Last Friday, at the first House of Representatives meeting called by the new government, the Minister of Finance, Economic Development and Investment, Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño, introduced supplementary budgets for road repairs, the battle against Covid-19, and the Grocery Basket for Belizeans who lost their jobs because of the pandemic, but put off any major measures to address the critical financial situation the country is in. PM Briceño said his government has set up an Economic Recovery Advisory Team, and in respect to the wage bill and the pension bill, which he says account for about 80% of the present budget, he and his team will be sitting down with the unions before deciding on what steps to take to “cover this huge crater.”
The PM also introduced a motion to start the work on delivering on his party’s promise to implement good governance practices. The people of Belize are encouraged to see the new government immediately setting about that task, and they will be on them “like white on rice” to see that they deliver on these good governance practices expeditiously.
Hon. Hyde says people who don’t have land will get, but none available in prime locations
Land is a nation’s greatest resource, and it is the duty of our governments to get this asset into the hands of people who would put it to its best use, for housing, for farming and other industries — doing so all the while with a concern for the environment, and an eye on imbalances that exist because of land policies that were skewed in favor of the elites during colonial times, as well as the corruption and poor planning of our modern leaders.
Minister of Natural Resources, Petroleum and Mining, Hon. Cordel Hyde, said in the House of Representatives last Friday that the new government’s priority in its approach to land policy is to make landowners of the tens of thousands of Belizeans who don’t own a piece of the Jewel, and the biggest problem they are facing in this endeavor is that the land hogs have grabbed all the best lands. Hon. Hyde said, “we might have to go outside of the cities and towns a bit to get land; there are no more lands left in the cities and towns, unless we are looking to take away lands and give to others, and we are not in that business.”
Hon. Hyde and his team do not have an easy task. In the interest of providing house lots to people living in Belize City, the previous government paid $6 million to a landowner for a parcel that could provide 130 lots. Effectively, the Belizean people paid $46,000 to provide a single house lot to a first- time land owner — a grandiose, unsustainable initiative.
The most repeated phrase to remind political leaders of their fallibility was coined by an Englishman, Lord Acton. He said: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The most repeated phrase in the real estate business, of uncertain coinage, is “location, location, location.” A million acres on the moon is not worth a house lot in Hopkins, not now, not in the near future, maybe not ever.
Generally, the farther away land is from urban areas, the cheaper it is to purchase, but that advantage is greatly eroded by the increased cost of access.
The government will be able to find this cheaper land, but its benefit to the masses will be curtailed if transportation costs remain high. This cost is a concern for all, especially small farmers, and many prospective first-time landowners are hopeful of owning a small parcel to farm on. If the present government doesn’t want the big farmers to finish gobbling up the lands of small farmers, and owners of house lots to sell theirs, it will have to seek creative solutions to address the cost of transportation. It can be done. It all depends on the kind of country we want.
Minister Mai said “no” to foreign cheddar
The call in the House of Representatives last Friday by the Minister of Agriculture, Food Security, and Enterprise, Hon. Jose Mai, for Belizeans to buy products labeled “Made in Belize” is not new, but we are not aware that it has ever been made so forcefully. Minister Mai said that Belizean farmers are having difficulty selling their milk and cheese because there is a glut of foreign-made milk and cheese in the grocery stores, and he declared that the importation of these products will cease until the products of local farmers have been sold. (He later said the government had no intention to ban the importation of a specific type of milk and certain cheeses.)
Minister Mai explained that the reason that certain foreign products are outcompeting locally made ones is that the tariffs are skewed to our disadvantage.
All nations encourage their people to purchase products made at home, and they find creative ways to dissuade the importation/competition of foreign goods, but Western countries do not have carte blanche to block importation of goods to force support of goods produced at home. If the government did issue a ban on cheddar, such a ban wouldn’t last long. Hopefully, the aborted call will have the effect of making more Belizeans understand why successful nations support goods produced at home.
By now Belizeans must know that our cash reserves are severely strained, and must grasp the implications of a total economic collapse. Belize is presently borrowing close to $1 million a day to meet its bills, and that cannot continue for much longer.
The call from Minister Mai comes from a state of desperation, and we are fairly sure that our main trade partners, those who import our sugar, citrus, bananas, and marine products, did not feel threatened.
Belize must make greater effort to be more productive, and competitive. The main competition for fresh milk produced locally is UHT milk, mostly the LaLa brand, which has the advantage that it can be stored for months without refrigeration. The present supply of local milk could be bought by the government and included in the Grocery Basket, if it had better shelf life.
The government must put in place the incentives to get more farmers and manufacturers involved in the production of milk and its products. Belize has been consuming in excess of $20 million worth of milk and milk products since the turn of the century, and if the government is bold, we can meet our needs locally within five years, and then turn to the Caribbean for sale of our excess milk, cheese, and butter.