By William Ysaguirre
The 2014 sugar cane harvest may begin by January 16, if American Sugar Refinery, majority shareholders of Belize Sugar Industries Limited, agrees to the terms of a compromise agreement for payment for bagasse.
The BSI management had worked out the agreement with representatives of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association at BSI’s Staff Club in Orange Walk Town on Wednesday afternoon, January 8.
BSI’s Chief Financial Officer Belizario Carballo led the BSI negotiating team, along with Tower Hill Factory Manager, John Gillett.
BSCFA Chairman Leonardo Cano and Vice Chairman Alfredo Ortega led the farmers’ negotiating team, along with Chief Executive Officer Oscar Alonzo and the Branch chairmen from all 18 branches of the Association.
Ministry of Agriculture’s CEO Jose Alpuche represented the government of Belize as an observer.
It was the most positive outcome in more than six weeks of negotiations, even after Prime Minister Dean Barrow had personally intervened to get both parties to the bargaining table.
Ortega said the farmers had wanted more government support, even though government’s position is that it has no jurisdiction in what is essentially a private, commercial agreement between BSI and the farmers, another private entity.
After the meeting, Carballo told the media that both sides are committed to starting the crop, even though they both acknowledged that conditions are not ideal.
While January 16 has only been set as a tentative date for crop to start, Belizario Carballo admitted that the six weeks lost from the initially planned start of crop on November 25, 2013, had cost them dearly. He said that if the rains come as expected in early June, (last year the rainy season began at the end of May), the factory won’t be able to grind the 1.2 million tones of cane that they have estimated is available from the farmers.
He said they may be able to grind one million tones of cane, but this would limit BSI to producing only about 100,000 to 110,000 tonnes of sugar, rather than the 120,000 tonnes they had originally projected.
The rains are a limiting factor in the Orange Walk district, because the cane trucks are no longer able to enter the cane fields to load the cane, and the cane roads have become more impassable.
The Corozal district, which is further north, has traditionally experience less rainfall; and the wet weather come later in the year, allowing farmers to continue their harvest almost into August, if the factory is still operating.
This shortfall of 10,000 tonnes of sugar has a value of close to $10 million, an irrecoverable loss.
Carballo said every week of further delay will mean 50,000 tonnes less of sugar cane ground; 5,000 tonnes of sugar less to be produces and a further $5 million loss to the industry and to the nation.
Ortega told the media they had certainly come a long way from the impasse they had been at on the payment for bagasse issue in September.
He said BSCFA had presented a proposal to BSI., which the company’s management would take back to its majority shareholders, the ASR. group, for their approval.
He explained that they had committed to have an answer to the farmers within 24 hours.
Ortega added that the BSCFA’s executive would be taking BSI’s proposals back to its membership at a general meeting of the farmers to be held this Sunday, January 12, for their approval. He said if all goes well, they would like to start the crop by January 16, without interruption.
Ortega said the farmers would like to maintain the terms of the original memorandum of understanding signed in 2002, which had expired in 2012. He said they had gotten BSI to agree provisionally to a payment for bagasse, and both parties are scheduled to meet again on Monday, January 13, to finalize a date for the start of crop.
Even if the farmers agree to begin cane deliveries, Ortega said a lot still depends on the weather conditions and also the condition of the sugar roads, 99 percent of which are in bad condition. Very little work has been done on the roads, except in the area near the Honey Camp Lagoon.