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BSCFA to PM: “Stay pan track, or we’ll put you on it!”

GeneralBSCFA to PM: “Stay pan track, or we’ll put you on it!”

Photo: (l to r) Prime Minister John Briceño; Alfred Ortega, Chairman of the Committee of Management, BSCFA; and Javier Keme, Chairman of BSCFA Financial Committee

The members of the Belize Sugarcane Farmers Associations (BSCFA) condemn statements from the Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño, that proper consultation was not executed in the creation of the Sugar Industry Commission of Inquiry.

by Marco Lopez

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Mar. 21, 2024

The Commissioner of Inquiry (COI) into the Sugar Industry was approved and gazetted on March 19, 2024. The Prime Minister signed off on the terms of reference and appointment of the commissioners on that day. Today, however, the Prime Minister is uncertain if this deep dive into the sugar industry will take place. Following the announcement, the Belize Sugar Industry Ltd. (BSI/ASR) released a statement announcing that they would forego any participation in the process.

That multinational company, the mill, which processes and markets the sugar produced from sugarcane cultivated by the cañeros of the north, is refusing to take part in the process.

Its release states, “BSI has no intention of being compelled to produce proprietary and confidential commercial information, the rights over which are protected by law.”

Prime Minister John Briceño, during an interview last week, claimed that the terms of reference drafted were only in favor of the Belize Sugarcane Farmers Association (BSCFA). These comments rubbed the BSCFA the wrong way. They called a press conference and released a statement reminding PM Briceño of his commitments made to the cane farmers to resolve the seemingly never-ending impasse earlier this year.

The PM claims that proper consultation was not carried out with all the stakeholders – especially, BSI/ASR, and the other cane farmer associations. (There are 3 other associations)

The leadership of the BSCFA, however, has made it clear that for their part, they made several attempts to bring those parties to the table – all of which were denied.

Javier Keme, Chairman of BSCFA Financial Committee, during the press conference said, “He (the PM) went far enough to say that proper consultation – and this was absurd – that he got this information from the other associations; he went to visit the other associations and [was informed] that they were not consulted.

“As Mr. Fred said, consultations were widely done; two associations chose to participate, which are the Northern Association and the BSCFA. Progressive and Producers and BSI chose not to participate,” he continued.

Keme pointed out that the PM’s comments, asserting that proper consultations were not carried out with the mill, do not align with the fact that BSI was given the option to choose two commission members.

The BSCFA called the comments made by the PM “back peddling” on what was already promised, and chalked up the PM’s remarks as outright lies.

The PM, for his part, said that he is ignoring, and has never really listened to the BSCFA’s emotional rants.

“I don’t listen to them. The issue of the Commission of Inquiry, I said to them that we are going to do it in one month; but one month later it came to my attention that there was not consultations with the associations and now BSI. If we had not done that, then it would have gone to court and be squashed immediately. I was looking after their interest,” PM Briceño claims.

Now, with the refusal of the mill to participate in the process, it is unclear whether the COI established just three days ago will become operational.

BSI/ASR has always claimed that the COI seeks to pierce the veil of corporate secrecy behind which the company’s private information and dealings reside.

According to the attorney for the mill, Godfrey Smith, the COI’s purpose is – in his opinion – to “dig into BSI guts.”

When asked if the body would proceed with its work, the PM said, “I don’t know, because with the Commission of Inquiry you can’t force them to participate. I don’t want to be listening to one group; and if we can’t listen to others in the industry, then it is of no use. What BSCFA has done is play in the hands of other people because of thinking emotionally instead of looking at the facts and how we can get things done. They have refused to listen, and this is the result.”

Alfred Ortega, Vice-Chairman of BSCFA, during an interview today, said that it is not impractical to request BSI/ASR to open its books to the Commission.

“Whenever a Belizean opens a small business, and the GST gets to know that there is a small business, what do they do? They come directly to the business and start an investigation to have that person pay their GST. So, if they can do that to the small businesses, why can’t they do that to the multinationals? Why is it that we believe that this should be done to the multinational? Because they have enjoyed things that we as Belizeans have not enjoyed. They enjoyed 10 years of complete tax relief, so they are not participating in paying their taxes to the country. Why is it then, that our government, we as Belizeans cannot look into what their investments are and what they are investing,” Ortega pointed out.

He outlined that if the mill truly considers the farmers partners in the industry, it should be an issue for the company to show the true cost of the services they are offering.

The COI exercise, according to the PM and BSCFA, is to be used to set the foundation to develop a modern sugar industry with updated legislation.

The persons appointed to the COI include Wayne Piper, Robert Marriette, Vinod Ramharai, Jeffery Joseph, Andy Church, and Simon Gibbons. Piper was named as the Chairman of the Commission.

The 14-point terms of reference cover a vast range of issues, some specifically seeking to assess the costs of various processes within the industry. It must be noted that, while BSI has persistently played a victim card in the hope of keeping its “commercial information” to itself, Santander, another multinational mill, will also be a part of the COI, and has made no public statement airing any discontent.

Alongside the issues surrounding the Commission of Inquiry, the BSCFA is also calling on the government to take action concerning the judgment delivered in early March declaring five provisions in the Sugar Industry Import/Export regulations null and void. The BSCFA believes that the government has the option of either appealing the judgment or amending legislation to bring the regulations in line with the constitutional rights of the claimants.

Their March 14 two-page press release states in closing, “The BSCFA calls on the Prime Minister to ‘STAY PAN TRACK’ and to appeal the judgment on the regulations and to establish the Commission of Inquiry forthwith, or shall BSCFA have to remind him where is ‘THE TRACK.’”

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