Breakthrough in Belize Sugar Standoff: Deadlock Ends After Intense Negotiations

Breakthrough in Belize Sugar Standoff: Deadlock Ends After Intense Negotiations

There is a sense of calm in the north tonight as the days-long sugar impasse between the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) and BSI/ASR is over. Last week, Prime Minister John Briceno canceled his meeting with Pope Francis in Rome, and returned home last Tuesday, to intervene in the deadlock. By Thursday night, while the government was able to sway the mill, and satisfy the BSCFA with a 2-year deal, the signing of the agreement took an unexpected turn, as the association refused to sign.  The association raised concerns regarding the wording of a specific item and returned to protest actions, demanding the Prime Minister’s intervention, once again. Yesterday, the Prime Minister and his team brought together key negotiators from both parties, for the first time, and successfully ended the stalemate. Reporter Vejea Alvarez has been following the story, and filed the following report.

Vejea Alvarez, Love FM: After eleven days of cane farmers blocking roads, burning tires, and protesting, the sugar impasse has ended. Just after 10:30 on Monday night, the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association’s members breathed sighs of relief as their leaders signed a two-year agreement with BSI/ASR. Despite reaching an initial agreement last week, the parties remained at odds and the BSCFA re-entered into protest mode. Over the weekend, their attorneys spent countless hours working to find a balance but could not have done so. However, after Prime Minister John Briceno requested the leaders meet face-to-face, the issues were hammered out. A formidable task that PM John Briceno briefly spoke on as he left the hours-long meeting. 

Hon. John Briceño, Prime Minister of Belize: “Just had a very successful negotiations with both teams. I’m very grateful to the two sides that wanted to bring this to an end and so I thank the BSCFA and to ASR/BSI for cooperating for us to do what is right to sign an agreement in the best interest of everyone.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love FM: As BSCFA leaders inked the deal, members who staged multiple roadblocks along the Phillip Goldson Highway began to remove themselves allowing blocked cane trucks to journey to the mill. Minister of Agriculture Jose Mai explained that while both sides were at odds over how Hugh Obrien would conduct an economic analysis of the shipping cost at Big Creek versus the port of Belize, they ultimately found a middle ground. 

Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture: “Those costs were clarified, what they were, the description, where do they fit if it’s at Belize Port or at Big Creek Port but in the end both parties agreed that this is the way they want to go and I think that was very important for all of us.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love FM: Were the farmers completely satisfied with these agreements and were they the same agreements that were agreed to last Thursday ? Were there any changes to this ? 

Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture: “Not changes. Sometimes you know attorneys they play a lot of words and words mean something many times. Sometimes they’re synonyms, sometimes it means something that if you look superficially you won’t understand it but that’s the way the attorneys operate, they play with words and it’s a matter of words and semantics at certain instances but at the end I think both parties were satisfied.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love FM: During the weeks-long standoff, the BSCFA insisted on having an investigation into the terminal and throughput fees; however, the mill did not agree with the terminology. So, how was the issue resolved? BSI’s Director of Finance, Sean Chavaria, says by talking and working to move forward. 

Sean Chavaria, Director of Finance, BSI: “Once it was understood what would be purpose of the analysis and what it would relate to I think that would have allowed us to move forward and so we were able to define that and make it specific  that it’s related to port charges and the analysis would look at that particularly the throughput fee and terminal handling fee and I think once that was understood by the sides then we were able to move forward.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love News: The term investigation has been thrown around a lot by the BSCFA is it an investigation ? 

Sean Chavaria, Director of Finance, BSI: “No. It’s an analysis to determine if these costs are charged to BSI and paid by BSI and to do that comparative analysis to see if indeed the industry farmers and the mill are saving money.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love FM: For the BSCFA, the agreement’s signing is a victory that will pay off and result in greater benefits for its members. The farmers had been refusing to deliver cane since the crop began on December 28, but are now burning their fields to join the Safra. BSCFA Chairman Elvis Reyes spoke about the relief of members and the success of the PM’s intervention. 

Elvis Reyes, Chairman, BSCFA: “It has been a year of really it could be we have gained a goal that the farmers were trying to achieve years before and this year has been one of a mark year that BSI has accepted or has seen that our pledger as to the charges that they are making are really to be analyzed on how they are charging those charges that they want to implement on our contract. As you know our farmers and eager and willing to deliver. We already got a two year agreement for them to begin a new crop season this year 2024.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love FM: The agreement stipulates that GOB will assist the BSCFA in obtaining a fair-trade agreement with Tate and Lyle or provide 1 million dollars for fertilizer. It will cover the BSCFA’s terminal and throughput fees during the undertaking of the economic analysis. Additionally, GOB will establish a commission of inquiry within the next 30 days, which, according to Minister Mai, is of major importance.

Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture: “And we hope that we won’t have as much resistant from either of the parties as such. So I’m hopeful that that will be done, will be over in less than one year hopefully and we can have then a sound, fair commercial agreement and a very updated modernized and relevant Sugar Industry Act. And so I am hopeful for that. I think we’ve come a long way. I think everybody understands the importance of the industry. Everybody realizes that the Commission of Inquiry is the critical action that needs to be implemented for everybody in the industry to be satisfied. It could be the farmers are right, it could be BSI is right but the Commission of Inquiry will reveal all of that in time.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love FM: And while the parties have now come to a compromise, there is still much work left in the north’s complex and vital sugar industry. Nonetheless, the agreement is seen by the mill and farmers as a step in the right direction.

Sean Chavaria, Director of Finance, BSI: “There is a long road ahead. I think we still have a long ways to go in terms of reaching the stability and the certainty that we need in the industry but this is a first start and we hope to make progress from this.”

Elvis Reyes, Chairman, BSCFA: “And from here we can probably take more steps forward. This will give us a clear picture on all the charges that BSI does to us if they are legitimate or if they are justified as how they are charging us. So it will surely give us a way forward for a better payment or a better clarity or a better transparency for our farmers.”

Vejea Alvarez, Love News.

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