By Aaron Humes
The members of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association have decided on their own set of demands to give American Sugar Refining at an emergency meeting held Sunday.
The farmers agreed that the crop would start on an agreed-upon date, provided only that the farmers get a signed and legally binding agreement, with the input of the Government and that such negotiations be finalized by the end of January.
The association, with well over a thousand members in attendance, also reasserted that BSI must commit to a payment, the nature of which must be discussed.
The farmers also rejected ASR’s position that the issue must finally be resolved; they insisted that they initially own the cane which they supply to the mill, and refused to let that be a topic of the new cane supply agreement.
The farmers’ emboldened position follows last week’s announcement that ASR/BSI have communicated, via a letter to Prime Minister Dean Barrow, that they are willing to now discuss a payment for bagasse, a cane by-product that is used as bio-fuel to produce electricity that is subsequently sold to Belize Electricity Limited.
BSI’s Chief Executive Officer Joey Montalvo wrote to Barrow that the company would consider paying for bagasse, “and agrees to negotiate this issue with BSCFA.”
The letter further demands that this new set negotiations should “finally resolve the issue of payment for by-products under the Memorandum of Understand.”
BSI expressed that it would like to establish a new Cane Purchase Agreement that would “(i) clarify ownership of cane, all of its components and delivery to the mill; (ii) incorporate the bagasse payment and (iii) incorporate an agreement on the other pending commercial matters already discussed.”
Pending agreement, BSI proposes, “The crop will start on an agreed date and proceed without interruption to completion.”
BSI added that the negotiation for the bagasse should occur concurrently with the crop.
BSI also asked that “[a]ny negotiation will not be deemed to prejudice either party’s legal position.”
Speaking to the media after Sunday’s meeting, Vice-President of the Association’s Committee of Management Alfredo Ortega said, “Well, as you see, there are certain things that they (BSI) are trying to manipulate…I can strongly say that we are not the same association as 10 years ago.
“We have now changed. We have technical people with us and we are dealing with this as professional as they are.”
That change was demonstrated in the often lively debate accompanying each point raised in the BSI letter.
Already annoyed that BSI chose to write the Prime Minister rather than the Association directly, the caneros were not about to tolerate further disrespect.
They considered that BSI was trying to stall and shift the discussion more to their liking, citing the demand that the farmers give up their right under the Memorandum of Understanding signed in 1989 to negotiate payment for by-products found to have economic value, and attempts by the producer to dictate to the farmers who owns the sugar cane and how it would be handled from here on in.
A meeting was planned for this week, but according to Ortega the mandate from the farmers to their negotiators is that they must have a legally binding agreement on the table to review before any date for the start of crop is discussed.
Matters are complicated by the unpredictable weather, which has scuttled any thought of crop starting in this month because sugar roads in the North are impassable.
The back and forth between the association and the company dates back to late October, when the BSCFA executive walked out of a meeting with ASR/BSI, when the company had objected to discussing any payment for bagasse.