Sugar Season Kickoff Sees Slow Start Amidst Protests: Belize Cane Farmers Association Takes to the Streets
It was a highly anticipated day for stakeholders in the sugar industry as many wondered if the start of the sugar crop season would have been marred with confrontation, or if it would have been delayed, yet again. Fortunately, there was no industrial action, no burning of tires, and no roadblocks. There was, however, a slow start for cane delivery. This may have been due to the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association, the largest in the north, sitting out today and taking to the streets in protest. Reporter Vejea Alvarez traveled north, and filed the following report.
Vejea Alvarez, Love News: This morning, while a handful of farmers lined up to deliver cane, dozens of Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association members took to the streets of Orange Walk, calling on Prime Minister John Briceno to intervene in their deadlock with BSI/ASR. The association refuses to deliver any cane until they have a year interim agreement and hopes GOB can force the mill’s hand. It is a scenario that both parties feel has carried on for too long and needs to end. BSCFA Chairman Elvis Reyes says the group wrote to the PM and gave him a midday deadline to say whether GOB would come to their aid.
Elvis Reyes, Chairman, BSCFA: “This disappointment has gone to the extreme that once more we are reaching the start of crop we are on the same situation asking the PM to make a better offer to our cane farmers. We have been waiting three years since they got in. They told us they only need 90 days to fix things that are happening to the farmers and we have been three years and nothing has passed on their side.”
Vejea Alvarez, Love News: While the association waited for a response but they did not get one. Fortunately, the day did not see any industrial action, and once the gates of the Tower Hill Factory were opened, it was business as usual. Sean Chavaria, BSI’s Director of Finance, says the company was thankful for the rows of officers placed along the northern highway.
Sean Chavaria, Director of Finance, BSI/ASR: “You will see checkpoints at different locations on the Philip Goldson Highway which is really good. I think that’s a signal to farmers that the government will do it’s part to ensure the rule of law is upheld and that they can deliver their cane without any interruption or disruption. So that’s a very good sign. From our end we’re here already, our boilers are lit, we’re getting our turbine online. We he have trucks here at the queue already we will start receiving it shortly and once we’ve accumulated sufficient amount of cane then we will commence the milling. And we think once farmers see that the crop is starting then we’ll start seeing more activity.”
Vejea Alvarez, Love News: While the BSCFA refuses to make any deliveries most farmers from the three other associations were ready to sell their produce and get the season started. Cosme Hernandez, General Manager of the Progressive Sugar Cane Farmers Association, explained that many were fearful that the road would have been blocked.
Cosme Hernandez, General Manager, Progressive Sugar Cane Farmers Association: “Today we are ready to deliver cane. Sadly not all Progressive farmers are delivering due to the fact that they weren’t sure that there will be police or BDF security on the sugar roads. But with the presence of them right now for sure tomorrow will be another day. Everyone will be coming in tomorrow with sugar cane.”
Vejea Alvarez, Love News: And the other associations aren’t the only ones hoping the dispute can quickly come to an end, Chavaria says it is of utmost importance to start the already delayed crop season on the right foot.
Sean Chavaria, Director of Finance, BSI/ASR: “If we don’t get the cane from the BSCFA it means we only operate on one boiler and one turbine so we’ll be milling at 50% capacity. It’s not ideal but at least we get the crop going and get the cane in because we do need to start for using sugar, we do have contractual commitments that we need to meet and therefore something is better than nothing in our view. It has happened in the past two years when we’re doing the irrigation project where we had to start with 50% capacity so it’s not an unusual scenario for us. But for us it’s better to get a start as opposed to continue to wait.”
Vejea Alvarez, Love News: The mill is sticking to its guns and continues to offer the association a three-year deal. However, it says BSCFA members remain open to delivering cane under an open agreement, which the association strongly opposes according to Alfredo Ortego, BSCFA’s vice chairman.
Alfrego Ortega, BSCFA Vice Chairman: “The BSCFA is here to protect the life of the farmers we represent that we are here to see it that our farmers get the benefit they’re supposed to get under the association. They have bring out that open agreement on which the farmers can deliver their cane because that is only bait that is being thrown to the farmers whereby once they start to deliver based on the information our lawyer gave us that they will become an individual farmer and they will not be protected anymore under the umbrella of the BSCFA.”
Vejea Alvarez, Love News: While BSI says they aren’t aware of such stipulations, the BSCFA continues to encourage its members to hold back. But how long will the largest sugar cane growers’ group be able to keep their produce in the fields? Reyes says they are hoping it won’t be much longer if GOB can respond to their request by tomorrow.
Elvis Reyes, Chairman, BSCFA: “We are not expecting to delay too much this crop because as I told you the farmers are eager to deliver so we are trying out best to pressure the PM and BSI for us to get a fair agreement for our farmers.”
Vejea Alvarez, Love News: Whether the parties will be able to strike a deal is yet to be seen. Vejea Alvarez, Love News.