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Sparks Fly Over GOB’s Proposed Sugar Industry Amendment Bill

The PUP Government today fast-tracked the passing of a bill that the Opposition, UDP, says threatens the autonomy of cane farmers associations in the northern districts. It’s the Sugar Industry Amendment Bill, 2021 which makes provisions in relation to the elections of officers of an association. The amendment also empowers the Ministry of Agriculture; in this case Jose Mai, to receive and deal with disputes and complaints. The UDP’s Hugo Patt of Corozal North and Tracy Panton of Albert say that this piece of legislation gives Minister Mai dictator-like powers that he can exercise over the cane farmers associations. In fact, they say that this amendment allows for the minister to meddle in the business of the associations.

Hugo Patt, Area Representative, Corozal North: “I’m concerned going forward. What if we were to have a Minister of Agriculture that is extreme ? That is inconsistent in his decisions and yet we would have a piece of legislation that actually grants the Minister of Agriculture if I may call it from that sense unlimited powers and member for Orange Walk Central and Prime Minister section 38 as is being proposed to be amended actually grants the Minister of Agriculture if I may call it absolute power to actually decide on the running of the business of the associations and not merely looking at how the associations elect their members. And so section 38 in my opinion si going too far for that member.”

Tracy Panton, Area Representative, Albert Division: “These amendments as presented seem to provide unilateral authority and power to the regulator and more specifically to the minister responsible for agriculture and that’s a slippery slope as far as I am concerned. Creating the conditions for compliance is one thing and I think the amendments to section 32 seem to try and put in place the framework for compliance but it’s really not the role or the responsibility of the government or of the minister to determine the bylaws of an association and decisions taken by the membership of that association. I also want to say that associations really should have some autonomy and these amendments particularly the amendments to sections 38 1a and b, 2, 3, and 4 and 5 seem to be an infringement on the autonomy of the associations and the rights of members of the association.”

Responding to the assertions was Agriculture Minister, Jose Mai who explains that the amendment has been in the works for months. He says that it was prompted by an association in Corozal going rogue and refusing to adhere to its own rules.

Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture: “We didn’t arrive at this decision overnight. This has been in discussion for a very long time. Those of you who know me, in fact the member of Corozal North you know me to member of the opposition, I don’t crave power. Absolutely not. My power comes from above. I don’t crave power but when we have irresponsible people failing to follow their own bylaws. When we repeatedly speak to them to do the right things and they refuse. When they seek to expel their own fellow cane farmers because they don’t support them and are asking for accountability. When the four of them sit down in a room and say guess what we won’t have elections let us decide that the six of us and go around the villages finding signatures and say ‘sign we won’t have an election.’ this spells disaster. It is bad but what is worse is for the government to be able to do nothing at all or has the ability to do something and does nothing at all. Let’s go back some years remember when they killed a cane farmer ? The security shot and killed a cane farmer ? There was no reason for that to reach to that breaking point. Horrible. Disastrous. But the regulators saw it coming and did nothing and doing nothing is what is going to lead this industry to chaos.”

Minister Mai says that he has no intention to meddle in the business of the associations. He says his hope is to never have to deal with disputers.

Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture: “The association is imploding. Doing nothing would have been irresponsible of this government and member and leader of opposition I don’t play politics with the farmers’ business and the member for Corozal North knows that well. As a matter of fact I nominated member for Corozal North for the chairman of the Fair Trade Committee remember that member ? Knowing that he’s a UDP. I’m a PUP I nominated him to be the chairman of the Fair Trade Finance Committee because I do not play politics with the business of farmers. Farmers work hard for their money and another example Mr. Speaker. When our association we belonged to Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association were doing things which I believed were wrong and they were led by prominent PUPs I stood up and organized a vote of no confidence for them because you are put there to manage the affairs of the cane farmers and if you don’t do that you have to be out. I do not play with the cane farmers’ money or the farmer’s resources I take that seriously because I’m a cane farmer. This was our last choice and I hope that this can be resolved at the board level. Don’t come to me. That is my greatest hope. Like I say I don’t crave power, I don’t need that.  So Mr. Speaker this is the best thing that could happen now in the industry. We cannot leave things or sweep it under the carpet for a long time, it will trip us down and we don’t want to repeat what happened years ago in Orange Walk.”