Headline — 21 September 2019 — by Rowland A. Parks
GOB declares partial state of emergency

The prolonged drought has caused losses to farmers in excess of $50 million dollars

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Sept. 19, 2019– The Government of Belize announced today at a Prime Ministerial press conference that it is declaring a partial state of emergency in the wake of the drought that has affected farmers, causing losses in excess of 50 million dollars, according to the estimates in the damage assessments compiled by the Ministry of Agriculture.

The declaration of the partial state of emergency has become necessary in order for government to access finance from the international financial system at concessionary rates to assist the agricultural sector.

Present at the head table were Prime Minister Dean Barrow; Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment and Sustainable Development, Hon. Godwin Hulse, and his Minister of State, Hon. Dr. Omar Figueroa; Governor of the Belize Central Bank, Joy Grant; the General Manager of the Development Finance Cooperation, Natalie Goff; and Chair of the Belize Bankers Association, Sandra Bedran.

Prime Minister Barrow, almost at the end of his presentation, announced that the Solicitor General is about to draft a Statutory Instrument (SI) that will be sent to the Governor General, under the Constitution, in terms of natural disasters.

That declaration will extend to the Belize, Cayo, Orange Walk and Corozal Districts, Barrow said.

That is what will help to unlock the funds from the CDB (Caribbean Development Bank), Barrow said. “Everybody wants to see the damage assessment, to be satisfied as to the extent of the disaster. They need that declaration of that state of emergency for them to move,” Barrow said.

“In making that declaration, we are doing no more than conceding or formalizing what is a fact. It is a fact, it is an emergency, as I said, and we can lose more than 50 million dollars,” Barrow declared.

“When farmers see their livelihood being squeezed and have no idea of how they will repay their loans, that is the quintessential definition, in my view, of an emergency,” said Barrow.

Barrow added, “So in addition to what Governor Grant, Mrs. Bedran, the commercial banks, the DFC and what the Ministry of Agriculture have come up with, there will be this additional inflow of financial assistance from certainly the CDB, and if we can swing it, perhaps, the CARICOM Fund and EFAD.”

Central Bank governor Joy Grant said that on September 2, they at the Central Bank realized that something had to be done for the farmers.

She said that they formed a working group which was comprised of the Ministry of Agriculture, the domestic banks, the credit unions, the Social Security Board and DFC; they all considered several options that they could take to help the farmers and ranchers.

Grant explained that of all the outstanding loans in the country, ten percent, or some 277 million dollars, are held by those in the agriculture sector.

In addition to the loans on the books, there have to be new loans to get them back on their feet.

Grant said that one of the first things that they decided on was to change the classification period for agricultural loans from 12 to 18 months.

“The agricultural sector is a risky sector; you have droughts, floods, pests and diseases and everything else, so within the banking sector, this is seen as a risk.

“So if we are going to help the farmers and ranchers, they will have to be given additional time to repay the loans they currently have,” Grant said.

She went on to state, “Farmers will be given an additional 12 months and in some exceptional cases, up to 18 months.”

The banks and credit unions have decided to reduce the risk ratio from 100 percent to 50 percent, and “this will have a real impact on the farmers and ranchers,” Grant said.

The group will continue to meet as a working group, she said.

Bedran said that the cost of tortillas and certain food items will go up, “like it or not.”

She said that they are very pleased that the Central Bank has agreed to give them time to work with the farmers.

Bedran congratulated the Prime Minister and Governor Grant for moving very swiftly to assist the farmers.

“If you read all the documentaries coming out in the international community going forward, food is going to be scarce, and if we are good at it, we can feed ourselves and our friends,” Bedran noted.

Goff said that at DFC, they have not had payments for a few years, but they are still working, that that is what a development bank does.

Goff commended her staff that has been on the ground since about mid-August, because they realized that there was an impact, and they were trying to do an assessment, with agriculture being one of their largest portfolios.

 “It has not been an easy task, and it will not be an easy task going forward,” she said.

“This morning, the DFC board approved some interim measures”, Goff said, “and they might have to be tweaked as they go along.”

Goff went on to explain that the DFC board is prepared to go up to 24-month-periods for agricultural loans, but that would have to get the approval of the Central Bank, which has set the approval for periods up to 18 months.

 “It is in our best interest for these loans to be repaid; if we don’t do this now, the investments we have on the ground, we will not recover, and we will also extend new financing of up to 24 months, depending on the need of the farmers,” she said.

 “I am heartened to hear about the discussion with the World Bank, because probably, we can set up some kind of disaster relief fund by the DFC, so that when things like this happen, we can be out there immediately to start helping our farmers, because, as I have said, more than 40 percent of our portfolio is in agriculture,” she went on to say.

Goff said that one of the DFC’s chief strategic objectives is to be climate-ready, and so they are looking to work with the Ministry of Agriculture to see how they can do climate-smart agriculture, and one of the initiatives is to have direct access to the Green Climate Fund, and they are well on their way there.

Minister Hulse said that it took some time for them to do the assessments, but they have been monitoring the drought since the end of May, when the rains would normally come.

 He explained that now they have all the farmers across the country registered digitally.

Minister Hulse said that at the ministry, they can see where every farm is located, that there are some 8,274 farms across the country, and 7,098 farmers, and the total acreage being farmed is 418,000 plus, and that is broken down by districts. Hulse said that they were able to see the damage on the ground.

Hulse explained that the only area where there were difficulties was in the sugar belt, where cane farmers were reluctant to register with the Ministry of Agriculture. Farmers in the north have until the end of October to register with the Ministry of Agriculture, he said.

In speaking about the effects of the drought on crops, Minister Hulse said that in the Cayo District, the crop which was most severely impacted was yellow corn. There were some 14,870 acres of yellow corn that were damaged.  “By damage, we mean reduced yield. 2,300 acres of yellow corn did not survive at all,” he said.

In Corozal, all the yellow corn was lost, and also in the Orange Walk District. Minister Hulse explained that there would be corn for people to consume locally, but the drought would affect our export of corn that we have been doing so well with.

In the soy bean sector, the Corozal District was the hardest hit, with roughly 7,400 acres completely lost. In Orange Walk, there was a loss of 2,400 acres of soy beans. Minister Hulse explained that soy bean is used for chicken feed.

Rice, red kidney beans and potatoes were not affected by the drought, Minister Hulse said, adding that livestock took a big hit:  60,300 heads of cattle were affected; they did not die, but they lost weight —around 50 pounds per head. “We will recover the cattle”, Minister Hulse said.

 “Citrus also took a hit, but the data is not in as yet, and will be in when the harvest begins”, Minister Hulse explained.

In the short term, Minister Hulse said, they will provide assistance, and in the medium term, the ministry is trying to promote regenerative agriculture.

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