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Maybe small sugarcane farmers should get their own factory

EditorialMaybe small sugarcane farmers should get their own factory

When, in 2015, the GOB approved a 50% increase in the controlled price of sugar sold on the local market, from 50 cents to 75 cents per pound, many believed the increase was entirely for farmers, who had been agitating for support because of the severely depressed price for sugar on the world market. But only 65% was for farmers; 35% was for the millers, ASR-BSI, consistent with the revenue-sharing agreement between the groups.

Arguably, their long pockets and their access to markets abroad were the reasons why our government (UDP) favored a foreign company holding majority shares in BSI. Just three years after buying majority shares in BSI, around 80%, ASR shouldn’t have needed assistance from the government and people of Belize because of a temporary fall in the price of sugar. ASR probably lucked into that share. GOB quite likely felt it had to include the local shareholders in the company when it reached into the pockets of Belizeans, and ASR “coat-tailed” them to its share of the “shuga.”

The late Richard Harrison, an economist, in a 2017 story “Belize – paying A.S.R. to own B.S.I.” that was published by Breaking News, calculated that the GOB “facilitated the way for us Belizeans to pay for ASR to own our sugar industry” when it approved special tax concessions for the company, and “raised the price of white sugar by $0.25 per pound.”

Our small farmers are losing ground yearly. This is the reason for the present impasse between ASR-BSI and BSCFA. The large farmers are eager for the season to begin. The small farmers, and some large farmers who support them, are demanding a change in the revenue-sharing agreement, one that gives farmers a larger share of the pie, and the millers aren’t budging.

The GOB has said that it’s not its place to intervene beyond facilitating the negotiations because the entities are private. While some consider that a cop out, the GOB is restrained by certain important conventions.

The divide between the millers and the small farmers might be too large to be bridged. In this environment where the GOB has its hands tied behind its back, it might behoove our leaders to look for other ways to help our small farmers. One way might be to facilitate the ownership of a factory by the small sugarcane growers.

Despite the hard times, Belizeans would quite likely support a small increase in the controlled price of sugar, solely for the benefit of small farmers. Mr. Harrison’s 2015 research showed that 37,620, 000 pounds of sugar is consumed locally, of which 26,334,000 pounds is plantation white. If the price of sugar is increased by 5 cents, $2 million per annum would be derived from local sales of 40 million pounds, for small farmers only, to help them pay for their factory.

Preposterous Waterloo

It could have been a ruse, Waterloo’s proposal to dump 7.5 million cubic meters of silt between the Turneffe Atoll and English Cay. Waterloo announced that a team of highly specialized environmental scientists had thoroughly researched the disposal of the silt in that area, and had declared it environmentally sound. Dumping the silt onshore and near shore could never approach the costs of dumping it ten to fifteen miles away in open sea. So, why wasn’t that proposal forwarded first, before the preposterous proposal to dump the material near our reef?

Some Belizeans weren’t very concerned about the environmental consequences. They were ready, eager, for the massive dredges to get on with the job. These individuals lost all reason when they heard $400 million, the estimated investment. That is a lot of money, and like a moth drawn to a flame, like a piece of steel drawn to a magnet, they were ready to say yes to the preposterous scheme.

We have to wonder about the Belizeans who knew this was a preposterous proposal, but still put their credibility on the line. For them, was it only about a pay day? Did they stop to consider that gullible Belizeans might have carried the day, and they would have been part of a sacrilege? Or were they certain that the Belizean people would never have entertained such a scheme?

For Waterloo, foreigners, the preposterous proposal had no consequences. If Belizeans were such suckers to go along, it was their country that would have been identified as hypocritical and stupid. And if they balked, why, all along the better deal for them was to dump the 7.5 million cubic meters of silt onshore, and near shore.

How this receivership that formed Waterloo got control of the Port of Belize (PBL) is as labyrinthine as the dealings over the ownership of BTL. To date, no one has gone beyond superficially unraveling the knots, the webs around these key Belizean assets. BTL ownership has been restored to Belizeans, at great cost, and after the United Democratic Party had milked every ounce of political mileage it could get from it. But key questions remain unanswered. Ditto for PBL. Belizeans don’t know what happened here, exactly how this receivership ended up with control of this vital asset.

Control Waterloo has, and now, after preposterously proposing to dump silt in the sea, preposterously threatening to call in the British government to intervene on their behalf, and preposterously charging members of the NEAC (National Environmental Appraisal Committee) with begging them for bribes, they are poised to reap the profits for decades, maybe centuries to come.

Interestingly, at the last consultation about its project proposal, Waterloo sang loudest about the many advantages to Belize if the bulk storage facilities at PBL were improved, this after it had stymied improvement of the facilities for a decade, this after declaring that bulk storage improvements would come ONLY IF it got its cruise terminal project approved.

Dumping silt onshore and near shore doesn’t carry near the risks that dumping it ten miles out at sea does. But there are risks. Some experts say the silt curtains Waterloo proposes to set up will not stop siltation of the inner reef between Port O’ Stuck and the Triangles, and deepening the channel near to Belize City will expose that area to more powerful waves when hurricanes hit.

Our people need jobs. But we must not sell ourselves short. If the NEAC is of the view that the environmental hurdles have been cleared, questions still have to be answered about what is in this Waterloo project for Belize. How much of that $400 million investment will go to purchase Belizean materials, hire Belizean-owned equipment, and employ Belizeans? How much tax will our people derive from a foreign-owned company that is led by one who has proven to be a poor corporate citizen, and has been questioned in his home country, the UK, for avoiding being taxed? Finally, what will little Belize City do with three cruise ports? In the cruise sector, will Waterloo just take away jobs from Port Coral on Stake Bank?

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