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The state of our major agro-industries on the eve of 2024

EditorialThe state of our major agro-industries on the eve of 2024

The tourism industry has far surpassed our main agro-industries – banana, citrus, farmed shrimp, and sugarcane—as an employer and as an earner of vital foreign exchange. But, while the contribution of our agro-industries to our economy has been exceeded, they are still critical to our survival and growth. On the eve of 2024, two of them are in poor health, and the other two are doing well, but have hurdles to get over.

At the turn of this century, citrus and farmed shrimps occupied the top two spots in the productive sector, but within a decade they had been brought to their knees by diseases: citrus by the bacteria Huanglongbing (HLB)—”citrus greening”, and farmed shrimp by viruses – the Taura syndrome virus, then White Spot, then NHP.

In its heyday the citrus industry was vibrant, with small farmers, large farmers, and citrus processors all jostling over the pie. There was a substantial pie then. Today, natural tensions in the industry have decreased because of two factors: one, its structure, the factory being now owned by citrus growers; and two, the fact that everyone is consumed with the battle against the disease. The farmed shrimp industry, which had a stunning rise, was cut down in its infancy, when it was just about to explode, expand to include small producers. Thus, that industry never experienced the heated battles that were commonplace in our other agro-industries. There are hopes for a comeback in the industry, and it could happen almost overnight, because much of the infrastructure is still in place and shrimps reach maturity quickly.

On the eve of 2024, the banana and sugarcane industries remain vital. The modern banana industry (Belize’s first banana industry was destroyed by Panama Disease) included a number of small farmers, but the industry came to be dominated by a small group of large farmers after it was privatized during the UDP government of 1984-1989. Through the decades, the banana industry has been a success story, but production has slipped some since the pandemic. The climate has not been its most favorable, but the worst for the industry is the price of fertilizer, which has skyrocketed.

There is tension aplenty — it could be said as usual — in the sugarcane industry, the one up north, where the farmers send their product to the ASR/BSI (American Sugar Refinery/Belize Sugar Industries)-owned mill at Tower Hill. ASR/BSI wants the farmers to sign a 4-year contract, and the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), which represents the main group of farmers, over 50%, insist that they will not sign on for more than one year.

The BSCFA is calling on its members to not have any trucks in line when the cane milling season kicks off on December 28. Back in 2015, the BSCFA splintered, and three new associations formed to represent cane farmers in the north. The BSCFA must be wary of more farmers breaking off and signing with other associations that are ready to get going. But the BSCFA feels it has a principled stand, and that there is better for farmers if they hold their ground.

The present government (PUP) supported the BSCFA in its push to gain control of the ailing BSI, when the company needed and received a government bailout, BZ$10 million, to start the 2010 crop. But the then government (UDP) allowed the giant multinational, ASR, to swoop in and gobble up the bulk of the shares in BSI in 2012. Liquidity, the injection of foreign cash, clinched the deal for the multinational over local farmers, but marketing our sugar was also a big concern. Local farmers felt they could find a market for our sugar. The government preferred the certainty of multinational ownership.

Nationalization is not in the offing. PM Briceño has told the BSCFA that their negotiation with ASR/BSI is between private parties. The government that (as Opposition then) supported “nationalization” of the industry back in 2010-2012 is now asking the BSCFA to sign on to a 3-year contract. The latest from the industry is that ASR/BSI is calling farmers to deliver their sugarcane on an “open contract” until a commercial agreement is concluded, and the BSCFA isn’t budging. Once again, Belizeans across the length and breadth of the Jewel hold their breaths because, while sugar is no longer the dominant earner in Belize, we are all still extremely dependent on the industry.

We are extremely dependent on our major agro-industries. Better weather, and fertilizer prices close to pre-Covid-19 times, would be a boon for all. Farmers in the banana industry are still turning a profit. ASR/BSI yielding some ground to reasonable demands by the BSCFA is a good wish for 2024. A special prayer for 2024 is that citrus and farmed shrimps get over their disease problems.

A disgruntled port owner

There is trouble for a few banana growers who expanded and became the majority owners of the Port of Big Creek (PBC). The relatively small port in Big Creek, which handled fertilizer and pesticide imports from Honduras and shipped bananas by barge to Honduras in the 1970s, now also handles butane, petroleum, citrus concentrates, sugar from the Cayo-based Santander and, since a massive coup a couple years ago, the bulk of the sugar produced at Tower Hill in the Orange Walk District.

The stock of the prize of Banana Enterprises Ltd., the Port of Big Creek, plummeted when the GoB acquired the Port of Belize Ltd. (PBL) from the Ashcroft Group. Krem Radio, reporting on a very honest letter to the Prime Minister from the management of PBC, said the manager of PBC said that “the Prime Minister had personally assured them that Government would not acquire the Belize City port.” In the letter, the management of the PBC expressed concern about the future of their port and their employees, and mentioned that they had “assumed significant risks and took on debt to improve their port over the years to gain a competitive edge.”

Former PM, Dean Barrow, who of late has been in the news sharing his views about public transportation, foreign affairs, a certain Definitive Agreement, and the Boledo, also weighed in on GoB’s reacquisition of the port in Belize City, which a previous PUP government had sold to a Belizean it favored over two decades ago. Under Barrow, who served three terms as PM, from 2008 to 2020, Belize reacquired majority shares in the telecommunications company, BTL, and the electricity company, BEL. Barrow told Amandala that his government hadn’t been much interested in buying back the port, that his government “did not see the port in the same way as we saw BTL and as we saw BEL.”

Re: the buyback of PBL, PM Barrow said that he didn’t see the present government being eager for its nationalization. His position is that the government was forced into the purchase, and the main opposition party, the UDP, holds the position that PBL was bought by GoB to ease the way for a cruise port that some members of the present leadership have personal interest in.

For the Banana Enterprises Ltd., the prevailing fear has to be over sugar, and not only over the recently acquired Tower Hill contract, which it is almost certain to lose to PBL. There is also the contract to ship sugar produced by Santander in the Cayo District. Had the Ashcroft Group improved the facilities at PBL when it had it under receivership/ownership, sugar from Tower Hill would never have gone south. If GoB improves the storage, machinery and equipment at PBL, as expected, as a simple business proposition, Santander sugar would be better off being shipped from the much closer port in Belize City.

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