The strain on our reserves was significantly lessened earlier this week when the foreign holders of the so-called Super Bond agreed to a deferral of the US$13 million that was due. The amount will be tacked on to the capital we owe, to be paid at a later date. Our government justified the request for the relief with the claim of COVID-19 induced financial stress, but the truth is that we would have been scratching around for the funds to meet this obligation even if our economy had not been hurt by the pandemic. Belize has been in recession for about a year now, partly because diseases have decimated our citrus and farmed shrimp, and partly because of the way our government invested our resources.
In response to a query last week by Krem’s News Editor, Ms. Marisol Amaya, about rumors of an imminent pay cut for employees of the government, the Prime Minister said that we were not in an enviable position, but there would be no pay cuts, “providing that we have the elections when we are supposed to” — which means, no pay cuts while he holds “the reins.”
The last two times we heard a leader of Belize’s government speak so despairingly about our finances were a couple months ago, at a virtual press conference held by PM Barrow, and back in 1984. Before the 1984 general election, former Prime Minister, Hon. George Cadle Price, told the nation we were in serious economic difficulties because our government was collecting insufficient revenues, a situation similar to what we are facing now, but very different in magnitude. Back in 1984 we needed BZ$3million; in 2020 we need at least a hundred times that.
We are less than one hundred days before a government not led by the present prime minister addresses the tough economic reality in our country. The new government, the Prime Minister suggests, will not be able to duck, as he has. If/when salaries are cut, it is not only the pockets of the government’s employees that will be hurt. In every sector the pain from such a surgery will be felt, from the house helper to the food vendor.
There’s no looking back for Belize now, no time to dwell on our failures, or how we invested our funds without one thought about the possibility of facing a day like the one we face now.
Things are tough, things are going to get tougher, but there’s a lot we can do to right our ship, if we have the will. Our first need is food, nutritious food, and fortunately for us we don’t have to look outside our country for that.
Belizeans across this land would have good food on their table if we solved our food distribution problem, which drives up cost, and our food preservation problem, which discourages production. A single small farmer can flood Belize with vegetables. We have seen a few of our small farmers supply potatoes and onions for the entire country during the period of the year when those crops grow well in Belize.
We must invest in the preservation of our vegetables and potatoes and fruits, and we must stimulate the production, processing and preservation of milk. We are capable of dominating the shelves in the grocery stores with products “Made in Belize”, if our leaders spent less time focusing on enriching themselves and put their energies behind the people.
There is no need for all of us to become full-scale farmers, but we do need a revolution to help address our food distribution problem. Folks in the cities and towns who are desirous of working a small parcel, and village folk who have been inactive because they are discouraged, can produce food to subsidize their incomes and improve the meals on their tables.
We must find land to give to people who want a parcel to farm, land that is suitable for agriculture —not land that is low-grade, because cultivating land that isn’t good for farming leads to frustration. There have been calls to downsize our forest reserves to satisfy our need for land, but that is not our most viable option.
There should be less talk of de-reserving land that has been set aside primarily for environmental reasons. It makes sense that we maximize production on land we have already deforested before we consider more cutting of our primary forests.
Land under forest cover makes an invaluable contribution to the financial and physical health of our people and country. Forests protect our water supply, our soil, and our air quality; forests provide medicine, prevent desertification, and enhance tourism; forests provide a home for the other creatures of the earth that we were meant to share the planet with; forests are worth more than gold or oil.
One way the government can make land available at this time for people who want to plant is by leasing from private owners who have good, accessible land that is not being used. This will satisfy the critical need while government sets about finding good land for distribution.
Government can also acquire land from private owners. Privately owned large tracts under forest cover have the same “green” value as land in reserve, and there is the added benefit of taxes the government collects; however if the taxes are too low, or the owners don’t pay, the ownership should be revisited.
If private owners of large tracts don’t pay their taxes, then the government should reacquire the lands in lieu of the taxes and, after distributing a portion to small farmers, if the land is especially suited for such purpose, the remainder should be put in reserve, or sold to owners who will preserve the forest and pay the taxes because they are good citizens.
Taxation is an essential tool. In respect to land, taxing is delicate because too high taxes can drive away development. Properly, taxation should steer land into the hands of those who can put it to its best use, for the good of all, all the while keeping in mind that we develop at a pace that doesn’t exclude Belizeans, the very ones the development is supposed to be for.
There are harder times up ahead. Twice the Prime Minister has told us so. Our people in the cities and towns especially will need a plot to plant. One day our big economic engines will fire on all cylinders again; this small-scale production can help sustain us until such time.