Government Aims to Revive Citrus and Banana Industries: Slow Progress Acknowledged by Agriculture Minister
The government hopes to revive the once-vibrant citrus and banana industries. In recent years, production of both commodities has declined, according to the Statistical Institute of Belize. However, in November last year, earnings from bananas were valued at $5.6 million, a rise from $4.6 million in 2022. Citrus also increased by $0.4 million when compared to 2022. The industries have historically been significant foreign income earners for the country, but exports of both fruits have sharply declined. Minister of Agriculture Jose Mai says that while work is being done to tackle challenges being faced by the industries, it will take some time for them to rebound.
Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture: “Both of these industries have been undergoing very difficult challenges. Citrus the disease is just there. We have been working with them, there are new varieties of citrus being tested at this time and some of them are starting to bear. They look pretty promising but the disease has caused a lot of damage to citrus. The Prime Minister has appointed a task force to look at the situation with citrus and to make recommendation. On that task force my ministry is being represented by Hugh O’brian again and they are supposed to get back any time now I think in the next week or so with a report to determine what do we do with citrus. But I agree with you that citrus is in a very difficult position right now. Bananas has been similar not as bad because of climate change. Banana’s biggest problem is sigatoka and the high rate of fertilization required. So during the time when the price of fertilizer just increased by 300% the farmers were unable to fertilize as was required by the plant so we had a dip in production and two because of excess rains we had sigatoka which just got in and made a lot of damage and you know when you have sigatoka you have to de-leaf. When you de-leaf the banana plant and you only leave three functioning leaves on the plant the fruit that is harvested from that plant will not make it to the US markets or the European because it ripens on the way so that fruit has to be disregarded for the export market. This has caused significant problems. We are seeing slight increases over last year’s quarter from a report I got so hopefully we have made a small loan facility for them to try to procure inputs that will be required for the banana sector. We’re seeing marginal increase but we don’t see the increase that yet but we’re hoping that if the weather permits and we don’t have much rainfall that we will be able to control sigatoka and the fertilizer prices are going down now hopefully farmers will be able to apply fertilizer as they should.”
Minister Mai says that under the past administration, the agriculture sector was neglected and explained that the GOB is working with southern farmers to diversify their crops.
Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture: “If I’m concerned ? Hell yes I must be concerned. Agriculture is my life, it’s my passion. And what is happening at this time is very worrying to me because of the fall in production. We all know it’s not my fault but I’m the Minister of Agriculture and so I need to do something to bring it back and every day I go to bed I try to find and think in my mind what we can do to bring back these industries. I believe that there are long term solutions we must do now but we need to implement them now. Citrus when I was in opposition I used to rail up that every time in the House of Representatives production is going down nothing is being done. We have done a lot but you know when you are in power now and so much damage has been done over a number of years you don’t see whatever you put in practice you don’t see the effects immediately and as we speak right now I have people working the field to see how best we can bring back citrus. Some are saying citrus is dead. An agronomist said Minister I think citrus is dead. I do not believe it is dead, we can still salvage some but I believe the time has come for us to think about diversifying the base in the south. I was hoping that we would think a lot of land in the south has gone into coconut, some into grains, I believe that one other option is African Palm Oil although the environmentalists have a little concern about it because in other countries when they planted African Palm Oil they had to clear a lot of land. In this case it’s not that because the land is already cleared for citrus it’s just replacing the dead orchards with another product. And so I am for the investment summit the Guatemalans were here they have interest to plant African Palm Oil. I was there over the weekend for the Livestock Expo and again I met the people and they’re asking us are you serious ? Do you want us to invest in Belize in African Palm Oil ? We had an excellent presentation from the Guatemalans for the investment summit and it attracted a lot of attention but we need to push it more if that is the way we’re going to go. We’re just waiting for the results of that task force and then we have to decide what do we do. But again while you and I sleep the disease is empowering itself, strengthening itself and spreading. So agriculture there is no break every minute counts.”
Mai also noted that climate change has affected both industries.