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ASR/BSI needs to open the books, and respect farmers’ share for bagasse

EditorialASR/BSI needs to open the books, and respect farmers’ share for bagasse

The government of the day has indicated it can work around a recent ruling in the courts that the mandatory contribution of American Sugar Refinery (ASR)/Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) toward the operational costs of the Sugar Industry Control Board and its authorized agencies isn’t legal. After the GoB moved to force the company to come to the table with the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), a move the GoB made because of ASR/BSI’s intransigence, its refusal to yield any ground to farmers in a new commercial agreement, ASR/BSI initiated a number of challenges to the status quo in the industry, including the tax.

Almost annually the sugarcane season gets off to a shaky start because farmers and ASR/BSI are at an impasse over the existing commercial agreement, with farmers calling for amendments and ASR/BSI refusing to make any concessions. Farmers want to see exactly what the company makes from selling sugar and molasses, and all the costs that it claims goes into processing, shipment and sales. That isn’t extreme, because the payment farmers receive for their produce is determined after deductions for those costs. Properly functioning, the relationship between the farmers and BSI/ASR is very much a partnership, more akin to what exists between fishermen and the fishing cooperatives than what exists between a company and its employees.

ASR/BSI, if it were allowed to, would produce all the sugarcane it needs to supply the factory at Tower Hill. When BSI was near collapse some years ago, Banco Atlántida offered to purchase majority shares in the company, with the condition that it be allowed to produce 50% of the sugarcane for the factory at Tower Hill, which in the 2021/2022 season milled over 1.3 million tons of sugar cane.

Presently, BSI is limited to producing around 150,000 tons of sugarcane, and on the average 50% would take the company’s production to well above 500,000 tons. It was a studied decision by a Belize government to limit BSI’s sugarcane production, to protect farmers, and both the sometimes-left-leaning PUP and the sometimes-capitalist UDP rejected increasing the company’s share. ASR eventually bought majority shares in BSI, about 80%, in 2012, after the impossible Banco Atlántida purchase proposal fell through.

One of the interests of the BSCFA in a new agreement is what it considers its just share of profits from BELCOGEN, the electricity-producing company owned by ASR/BSI. Some of the trash (bagasse), waste from the sugarcane after the juice is extracted, is utilized by the company to fuel its boilers. Prior to the setting up of a facility to produce electricity, the unutilized bagasse was a burden to the company.

BSI has argued that farmers had no interest in investing in BELCOGEN, so they really have no solid claims on the company’s success. But in 2014 the Amandala reported that “at a symposium held in Orange Walk in August 2001, cane farmers had expressed great interest in the new power generation option, especially in light of the gloomy prospects of falling returns from sugar exports on the world market.”

BSI would have access to more information than farmers, and they deserve to be rewarded for their excellent vision, but even if the farmers had had no interest in BELCOGEN when the company was formed, ASR/BSI cannot punish them in perpetuity for not having the foresight to join the initiative when the opportunity was offered. In 2014 a BSI representative said the 32.5-megawatt cogeneration BELCOGEN plant, which started producing electrical energy for the national grid in 2009, was yet to turn a profit. But that was nearly a decade ago. The company has insisted that to remain viable the quantum payment to farmers cannot exceed 51 cents per ton. All ASR/BSI has to do is open the books to the farmers, or GOB’s auditors, to prove their claim.

If farmers withheld their sugarcane, not only would BSI not be able to produce sugar and molasses, but its company, BELCOGEN, would not be able to produce electricity. Farmers could set up rudimentary animal-powered sugar mills and sell only cane juice to the factory at Tower Hill, while selling their bagasse, which amounts to about 30% of the biomass of sugarcane, to a farmers-owned plant set up to produce electricity. If that happened, BELCOGEN would be forced to shut down. But farmers are committed to selling their cane to ASR/BSI, and GoB wants the company to remain productive, so it wouldn’t support farmers going that route.

GoB has been generous with ASR/BSI in the past, allowing the company a 35% cut when it increased the controlled price of sugar in 2015, from 50 cents to 75 cents, a decision which got national support because of its benefits to our farmers. ASR/BSI has made strategic investments that have benefited farmers, notably the production of direct consumption sugars. But ASR/BSI remains intransigent, refuses to share vital information with its partners, the farmers, on the financial operations of the company.

In March, after the failure of a series of initiatives, including the hiring of a Special Consultant to the industry, GOB declared its appreciation of “the vital role of the miller and the marketer of Belize’s sugar” and introduced “a ministerial sub-committee to meet with BSI and BSCFA to chart a way forward for both sides to resolve their differences.” ASR/BSI needs to ease up on its hard position, and a proper understanding of its relationship with farmers would help in that direction. They have a partnership with the farmers, and the BSCFA, which controls 50% of the cane delivered to the factory, insists that the relationship be respected.

Ten guns?

A series of shocking murders, suspected Mexican cartel affiliates seeking employment on a road gang, a discovery by Customs personnel of a cache of unidentifiable weapons plus ammunition from an unknown sender in the US to an unknown receiver in Belize, a coca field found deep in the Toledo District — maybe none of those surprised Belizeans more than the exposé by Channel Seven that a young man who was tragically murdered last week had in his possession 10 licensed weapons. Owning a gun in Belize is a privilege, not a right. Wherefrom did this man, God rest his soul, get the privilege to own ten of them?

While we were under British rule, guns were generally limited to farmers, who needed shotguns for hunting and to protect farm animals from wild beasts. Police officers didn’t carry guns, but the transshipment of cocaine through our country has made our country a more dangerous place, and since the trade of illegal drugs, including marijuana, took hold, it is common to encounter lawmen armed with pistols and high-powered rifles.

Understandably, in these dangerous times, people who can afford a gun might pursue owning one. Business persons especially might want to own a gun, and the government might want to relax the rules for shotgun ownership by farming families, it being such a necessary tool for people who live in isolated areas. But until the people of Belize approve our becoming a country awash with citizens armed to the teeth, the only arsenals should be at Price Barracks, or the armory at the main Police Headquarters.

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