The term “Zafra” or “sugarcane season” is always associated with the North since it is home to the only sugar mill in Belize. However that is about to change because a multimillion dollar project behind the Banana Bank Area, in Cayo District owned by the Santander Group of companies is preparing to mill sugar in 2016. The company has been in Belize over 7 years but has been operating in the private comforts of their 20 thousand acre land. That is why when word came out of the existence of Santander, owned exclusively by Guatemalan investors, it stirred some controversy. Today, Santander Group of Companies, in hopes of formally introducing themselves and in so doing, dispel misconceptions, invited us to a media tour at their project sight. According to Santander’s CEO, the son of the late Jose Rodriguez Briz, the patriarch of the Rodriguez family, his father, originally from Santander, Spain, immigrated to Guatemala and began purchasing land and planting sugarcane. His children, who are now the owners of Santander, grew up with the culture of farming sugarcane. They sought to further invest in the industry and that is what brought them to Belize in 2008.
Jose Rodriguez Jr. – CEO of Sandander
“We as a family grew up in a sugarcane field and we grew up thinking about doing a project like this. So, we went to high school, to university to prepare for a project like this.”
“But you didn’t know it would be in Belize?”
Jose Rodriguez Jr.
“We didnt know. We went to Costa Rica, we went to Nicaragua, we even went to the States. We looked at an operation that the only place that produces sugar cane in the south but at the end, God brought us here and we found a place that we loved the day we stepped here. And we love the people, we like how they treated us and the security and the legal certainty that the country transpired.”
The project has a foreign direct investment of USD$150 million, one of the largest in the country, and owns close to 20 thousand acres of land. One of the controversies that arose when Santander started making its rounds in the media was the issue of labour force. We knew that Belizeans were bethe case.
“Currently we have hired 575 Belizeans. We have 80 percent of our work force is from Belize. I would like to states that. People don’t know that fact and they also don’t know that we have an apprentice program where Belizeans are learning along with those skilled workers that have come from abroad. Well there is industrial mechanics, mechanics , instrumentalist (and) lock operators. What we are doing is we are creating a stable group of people that will work with us all the time because the people that
are coming from abroad are going to go back. They are only here for a temporary basis. What we are looking for are Belizeans, we want Belizeans because we want people from here, we need them.”
We wouldn’t take their word for it so we asked Mary Carrillo, a Belizean with a background in Chemical Engineering, who explained how she got the job.
” I actually saw the announcement in the Amandala. I sent in my papers, 2 weeks later I was called and now i’m here working.”
“Now what has your experience like as a Belizean here because there has been a sort of rumour out there that Santander doesn’t want to hire Belizean’s here or that you have some people who say or that the pay is terrible .”
” not true. The lowest wage here is for helpers, that are also learning and it’s 35 dollars a day and that’s the lowest and then you go high. So they are people here that are earning $80. If they are specialized, they can earn $100, so it depends on their skills. We are willing for you to come here, so come, I encourage you to come”
“Well look at me, I’m here, I am a Belizean and I haven’t received any bad treatment. I think there is career growth and career opportunity not only for processionals, as myself, but also for many of us, it’s a learning experience. We are learning from people who have experience here. So it’s not only for me, it’s for everyone here. It has been creating jobs and opportunities- experiences for us all. At the end of the day, they will be leavening and the company is for the country, for Belizeans “
The Santander employs 350 people, 70 to 80 percent of them consist of Belizeans, both skilled and unskilled. Now for a company that is investing so much you would expect to see hundreds and hundreds of workers to be employed as cane farmers. However that is not the case because Santander is integrating a technology into its system which requires a smaller labour force than the traditional farming methods. But according to Santander Execs, payrolls are not the only way Belizeans will be benefitting from this multimillion dollar company.
Edgar Hernandez- Partner/Director , Santander
“You can see the positive outcome of that externality for example, you’re going to be selling sugar and you’re going to be increasing your exports dramatically from the production of sugar coming from this business. That will increase the sound position of that your currency has. The 2:1 Belize Dollar to U.S dollar has, that also is very important. It’s not only the labour, the positive externality of this investment comes on the labour perspective, on an economic perspective, on a financial perspective coming from the balance sheet that the country has on its balance of payment. It also comes on something that maybe is more subjective on the sense of, remember the thing that we discussed about the debt structuring, well here we have 7 incremental banks, regional banks, for example you have one of the players coming into place with this debt structure is Bank Colombia. Bank Colombia has a 3.5 Billion Dollar balance sheet. You have access to that balance sheet because now we know Belize. Now they are willing to finance a project in Belize because we’ve done that work in three years in order t o put in place what Belize stands for, how do we feel comfortable with that and that there is a structure under Belize and Europe law that will vbe sound and will be viable.”
The company is projecting that their production will grow the country’s agriculture GDP by a minimum of 4%. The company began to plant 2 years ago and is expected to begin its first Zafra as early as February 2016. Unlike ASR, that mills its own sugar cane as well as cane from Belizean farmers, Santender will only mill its own sugar. The company also has its own sugarcane farms in Guatemala.