By: Alejandro Vernon
In the forties and fifties Toledo was called the “bread basket” of Belize. Rice was grown in abundance in Toledo and pigs were raised and shipped to Belize City on the MV. Heron H. and MV. Maya Prince.
The colonial government erected a rice-mil and a warehouse in Punta Gorda. Milled rice was shipped to Belize City, the biggest consumer of our staple diet. The city distributed to other districts. In the late forties the colonial government, with the support of the Toledo representative at the time, transferred the mil to Belize City to give men jobs.
It was a grave mistake because while the government was alleviating some 30 men of Belize City, Punta Gorda workers lost their jobs at the mill. In addition, Belize’s bulk of rice produced in Toledo now had to be shipped in paddy-form to Belize City to be milled and this additional paddy-freight by (bagasse) had to be paid by government to vessel owners.
As the years went by, and the Belize Marketing Board was established, with much overhead expense, the Toledo farmers (mostly Mayas) were short changed for their paddy which would be to wet or too dreaminess the 14% moisture-content. In the late fifties and early sixties Toledo paddy reached 7 million pounds bought by the Marketing Board office in Punta Gorda in the rice season.
As the population in the country increased, and “rice & beans “ continued to be the favourite on the table, the Bevis Rice Mill was erected int Belize District and other entities in the west and north competed with Toledo rice. In December 1969 I was elected to the House representing Toledo North where most of the rice was cultivated. Hon G. Price appointed me to the Marketing Board.
I began to lobby: that the Rice Mill at North Fr. St. in Belize City should be re-sited in Toledo where it was taken from and where it belonged. I said “If the Sugar Mill is placed in the district where the cane is cultivated, the Rice Mill should be placed in Toledo where rice is cultivated.” In 1973 I won the vote by four to three in the Belize Marketing Board (Henry Usher “Eagle” was Chairman) to establish the Rice mill in Toledo. We obtained a loan of 16 million dollars from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) to re-site the mill in Toledo.
Earlier a rice biologist from Guyana had come to Toledo to discuss proper rice cultivation with our farmers. The Mayas were accustomed to shifting cultivation, and a few East Indians obtained loans to hire machines to civilise the land, plant, and harvest rice. Rice thrashers were provided by the government.
Villagers in the largest villages would erect drying floors to dry the paddy, and then trucks would transport bags of paddy to the buying centre in Punta Gorda.
In 1972, Hon Fred Hunter (Minister of Agriculture) and I decided, and worked on a plan to convert the Moho Basin in Toledo (some 5,000 acres) into the rice- producing area in Belize. The plan was to establish a plant near Mafredi (it was actually commenced) to house, maintain and repair tractors, combines, harvesters etc. Next, to supply the country through the Marketing Board a reduced cost per pound of rice. Next, to ship to Jamaica the surplus rice we would have. Jamaica had agreed to purchase this surplus rice.
A pier would be built at the Cattle-landing sea-front north of Punta Gorda where a vessel with good capacity would load and transport this surplus which Jamaica needed. This three- pronged approach sank when in 1964, the PUP lost the two Toledo Constituencies, and I was defeated by Hon. Charles Wagner.
Of course the Rice Mill had to be built as government was committed to its erection. Mr. Price, in order to justify the mill’s erection in a PUP constituency, got Hon Florencio Marin to convince UDP Vicente Choco to cross the floor and become a PUP. And the Mill would be erected in Toledo North at Big Falls Village in Choco’s constituency, and not near Punta Gorda (UDP Wagner’s constituency) where Hon. Hunter and myself had agreed on, with heads of department to re-site the mill.
It took three years, in 1977, after I succeeded in getting the Belize marketing Bd. to agree to re-site the Mill in Toledo, for government to contract Eng. Jim Halls to commence work on the “new” rice-mill at Big Falls, on the north side of the Rio Grande.
Today, even though the mill purchases paddy, farmers who are accustomed to cultivating rice under the old system are required for their paddy to have the right moisture content- not too wet nor brittle dry.
In addition Bevis’s rice, the Mennonites and others in the rice business had become a strong competition to Toledo Rice. In the late seventies and early eighties, most Maya farmers took to planting and selling marijuana instead of rice. Their complaint was that the Marketing Board took too long to pay them (as much as three months after delivery) for their rice. They said they got more money from planting marijuana (cannabis) than from rice, and that it was easier to cultivate.
They were aware that dealing with cannabis was illegal, and that they could go to jail.
Many years ago, Minister Hon. Florencio Marin mentioned that the Toledo rice farmers should be content with the price paid by the Marketing Bd. and that if need be, the government would import rice from Mexico at half the price being paid to our farmers.
On another occasion, Hon. D. Silva actually got a license for a firm to import rice from Guatemala when there was a scarcity of this vital commodity in Belize.
Because of constraints in planting, harvesting, stringent requirements at Big Falls buying center, and late payments, a good number of rice farmers, mostly Mayas, have taken to carrying their rice on horseback to the borer town of Santa Cruz of Guatemala where the depot there buys their paddy whether dry or wet at the same price. The farmers in turn, purchase clothing, footwear, food, detergents, and even jewellery from stores over there.
The rice goes to Guatemala and the money paid for rice, stays in Guatemala.
A comprehensive study has to be made by our governments to find solutions to the cultivating, harvesting, milling and paying rice farmers a good price for their rice; as also whether government should subsidise rice farming like it is done in Guyana. Belize has abundant land for rice to be cultivated to feed our people at a low price-per-pound and even to sell rice to other countries.
We have to challenge Belize rice producers who sell at the highest price-per-pound in this region. And so help our housewives who struggle daily to put food on the table.
Toledo alone would have solved this problem 40 years ago, when I and the Hon. Fred Hunter as Minister of Agriculture devised the plan to feed Belize and sell surplus rice to the West Indies. But changes made by Mr. Price in 1974 which moved Fred Hunter to Ministry of Works and placed Hon. Santiago Perdomo in Agriculture go the plan torpedoed. Perdomo was not interested in Agriculture and much less in Toledo. So adios el arroz – up to today.