On December 15, 2020, a little after a month in office, the new government (PUP) announced that it had constituted a task force, an Economic Recovery Advisory Team, to “make recommendations to engineer sustainable economic activity, protect and create jobs…” It isn’t known how much influence this task force had on the new budget that was presented earlier this month, but since two top members of the new government are on the high profile team, we have to expect that the group wasn’t ignored.
In February, 2021, the government announced that it had amended the Central Bank Act to allow the bank “to provide for emergency programs and facilities in unusual and exigent economic, financial or systemic circumstances…” Prime Minister Briceño said the move would lead to an injection of $50 million worth of low-interest loans into the economy — to be issued to businesses (persons/companies) that create jobs and earn foreign exchange.
The task force hasn’t presented its recommendations, certainly not to the Belizean people, but we expect the group will have considerable say regarding who gets a loan out of the $50 million. Because most of the group’s members belong to the elite in Belize’s business world, we have reason to worry that they will recommend that the lion’s bite out of these cheaper funds go to big tourism and big agriculture. We have to hope that that doesn’t happen.
Every person in our country knows we are in great need of jobs, and foreign exchange. Despite big tourism and big agriculture traditionally being our biggest foreign exchange earners, at their most productive they have not been providing a respectable standard of living for all our people. A big part of our problem is that the great bulk of the earnings of big agriculture and big tourism end up in the bank accounts of “big” people, and the masses are left to survive off the crumbs.
Our country needs jobs, good-paying jobs, and for the tourism industry to satisfy that need, it can’t be that we invest most of our money in the big players, because they are only looking for cooks, waiters, and guides. Belize does get considerable foreign exchange earnings from big tourism, but a lot leaks out, never comes to our shores.
Belize needs a moratorium on big tourism, and while that is happening, the bulk of investment in the industry must be directed to our small entrepreneurs, the kind of entrepreneurs who were the leaders of the industry when we were nature’s best kept secret. As owners, Belizeans will be making more money, and more of the foreign exchange the industry earns will arrive, and stay in Belize.
In respect to foreign exchange earnings and big agriculture, no research has been done to show how much of what the SIB says the industry earns, stays in Belize.
Belizean/American entrepreneur, Mr. John Carr, in a paper that was published in the Belize Ag Report in 2010, showed the breakdown for the cost of production of corn, and using his numbers, we see that of the $709 that a farmer spent to produce one acre of mechanized corn in 2010, more than 50% was expended on inputs from abroad – for the purchase of seeds, fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and butane for drying the grain.
Looking at big agriculture, a considerable portion of the costs to produce a crop is also attributed to purchases of foreign inputs. The banana industry has been the most dependent on foreign inputs, the most costly one being fungicides, but sugarcane and citrus have, unfortunately, been catching up.
Monoculture, which involves huge acreages of forest being razed and planted out to single crops, uses large quantities of imported fertilizers, and the system inevitably leads to greater problems with weeds, diseases and insects/nematode pests, problems that can only be addressed by the purchase of agro-chemicals, which we don’t make, which we have to buy from abroad.
With markets opening up in Guatemala and Mexico, livestock is becoming a major foreign-exchange earner. That industry is not as dependent on foreign inputs as our other major foreign exchange earners in agriculture are; however, we must decide how much of our precious forest we will give up to produce beef.
In respect to jobs, big agriculture has always been a form of peonage. The majority of workers in big agriculture get minimum wage, and when big agriculture can get away with it, it hires people who don’t have “papers”, so it pays less.
Belize needs a moratorium on big agriculture. Our large citrus groves do need to be rehabilitated, but there shouldn’t be bulldozing of more of our forests to expand the big agro industries. The only loans big agriculture should get should be to improve drainage and irrigation on existing farms, so that we get maximum results from the expensive inputs we buy from abroad.
With a budget that is as lean as we’ve seen for a long time, with the government having to cut salaries of its employees and make cuts in many other areas to try and make up for a shortfall of revenues, we must make every penny count. This $50 million that is being made available at the lowest interest rates in the country, must be steered away from those who are “big”; we must direct most of it to our small entrepreneurs.
Our small sugarcane and citrus farmers need some of that money, and Belizeans who want to develop their small parcels should also get loans. Our agronomists, entomologists, and pathologists must teach our small farmers how to be productive without being too dependent on foreign inputs.
Import substitution to reduce our dependency on foreign exchange has to be emphasized. For more than a generation, Mr. Bill Lindo has been insisting that our people cannot earn decent wages if we don’t manufacture more of the goods that we consume. The produce of our small farmers that isn’t exported to earn foreign exchange, must be processed and sold on the shelves in our shops, and used to make feed for our shrimp and tilapia and pets.
Much of this cheaper money must also be made available to our artists, so that they can create products to sell to the thousands of tourists who come to our shores, and to the millions of people abroad who now know about Belize. Big agriculture and big tourism, they have been/are big engines in our economy, but they are not the big winners they seem to be. Our cheaper money must be invested in our small entrepreneurs. That’s the way all of us will win.