BELIZE CITY, Wed. Jan. 5, 2022– Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, while efforts were being made to ensure that a truce between stakeholders in the sugar industry in the northern districts would hold so that cane could be delivered to the mill in Orange Walk, a trio of arsonists on motorcycles reportedly went to the cane fields on Valley of Peace Farms, a large-scale agribusiness enterprise with American ownership, and started a fire that would ultimately burn 1,208 acres of sugarcane. Some might have speculated that perhaps the tensions in the industry in the north had somehow metastasized to the Cayo District in the west of the country, where Valley of Peace Farms Limited is located, but according to the General Manager of Valley of Peace Farms Limited, Gilbert Canton, Jr., although there are parallel tensions between farmers and a foreign-owned enterprise in that area, the reasons for those tensions are different. He has speculated that it is a dispute, not about revenue-sharing or purchasing agreements, but about land ownership, that might have led some farmers in the area to set the blaze.
In an interview with 7News, Canton explained that there were 2 security guards on the farm and one in the area outside of the farm when the fire was set, and those guards chased the alleged arsonists on the motorbikes after the fire was started but were not able to apprehend them. According to Canton, he and other employees of the enterprise were called from home to assist with extinguishing the fire, and it took about 5 hours for the flames to be brought under control. He estimated that about 1,208 acres of sugar cane, worth a total of 2.3 million Belize dollars, were burnt, and indicated that the company, through the assistance of the Santander mill, is currently engaged in a salvaging exercise to process some of the cane that has retained the necessary quality to be converted into sugar. He noted, though, that there was a small three-day window within which such attempts at processing could be done before there was a further decline in quality in cane that would make it impossible for them to process it for sale. A lab at the Santander mill was thus being used to gauge the quality of the cane. “If the cane could be processed, and they will process for us long as the cane is still good.” commented Canton. He estimated that as much as half to three-fourths of the cane could be rendered useless — resulting in losses of at least $1 million for the company.
Canton, while being interviewed by local reporters, pointed to the likely motive for the fire — a dispute between the enterprise, which reportedly owns 11,000 acres in the area, and a group of 50 Valley of Peace farmers who are claiming that they own several hundred acres of that land. He said that there were attempts at resolution, since it appears that there might have been some duplication of land leases at the Lands Department. He also noted that there had been two legal rulings in August last year that were in the company’s favor and that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had stepped in as a mediator to resolve the matter, and that a memorandum of understanding was being formulated through which a little over 400 acres would have been passed over to the farmers, and it was perhaps farmers who were dissatisfied with that arrangement that might have set the fire.
But that was just speculation, and Canton indicated that he was hesitant to arrive at any conclusion or to make any accusations, because it is a priority for the company to enjoy peaceful relations with those in the area. “I don’t want to speculate on who did this, but that’s the only argument that we have with anybody. So, the police are doing their investigation, and they will help us to try to identify who has done this, and what has happened here. I think it’s too early to really go out and say, ‘we think it’s so and so’, because the police have to do their investigation,” he said.
This is not the first time the fields of the Valley of Peace Farms Limited have been set on fire. In early January of last year, about 20 acres of cane had been burnt.