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Tense times again at the beginning of the zafra

EditorialTense times again at the beginning of the zafra

The Director of Finance of ASR/BSI, Shawn Chavarria, has expressed “fatigue” over another shaky start to the zafra, the sugar cane milling season, while some of the actions of the BSCFA, including blocking the highway, would indicate they have gone beyond fatigue and are now at the end of the proverbial rope. The BSCFA wants ASR/BSI to revisit the extremely low payment for bagasse, the main fuel for the 32.5 MW cogeneration plant, Belcogen; sort out issues to ensure it gets its share of Fairtrade payments, which it hasn’t received these past two years; and address a new matter: port fees that have risen since bulk sugar shipments moved from the Port of Belize Ltd. (PBL) to the port in Big Creek.

But the main sticking point for the BSCFA is that cañeros don’t have any access to ASR/BSI’s books. As it stands, farmers deliver their sugarcane to the mill, and ASR/BSI tells them how much they make under the present profit-sharing arrangement. ASR/BSI insists that it is a private company. But cañeros are locked in to selling their cane to ASR/BSI, and they don’t receive the full payment up front for their product, which makes the relationship between the BSCFA and ASR/BSI somewhat similar to that of fisherfolk and their cooperatives.

The history of our modern sugarcane industry goes back some decades, but it is in the 1960s, with the entry of Tate & Lyle, that it became the dominant agro-industry, employer and foreign exchange earner in Belize.

For centuries, sugarcane has been one of the world’s most important crops, a highly prized commodity that has been at the root of trade wars and slavery, and the making and breaking of governments. The industry has a history of volatility. The dramatic fall in the price of sugar on the world market in 1982, which experts said was caused by a bumper crop, and competition from high fructose corn syrup and beet sugar, changed the landscape in Belize.

The fall of the PUP government in 1984 can be attributed in part to the collapse of sugar prices in 1982. In the north the UDP trounced the PUP, 6 seats to 2, and 21 to 7 overall in the 1984 general elections. That price drop was most likely what led Tate & Lyle to close down its factory in Libertad, in 1985, and divest the majority of its shares in BSI to the company’s employees.

In 2010, BSI, which was financially overextended after borrowing heavily to invest in the construction of Belcogen, and had to be bailed out by GoB to start the milling season, was desperately in need of more capital to cover its massive debt, which was in the tens of millions. BSI, and GoB, which had acquired about 10% of the shares of the company, did not favor the BSCFA’s ambition to acquire majority shares in the asset. Some farmers supported the sale of majority shares in BSI, first to Banco Atlántida, and when that fell through, to ASR, which purchased around 80% of the company in 2012. The farmers who supported the sale to ASR would officially form three new cane farmers associations in 2015.

A 2014 report from the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida said that when ASR took over control of BSI, it acquired “the only sugar mill in Belize, which crushed 1,050,000 tons of sugar cane and produced 114,000 tons of sugar in its most recent crop”; that “BSI farms 4,000 acres of cane and purchases 90% of its cane supply from some 6,000 independent growers who farm about 55,000 acres”; and that “BSI also operates a 30 MW biomass cogeneration plant that produces and sells renewable electricity to the Belize power grid, supplying 25% of the country’s electricity.”

ASR has made significant investments in the industry since taking control of BSI. The ASR Group said it has “invested $20 Million to reduce its impact [the milling of sugarcane and production of electricity] on the environment”, and that it “has invested in trying to climate proof the Belize sugar industry, by introducing new, improved varieties of cane, which ripen earlier.” It is a fact that the production of Belize’s sugarcane farmers is much below the production of farmers in a number of countries in Central America.

ASR/BSI said it invested over $30 million in the port in Big Creek to improve the efficiency in transportation of bulk sugar, and that the “savings from lower ocean freight costs, projected to be between BZ$1.4 million to $BZ 2.5 million annually.” In a recent release ASR/BSI says it has a 30-year lease with Big Creek. The move to Big Creek was controversial when it was made in 2021, and it definitely looks ill-advised since the much closer PBL was wrested from hands that were stymieing its improvement.

The milling season started on schedule, on December 28, but only farmers from the three new cane farmers associations delivered cane. These associations had signed commercial agreements with ASR/BSI for the milling of their cane in 2015, and in 2021 they readily signed on for another 5 years.

The BSCFA hasn’t been compliant. Only after serious deliberations, and much unrest in the industry, did the majority of BSCFA’s members sign a commercial agreement with the millers in 2015. Since the 2017 or 2018 crops the BSCFA had been unsuccessfully pursuing an opt-out clause to get ASR/BSI to address the issues it disapproved of in the contract. Since their agreement with the millers expired at the end of the 2021 season, they have not signed a new long-term agreement. They are yet to deliver any sugarcane to the mill this season, and the reason is the same as it has been over the last few years: the failure of ASR/BSI to meaningfully address their concerns.

While stonewalling on the demands of the BSCFA, ASR/BSI has insisted that to continue to improve the viability of the industry it has to make major investments, hence the need for longer commitments from the farmers. The BSCFA insists that it will not commit beyond the short term.

The BSCFA has gained the support of the NTUCB in the present standoff. Whatever gains the BSCFA is able to make in its negotiations with ASR/BSI, the farmers in the other associations stand to benefit. But at the moment they are siding with ASR/BSI to force the BSCFA to leave the picket line, to dutifully get in line and deliver their produce to the mill.

Bishop Nicasio succumbs after long illness

On Sunday, January 1, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Belize sadly informed the nation of the passing of Bishop Lawrence Nicasio. A quiet, amiable, much loved priest, Father Larry to all his flock, he was called on in 2017 to take over from the ailing Bishop Dorick Wright. Bishop Nicasio’s time at the head of the Catholic Church in Belize was short. Three years after he became bishop, the world fell into the grip of the pandemic, and in his last two years he battled cancer.

Krem News said Bishop Nicasio “gave 34 years of his life to priestly and Episcopal ministry”, that “he was ordained Deacon of Belize in 1988” and “he was ordained Bishop in 2017.” The Krem News report continued: “There will be a Holy Mass of thanksgiving on Monday, January 8, at 10:00 a.m. at the Holy Redeemer Cathedral in Belize City. His body will be received at 9:00 a.m. for viewing. The burial mass will be held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in Belmopan on Tuesday, January 9 at 10:00 a.m. His body will be received for viewing at 10:00 a.m. He will be buried in the Co-Cathedral yard.”

Rest in Peace, Father/Bishop Larry Nicasio.

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