far and away our number one industry. At times the returns for cañeros were spectacular. “Sugar Prices—37-Year Historical Chart”, a graph presented by a top research platform for investors, Macrotrends, showed sugar prices up throughout 1974, and in December that year it reached US$0.50 per pound, an incredible price. Overnight the sugarcane farmers in Belize were swimming in money. Just 7 years previously, in January 1967, sugar prices on the world market had bottomed out at US$0.01 per pound.
The highest price for sugar in the 1980s was US$0.37 per pound in September 1980. In March 1983 the price for the commodity dropped to US$0.06 per pound, and in June 1985 it was down to US$0.03. These were times of lean, and in 1985 Tate & Lyle, the owners of BSI, closed the factory at Libertad and sold majority shares in the factory at Tower Hill to its employees. Martin Brownbridge, in a 1989 report for the Central Bank, said that initially the shares in Tower Hill were offered to the farmers, but they were unable, “reluctant”, to take it on, because they were financially strained with the replanting of fields that had been severely damaged by smut.
There have been a few highs since September 1980: the price of sugar reached US$0.34 per pound in December 2010; but the glory days of the 1970s are gone, and in recent years it has been a struggle. As the pressures on farmers have increased because of depressed prices for their cane, inflation, unstable climatic conditions, and loss of the preferential market in Europe, they have become more concerned about how BSI arrives at their share: the 65% cut they receive from BSI for the sugar and molasses earnings made from their cane.
BSI’s $124 million investment in Belcogen, which started producing electricity in 2009, put the owners of the company under such severe financial strain that they were forced to sell majority shares. The Belcogen project might have had a better outcome for the local owners of BSI if they had heeded “other” experts who had advised them to construct a smaller cogeneration plant, and expand it incrementally. Farmers were hesitant to support the construction of Belcogen, but the majority of them, those who are still under the BSCFA umbrella, were eager to buy BSI. To that end—their bid to take over BSI when it was up for sale, they lobbied the government for assistance, but their interest was frowned on. It was very displeasing to the farmers when in 2012 ASR emerged as the preferred buyer.
With the EU sugar regime that paid preferential prices for sugar from ACP countries (countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific) coming to an end in 2017, a 2016 IMF Report estimated that the cost of producing cane would “have to drop by at least 30 percent for the country [Belize] to remain competitive in the world sugar market.” The Fairtrade program, which since 2008 brings in an additional $3.5 million for farmers annually, has been a great boost for cañeros. But the BSCFA group hasn’t received this “bonus” for the past two years, and some of their leaders contend that it is BSI that is responsible for their being denied their due.
The present price of sugar isn’t bad, but climate extremes—droughts and floods—have made it more costly to grow crops in Belize. At times over these past two decades, it has been faith alone that has kept most of our farmers going. ASR has made substantial investments in the industry since taking control of BSI. The company insists that farmers will be happier if they improve the management of their fields.
Initially, farmers received their payment, grumbled or celebrated, and went back to their farms. Now, they want an explanation for every penny that is taken out before they get their cut. There are some unanswered questions in the industry, and a logical one pertains to the associations other than the BSCFA. They aren’t sheep, yet they exhibit no interest in seeing the deductions that ASR/BSI makes before giving them their share. But the BSCFA wants to know, and that’s the main reason why a Commission of Inquiry will convene shortly.
ASR/BSI must realize that it can’t continue running the sugar industry like a fiefdom, as it has these past dozen years. It is to be hoped that the company can adjust to the times, negotiate with the farmers as true partners, which is the way the industry is set up. ASR/BSI must open the relevant sections of their books for the farmers’ auditors.
Retired political leaders denounce Israel’s acts of genocide
On Monday, our only two living prime ministers, and three former foreign ministers issued a statement expressing their admiration for South Africa, “for charging Israel before the ICJ with the crime of genocide.” The group of ministers said the Court’s Order “vindicates the decision of the government of Belize to have suspended relations with Israel”, and called for Belize to take the next step, which is to join “South Africa in the substantive case against Israel for the crime of genocide.”
The group of ministers expressed shock that several Western powers withdrew “funding from UNRWA [UN Relief and Works Agency] for Palestinian refugees, the UN agency that helps to keep alive the more than 4 million Palestinian refugees created by Israel’s ethnic cleansing.” The unconscionable decision of the Western powers came after Israel made claims that several employees of the UNRWA had participated in the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7 last year. The former ministers said: “It is no surprise that this allegation is made the day after the ICJ concluded that Israel is plausibly committing genocide and demanded that effective humanitarian aid reach the people of Gaza.”
Little Belize made the brave step to break off diplomatic relations with Israel after that country went berserk and started destroying Gaza after the leading political party in Gaza, Hamas, had savagely attacked Israel on October 7.
As noted in the editorial of the Amandala on Tuesday, Israel is strategic to the interests of the US and UK in the Middle East. But they have gone too far in their support of Israel as that country goes after driving, cleansing the Palestinians from Gaza. As noted in the Amandala editorial, because of the explosion of online media outlets, for the first time the entire world is watching. And many of the allies of the US and UK, including Belize, don’t like what they are seeing. Israel’s ugly ambition has put a dent in the favorability rating of the US and the UK across the globe. They must take off their blinders, see Israel for the inhumane country it has become, and force its leaders to end their crazed, genocidal path.