The Government of Belize cannot allow the CGA (Citrus Growers Association) to fail. The body is indebted to the gills, and if the government doesn’t intervene with some urgent financial assistance it will go into bankruptcy. We won’t go into all of the history here, but a few years ago the government did steer the Social Security Board to lend citrus farmers $10 million to help them replant groves that had been decimated by Citrus Greening, a disease that began to concern citrus growers around 2010.
Farmers, on the advice of the CGA and its research department, CREI (Citrus Research and Education Institute), bought plants certified free of the disease, and they followed all other recommendations. Citrus takes about five years before it starts producing fruits commercially, and growers say that before the new plants were three years old, 50% of them were already showing signs of the disease. This was a major blow.
Some countries have shown how farmers can successfully grow citrus. In China, where they’ve known of the disease since the 1940s, they plant disease-free stock, remove diseased trees on detection, and try to control the insect (psyllid) that is the vector of the disease. In Costa Rica they have increased the density of plants in new groves. More plants mean more of them make it to the production stage.
Researchers in Florida have developed genetically modified citrus that is resistant to Citrus Greening, but those, as far as we know, not only aren’t yet registered for planting in Florida, they are NOT being considered for use in Belize. In Florida they have also developed tolerant varieties, but bacteria is known to mutate, so tolerant plants alone are not sufficient to ensure success. In Florida they are also contemplating the heavy use of antibiotics, but there is serious resistance from scientists about this.
There is a new guide to producing citrus in Belize, and this one is better than the last one because the new varieties of plants being used are not only free of Citrus Greening, but they also reportedly have some tolerance to the disease. There is a lot more certainty now in the industry, as much of that as there can be under the sun.
The CGA has been using budwood from the citrus varieties developed in Florida that show tolerance to the disease, to produce stock for Belize. These plants cost more than the non-tolerant varieties, and our reports are that stocks are limited; only the big growers can get plants at this time.
In Belize, farmers are being told to push down entire infected groves and start over, or to find new areas to plant. It is not impossible that it will emerge that citrus orchards on large acreages are of the past. Orchards on large acreages have advantages in many of the physical aspects of production, but the tremendous disturbance of the environment makes them hotbeds for insect pests and diseases. The insect/disease pests are few in the initial stages, and farmers can effectively control the problems with practices that include the use of pesticides, but over time the pests and diseases increase and the costs of controlling them exceed the profit from the enterprise.
Citrus farmers have to replant. The trouble is that the majority of them are small growers and they don’t have the resources to do so. Ironically, it may be that the small ten-acre citrus, sugarcane, and banana farms are the only feasible way of production in the future. That future could very well be now.
At the Amandala we believe in the small, independent citrus, sugarcane, and rice growers of Belize. A good farmer on fertile land with ten acres of citrus planted on it has enough backbone to support the independent fabric of our country. The small farmers will need to be involved in other endeavors to supplement their income, but their children will have fresh fruits and other farm produce every morning, and they will have jobs to weed and prune and harvest fruits for the market. This is the Belize we believe in. This is the Belize we must preserve. The big farmers can largely take care of themselves. The small farmers need government.
Let’s get this very clear: if the CGA folds, the Stann Creek Valley, as we know it, comes to an end. The big citrus growers will have a celebratory drink, for the future of citrus in Belize will be entirely dictated by them. This demise of CGA was what the big growers contemplated when they broke away and formed the Citrus Mutual, a growers association that no longer had to listen to what the small growers in the industry were saying.
This is a coup playing out here, because the big growers will end up in total control of two citrus factories, one in Pomona and one in Alta Vista —factories that became the properties of all citrus growers through the intervention of the government on behalf of the people of Belize.
We don’t believe in the trickle down, crumbs-throwing vision of this government. We don’t trust them when it comes to the small farmers of Belize. The Minister of Agriculture and his CEO are “big boys” lovers, and the sugarcane industry and the citrus industry and the rice industry are clear evidence of their style. They don’t care a whit if the small citrus growers end up taking orders from the big boys’ Citrus Mutual.
Belize is being steered to a place where local and foreign-owned big enterprises will have full control of the agro industries and tourism. Belizeans will work either for the big enterprises or for the government. Belizeans who insist on being self-employed will only be able to find avenues as small food vendors, or as subsistence farmers and fisher folk. That is the new Belize that our leaders are carving out for us, and we don’t like it.
The government must help the CGA and all small farmers. It can’t be that things are so bad with us that the only concessionary funds we can get from bi-lateral and multi-lateral lenders are for building roads. The government must find the funds to help the CGA and all small farmers.