Sunday’s general membership meeting of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association saw a massive turn out. The estimated count was somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 cane farmers, who travelled from far and near to exercise their democratic right to have their voices heard in the matter concerning the signing of a final agreement with BSI.
As we told you last week, the agreement was to be signed on Tuesday, however, 5 of the 18 BSCFA directors opted for the decision to be made by the cane farmers, as is required by their bylaws. In addition to that, cane farmer Lucilo Teck and Association Executive Javier Keme, with the help of their attorney Audrey Matura-Sheppard, had filed an application for an injunction to stop the committee from signing without the approval of the majority.
That led to the fiery meeting on Sunday, where a clear division was noticeable between those who wanted it signed and those who did not.
Audrey Matura-Sheppard attended the meeting to represent her clients. A motion was moved to have Matura Sheppard speak at the meeting, that was met with fiery opposition. However, when it was put to vote, the majority accepted to have the attorney heard.
But first, Christopher Coye, attorney for the committee of management of the BSCFA, tried in vain to convince the farmers that the agreement was the best they can get. Signing the agreement, he said, would kick start the crop no later than Thursday of this week. But his speech, which was done in English, was met with frequent jeers.
“The eyes of Belize are on us, and most important decision concerning your future and the future of this industry is to be made, comparing the old agreement, the individual farmer agreement, and the new agreement put before you for consideration today. The new agreement is clearly an improvement over both of them. Moreover, this new draft agreement provides certainty a clear path forward. If this agreement is approved today, it will likely be signed tomorrow and the crop will probably begin by Thursday if not sooner. If this draft agreement is not approved today, then there will be a lot of uncertainty in the industry.”
The farmers then gave Audrey Matura-Sheppard their undivided attention, only broken by sporadic ovations, as she explained to them, in Spanish, what their legal options are.
“The client who hired me asked me if I would come and explain his cases, and explain what are the legal options that he has taken. So what I did, I outlined to them the legal options they have based on the law, which is what he is relying on. And they’re going to be asked that a resolution be passed that the Assembly accept to join in the case with him, to bring the matter before the court.”
The resolution was passed and the farmers voted “No” to the signing of the agreement.
Chairman for the BSCFA Committee of Management Ezekiel Cansino expressed his disappointment, as the passing of the resolution not to accept the agreement means the start of the crop season is uncertain. But as BSCFA’s CEO for the Committee of Management Oscar Alonzo pointed out, they always started the crop without the signing of any agreement. Should SICB decide not to act then they will be faced with a writ of mandamus, which is where Audrey Matura Shepherd comes into play.
These are indeed critical times for the Association. Of note is that a verbal motion was tabled to have Ezekiel Cansino removed from his position, which was met with mock approval.
In addition to that, one of the farmers also tabled a motion to have $4,000 distributed to the each farmer which, we understand, could leave the Association bankrupt. That motion was welcomed in the form of a tumultuous applause.
On Monday we caught up with the Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow and Deputy Prime Minister, Gaspar Vega, who is also the Minister of Agriculture. They gave their comments on the impasse in the sugar industry.
“First of all, I respect the decision of the farmers. I respect the democracy in action yesterday. I’m of course disappointed in the result because now there’s a great deal of uncertainty. Quite frankly, I’m not certain where we go from here.
The notion put forward, and in fact supported by a resolution yesterday, that somehow the Government via the SICP can force BSI to accept cane is an outrageously ill-founded notion. It just can’t happen. So it means that there is not any crop. There is not going to be a crop, until the matter is sorted out, and quite frankly I am not sure when that is likely to be.
We clearly have to talk to both sides. We understand from the resolutions passed yesterday that the majority in the BSCFA seem to feel that there can be a crop absent the signing of an agreement. I repeat, that is absolutely impractical. That cannot happen. there is no way Government can force BSI to accept cane absent an agreement.
Practically speaking, if you don’t have an agreement, how will it work?”
The Prime Minister even said that the impasse may actually lead to the breaking up of the association.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“I hope that it doesn’t materialize, but already I am understanding that there are rumblings of discontent among those who want a crop, and who in effect were defeated yesterday. I hope that we don’t see a situation in which there’s going to be a breakup of the BSCFA, or at least a hiving off of a significant section of their membership.
But clearly there are those who want a crop, just as much as there are those who don’t want a crop, at least not in the context of the present agreement.
I am no expert, but my sense is that while those that won yesterday are in the numerical majority, those that want a crop actually have more cane on the ground. I fear that in that kind of situation, we may well see a new association coming into being. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t want to see the BSCFA become split.
There’s always greater effectiveness in greater numbers, but maybe I’m getting ahead of things. But I say this simply because, again, it allows me to underscore how unsatisfactory the situation is, and how much there is uncertainty, to the extent that we really don’t know what comes next.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture Gaspar Vega seemed a bit more optimistic that they could still have a crop season.
“I would hope that the naysayers would leave politics out, and truthfully think about the industry. Like I’ve said over and over, the Government will continue to do whatever they can to ensure that the industry not only survives, but becomes even better year after year, but the cane farmers have to do their share. The factory, BSI, has to do their share, and together we have to unite.
This is an industry that is not only good for the north, it’s for the entire country.
I believe the cane farmers have to change some practices, like that of having elections without a ballot. So whoever makes the loudest noise gets to win. It doesn’t mean that you have the majority, it’s just who makes the most noise, and the rowdy crowd, the radicals, they’re the ones that have been able to get their way out.
I still believe that we are going to have a sugar cane season. I, for sure, will continue lobbying for the good of the industry.”
We also spoke to the leader of the Opposition, Hon Francis Fonseca who also made remarks on the crisis in the sugar industry.
Louis Wade – Plus News
“The harvest season has not started, and there is no agreement. Your thoughts on what happened yesterday, and the way forward.
“I think it’s a critically important issue, as you know. You’ve talked about it a lot yourself on your program. The sugar cane industry is critically important to the economy of Belize, the economy of the north. So it’s absolutely importantt that we resolve that issue.
As I have said from the very beginning, we support a resolution. We want the crop to start. That’s important, but at the same time we don’t want the crop to start at the expense of the farmers. It’s critically important that they have a stake in that industry moving forward. We can’t do anything now that will sacrifice their future involvement and role in the sugar industry.
So we can’t say just because we’re in an urgent need to start the crop season we will forgo the future role and really the solid foundation that the cane farmers have been for that industry for so many years. That is the balance. We need the crop to start. The farmers want the crop to start, but at the same time they expect BSI / ASR to come to the table, to treat them with respect, and to work out an agreement that is responsible, a responsible agreement for the industry, and an agreement that respects their role as farmers. They are not cane cutters, they are cane farmers who have an absolute stake in the future of that industry, and that future has to be protected.”