Cane farmers say they will sign, but under duress

The reports of the demise of the sugar industry in Belize and especially that of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) appear to be greatly exaggerated, in the view of at least one senior leader of the Association. But first we bring you the comments of attorney Audrey Matura-Shepherd, who maintains that the planned signing of the Commercial Agreement between multiple parties and BSI/ASR is under protest and the case for writ of mandamus to force the SICB to open the season under consultation will not be withdrawn immediately. She looks forward to Monday’s sitting of the House of Representatives, where it is expected that the Sugar Act will be amended to pave the way for de-regularization of the BSCFA as the sole growers’ representative – but how, she points out, is still not clear.

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vlcsnap-2015-01-16-08h32m41s249Audrey Matura-Shepherd – Attorney for Lucilo Teck

“We don’t know what else would be on this order, but I can assure you it is not here.  What’s the implication?  The implication maybe they will not pass any amendment and they will be actually listening to the people, and they might go to the industry and the stakeholders, and consult before they pass an amendment.  It could be that.  If that’s it, that’s very good news. 

It could also be that they will wait till that morning to give all those there notice that, ‘Oh by the way, this is an amendment,’ and the matter will be debated there and then. 

If it’s debated there and then, it’s still not law until it goes through first, second, third reading, goes to the Senate, and the Governor General assents. 

It’s important to note that, because whatever happens right now with the industry still falls under the Act as it is, because the consent order did not change the Act.  It only gave an undertaking that they would have done it by going to Parliament.  So even by the Consent Order, the only way that Act can be changed is if you go to Parliament.”

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Audrey Matura-Shepherd listed the exemptions that BSI/ASR has gotten under law for such things as taxes and duties, cementing her argument that the farmers had to be backed into a corner and forced to give up ownership of the cane product, to facilitate BSI making profit.

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Audrey Matura-Shepherd

“Now as the dots connect, why is it important for the farmers to give up ownership of their sugar cane?  Giving up ownership of their sugar cane would mean then that BSI, who now has exclusive right to produce, to export the sugar that they get from that sugar cane, not only has exclusive right to your sugar to export it, but has exclusive right to your sugar cane at the same time. 

Let me tell you, from a practical business sense, if you want to give up your rights to an item, nothing is wrong with that, if you get a fair bargain in return.  The cane farmers are not getting anything new.  They’re getting the same terms of selling the sugar cane under the new provisions, that they want you to sell the sugar cane rather than delivering it, and then you get your 65% after you take all the risk with the company.  You have to pay for stevedoring, commissions, insurance, packaging, transportation, freight, everything.  After you share the expense with the company, and all the risk with the company, then you get your share of the profit, 65%, and the company gets 35%.”

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Under this state of affairs, says Orange Walk Town Branch Chairman for the BSCFA Alfredo Ortega, the Association has managed to keep most of its members and bargaining power.

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vlcsnap-2015-01-16-08h34m14s181Alfredo Ortega – Orange Walk Branch Chairman of the BSCFA

“Based on these results, it shows that the BSCFA remains strong, and that the farmers want a crop to start, but what happened with it is that many of the farmers said, in many branch meetings, that they have no choice in that moment but to sign the agreement as is, because if the leader of this nation was not prepared to help them, if the leader of the nation is not prepared to take care of the cane farming community, he’s not prepared to look over the Belizean people, then we are cornered and the choice we have is to sign.  But the farmers said, ‘We’ll be signing, but we are not happy with the way it is.’   

So, based on those factors and on those points, many of the farmers have signed for that agreement to be done.”

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NTUCB Vice-President Marvin Mora says the organization still stands with the farmers.

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Marvin Mora – Vice-President of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize

“The Trade Union was concerned from the very beginning on how the matter was being addressed by Government.  We’ve has several meetings amongst ourselves to look at all the issues, to look at the law, the history of how this thing progressed into where it is, and also meetings along with the cane farmers themselves in several different places, so we understand what the plight was all about.

We’ve heard the position from BSI as well, over the media, and the position that Government is taking along with BSI, and it is very clear to us that it is a group of people in high places putting themselves together to force those cane farmers in the North, who depend on this industry for a living, to sign an agreement that is not beneficial for them.”
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