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CGA rejects grim outlook for citrus

GeneralCGA rejects grim outlook for citrus

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. May 25, 2023

Citrus is going nowhere. It’s here to stay. That is the overarching message embodied in a press release from the Citrus Growers Association (CGA) which comes after recent comments in the press by government officials pointing to a decline – if not an imminent collapse – of the citrus industry. CGA feels that even uttering such a forecast puts investments in production, processing and marketing in the citrus industry at risk. In its lengthy May 22 statement, it explains in detail all the challenges the Belize citrus industry has faced in recent years, but also highlights the great effort that has gone into ensuring a rebound.

The Statistical Institute of Belize has been consistently recording the citrus decline as shared in their periodical trade reports. Just in March this year, Tiffany Vasquez, Statistician II, reported at a press conference that citrus exports have taken “an unfortunate turn.” She detailed that “after a long, drawn-out battle with disease and, of late, labour challenges and the significant input cost of fuel and fertilizers, orange and grapefruit concentrate export earnings went from $143 million in 2012 to $27 million in 2022.” The decline in the citrus industry was therefore common knowledge, but the characterization that the industry was on its last and could eventually actually disappear is what the CGA took umbrage with.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister John Briceño said potential investors looking to plant bamboo were turning to several thousands of acres of land that were for citrus but were “kinda abandoned.” Stann Creek West Area Representative, Hon. Rodwell Ferguson came after and told the media that in the last 15 years, the citrus industry started to decline, and people moved form once bustling Pomona Valley to seek employment elsewhere. He remarked, “There’s a complete decline of the citrus industry. I could remember when I was working in the company, it peaked [at] 8 million boxes one year. This year, it will be less than 1 million boxes of production which is totally dismal.” Asked by a reporter if there would ever come a time when we could lose the citrus industry – that it could cease to exist, Ferguson responded, “Well it’s about almost to decease, because if you go through the Valley right now, everybody is now pushing down their citrus to plant coconut or pineapple…coming off oranges completely.”

CGA opened its release emphasizing that the Belize citrus industry “has with sturdy resilience served our country for more than 100 years. In so doing, it has contributed immensely to the national GDP, nutrition and wellness, foreign exchange earnings, the national social security fund, and the creation of thousands of jobs that continue the transformation of urban and rural communities where Belizeans of all walks of life raise families. Successive generations of farmers, agronomists, engineers, truckers, factory workers, and public officers have together fought for and achieved numerous important successes.”

CGA then proceeded to explain in detail the hardships the industry has endured since it peaked in 2008 with those 8 million boxes of production from 65,000 acres of citrus groves. At the time, the forecast was for an increase in production to 13 million boxes in 2013, but then the industry was hit by HLB disease, which along with climate change and adverse weather conditions crippled the industry. Going into 2020, production had gone down to a mere 3.2 million boxes. CGA says while other citrus producing countries facing similar challenges were assisted by their governments, in Belize, hardly any economic or technical support was provided. According to the CGA, it was growers who, on their own, went about replanting 1.3 million new trees in 5 years with the objective of growing production by 3 million boxes in the next 3 years.

The dire conditions in the fields were compounded by an abrupt loss of migrant labour when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As a result, crops remained unharvested. Unable to sell their product, CGA says, farmers “immediately lost revenue necessary to maintain and return inputs into their farms. Losses amounted to some 4.5 million boxes, translating to $60 million between 2020 and 2022, not including those huge losses suffered by our processor, CPBL. The labor shortage persisted up to February of this year when government implemented a remedy for migrant work permits. However, by then most of this year’s crop was already lost.”

Looking to the future, CGA says recent Government support measures it deems as progressive and timely “will immediately return the industry to a state of renewed confidence and sustainability that will provide for the wellbeing of our communities including farmers, employees, and the country at large, guaranteeing the future of our industry for another 100 years and beyond.” This includes a replanting program featuring 500,000 plants per year for the next five years, a revolving fertilizer fund and a price stabilization fund. Presently, CGA reports there are some 20,000 acres of citrus groves that can produce 3 million boxes within the next two years.

CGA also points out that the industry boasts the “largest and most modern citrus processing facility capable of processing over 10 million boxes annually, together with the largest cold storage facility in Central America and the Caribbean.” Additionally, it notifies that the largest coconut processing facility of its kind is being constructed in addition to “already established citrus, pineapple, soursop, and cattle feed processing operations. In preparation of its rehabilitation CPBL is establishing a state-of-the-art plant nursery with a capacity of 150,000 citrus plants of various HLB tolerant varieties.”

Inside the House of Representatives on Friday, May 19, Dangriga, Sarawee and Hope Creek Area Representative, Hon. Dr. Louis Zabaneh spoke about the diversification at CPBL for the production of an array of juices as opposed to citrus-only. He added, though, that demand for citrus remains strong, especially in the Caribbean. Interestingly, he said, “after COVID, many people began to recognize the health benefits of citrus products – oranges, grapefruits, limes, etc. So, the forecast for prices for citrus is very strong.” He prognosticated that with everything that is being done to bring back the citrus industry, it “will have a bright future.”

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