It was a rich harvest. And there we were, swinging from limb to limb, like happy little monkeys pulling fruits from trees. Those who didn’t have the agility to climb could be found scampering like squirrels, collecting fruits from the floor of this Cayo orchard. From here, the sun-ripened delights would be sold and shipped for processing somewhere else, finally ending up on someone’s table as fresh oranges or a nutritious cup of juice.
I wasn’t the happiest tree climber or the fastest picker, I admit. But I did pull my weight in the heat of the day. While we worked, the sweet fragrance of golden oranges filled the air, energizing our activity among the rows of healthy, green trees that stretched endlessly to the horizon.
At the end of each workday, I walked home alongside the older boys with a feeling of accomplishment, knowing that I was contributing to the harvest. And even though my grandmother would give me money on the weekend for entertainment, it gave me great pride to know that through my own efforts, I could attend Sunday matinee at the San Ignacio Cinema, where we would watch Bruce Lee squash his enemies on the big screen.
Rodwell Ferguson (Hon.) and his committee had organized a “fact-finding” mission to the Citrus Growers’ Association (CGA) and I was invited to attend. This was in the middle of 2003 when I was in the service of the Government and people of Belize. You must understand that the Stann Creek West Committee of that time was an energized group of persons who were honest in their quest to find economic opportunities for the upliftment of their constituency.
The determined group came up with lots of practical solutions that made me smile. But there were lots of fuzzy ideas floating around too! Everything from trekking tourists to hidden waterfalls, processing cacao into Maya chocolate bars and flying hot air balloons over the area were being considered. And of course, citrus from the nutrient-rich soils of the Stann Creek Valley had to be a part of any economic development plan. So this was how the visit to the CGA evolved.
The then principals at the CGA headquarters laid the story bare for us. Belizean citrus had lots of room for growth and untold potential for foreign exchange earnings if managed carefully. However, nature’s challenges and undermining efforts by mischievous actors were a growing threat. Other intricate details about the industry also emerged. For example, it was the women of the villages who were more willing to get into the orchards to earn a good wage as pickers, so there was always a shortage of labor at harvest time. Lots more information was shared, which I would never divulge. Safe to say that the industry at that time was fragile.
Should we be surprised that our citrus industry is on life support today?
Foreign exchange earnings have dropped to worrying figures. Nature’s wrath wreaks havoc on many of our orchards. There is bickering in private quarters. Mischievous actors are obviously still at work. A lot of name-calling is going on. Official economic assistance has waned. Anger is spilling out on the airwaves. And by all accounts, the sweet harvests are in bitter decline. Where will it end?
Family-owned businesses, cooperative enterprises and small farmers are champions of the Belizean economy today and in the future. There is no better time to redouble our efforts and give the small citrus growers full support so that they and their children are not squeezed out of an honest livelihood.
We need to do this because a lot more is at stake than just a little boy who wants to attend Sunday matinee.