The Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprise, Hon. Abelardo Mai, and his Ministry, are unquestionably 100% committed to protecting the interests of Belizean farmers. Those who are cynical after decades of hearing our leaders promise to protect local producers, and not back it up, only have to read about the less-than-perfect carrots that were forced upon the market last week.
Vendors and consumers complained about the poor quality and the high price of the locally produced carrots in the market, but the ministry held firm, and would not allow for the importation of better carrots.
The products of Belizean farmers are usually of the highest quality, and on the matter of the less-than- the-best carrots, the ministry, while essentially telling complainers to suck it up because we are not veering off the path of protecting local produce, has explained that the farmers were not alone to blame. The ministry promised that better quality carrots would soon be in the marketplace.
It is good that our leaders are sticking with Belizean producers through thick and thin, at last. It’s been a long time coming.
We cannot, however, greet the recent shipment of corn to Guatemala with similar enthusiasm, not because anything is wrong with us trading with our neighbor, but because selling raw products is not the best way for us to do business, and because of large-scale farming’s toll on our environment.
Exporting raw sugar, citrus products, bananas, and beef, primarily the first three, became the backbone of our economy after the decline of forestry, and raw produce remained our mainstay until just a decade and a half ago, when tourism climbed to number one. It’s necessary to recognize the value of selling raw agricultural commodities, for this is how our country has survived for decades, but we also have to note that our country has never thrived. Thriving is a dream of all Belizeans, a dream that has been promised by dozens of our leaders, but never delivered.
Highly regarded engineer and economist, Bill Lindo, writing on his blog on October 26, in an article titled “Time to end servitude,” said that only 5% of Belizeans are earning a livable wage, and “this lack of income for the vast majority of Belizeans is the fundamental problem facing our country.” Lindo says manufacturing is the “only sector that can pay higher wages,” and the sector is contributing less to our economy than it did in 1970. Lindo’s research shows manufacturing is contributing only 16% of our GDP, when in a properly functioning economy it “should be at least 38% of GDP”.
The most notable news out of the agricultural sector this week is this shipping of 500 metric tons of corn to Guatemala, and that, coupled with the excitement these past months over accessing markets in Mexico and Guatemala for our beef, has some in the sector in glee.
If history has valid lessons, we can expect our big farmers will be thinking of expanding their corn and beef production, and the easiest way to do that is to fell more vast acreages of virgin forest. If history has valid lessons for us, this is the likely path of the big entrepreneurs, and our government will encourage them.
Large-scale agriculture remains one of our country’s major foreign exchange earners; it provides the US dollars that we use to buy medicines from the big pharmacies in the world, materials to build houses and roads, pesticides and fertilizers to produce crops to sell abroad, machines and other tools, and luxury goods.
Large-scale agriculture is a vehicle that has enriched quite a few people, some of whom, disappointingly, dodge paying their fair share of taxes. Large-scale agricultural enterprises hire many Belizeans, but, unfortunately, the employees are prominent among the 50% plus of us who aren’t earning livable wages. In our terrible economic state, any honest job will do, but even in the best of times, large-scale agriculture pays the bare minimum to the maximum of its workers.
Without doubt, large-scale agriculture continues to contribute greatly to the development of Belize, but because its growth has always been tied to sending in the heavy bulldozers and chains to tear down more “bush” —virgin forest which makes great contributions to the economy of Belize, we should take a pause.
We need to look more closely at the value of our forests. The WWF estimates that our barrier reef is worth more than half a billion US dollars annually. What is our forest worth? There is an environment to consider here. The earnings from big agriculture are important, but they must be weighed carefully against the silent earnings of the forest.
Every “headwaters” in Belize is a forested area, and every activity that isn’t healthy for the forest negatively impacts the sea, the reef, the rivers, and lagoons. The roots of trees conserve water, and their canopies shelter the land, preventing desertification. The forest provides game, medicines, firewood, lumber, year after year after year.
There is also our number one industry, tourism, to consider. That industry is heavily dependent on the expanse and beauty of our forest.
Fortunately, if our leaders insist the way forward is more production of raw products, not manufacturing, that increased production doesn’t have to mean felling more virgin forest at this time. Before we fell more trees, we have to look at how efficiently we are using the thousands and thousands of acres that we already have under cultivation. We have to look at ways to increase crop yields and pounds of beef per unit area.
We need a moratorium on felling large acreages of virgin forest. The owners of heavy equipment won’t be put out of work. There are roads to construct, fields to drain, and the plots of small farmers to clear, and plow. To ensure efficiency we must discourage farming on marginal lands, such as pine ridge and extremely heavy clay soils.
The forest belongs to all of us, and the operations of large landowners should be heavily scrutinized before they are given the license to clear more bush. Felling large acreages of virgin forest just can’t be justified, when there is much inefficiency in the field.
At the World Leaders Summit at COP26, Prime Minister John Briceño boasted about how well we are caring for our environment, and said we are doing more than our fair share. Our government has to do better than that. We must do our best, and that calls for a moratorium, for us to stop and take stock of how well we are managing our forest resources.