The Elephant in the Room

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This week there was the reoccurring concern with potato farmers in the North and South. This years’ crop will yield close to 3.5M pounds of red potatoes which is the variety grown in Belize. The estimated weekly consumption is just about 60,000 pounds weekly. At this rate, it would take approximately 59 weeks for the local market to absorb the local produce. It would take in excess of 1 year to consume this year’s harvest. The shelf life of potatoes stored in commercial warehouses and in optimal conditions is 6 months according to experts. Potatoes have a normal shelf life of only about 5 weeks at home. The conclusion then is that only close to 300,000 pounds of potatoes will be absorbed by the local market with most of it rotting in the fields or in the backyards of farmers. At an average estimated production cost of seventy-five cents per pound the loss to farmers again this year is in the millions. Clearly, supply will exceed local demand to drive down the prices for potatoes even further, as farmers scramble to minimize their loss for this year.

Belizean farmers on a whole must bear restrictive and exorbitant production costs brought on primarily from ever rising fuel costs. While in other countries farmers enjoy government subsidies in order to establish thriving industries, in Belize farmers are seemingly punished for daring to compete with the government-run import business of the Belize Marketing Development Corporation (BMDC). The last permit for the importation of potatoes was given on 11th January 2019. Yet there are still some imported potatoes in the local market. The quantities the permits allow to come into our country must then be in excess of the 60,000 lbs. needed to satisfy local consumption.

While farmers here in Belize struggle, Mr Silverio Marin seems content to frolic with endangered and abused wildlife in Asia. Mr Marin comes from a well-connected and politically affiliated family. His brother, a former Deputy CEO at the Commercial Free Zone in Corozal, was once an aspiring candidate in Corozal Southwest. Mr Silverio Marin has been the Interim administrator for the BMDC since August of 2012. For some unspecified reason he has not been able to secure the post and neither has anyone been permanently appointed to the position even after six and a half years. He holds a BSc. Degree in Natural Resource Management from UB and was a Biology Teacher at CEMJR, a position he obtained while his brother was chairman of the Board of Governors at Escuela Secundaria Técnica México. His performance has been less than stellar at the BMDC unless one counts the selfies and photo ops, he as a member of the Belize Audubon Society, takes with endangered species.

The Ministry of Agriculture states that one of their strategic purposes is “to stimulate and facilitate agricultural and fisheries sector growth and reduce rural poverty.” The Ministry has failed year after year in this respect. Potato and onion farmers have had to face million-dollar losses alone. Rural poverty has been exacerbated by the incompetence and inaction of the Ministry of Agriculture. Storage of both potatoes and onions has been a problem and Hon. Jose Abelardo Mai has been the champion of the farmers. In interviews during the potato crisis of 2017 he outlined the storage problem and made several recommendations. We are no closer to food security in Belize. In fact, every year we drift further from it, becoming increasingly dependent on foreign imports for even the essentials in our food basket. Our trade balance deficit balloons every year and our farmers grow poorer with each crop.

Hon. Godwin Hulse says he is not “God” so we must not expect miracles. Yet with a snap of his finger and a stroke of his pen, with the absence of his political will to sincerely better conditions for farmers, institute subsidies and proper storage facilities, he dooms our farmers and their families to a life of poverty. The real elephant in the room looms over us year after year, crop after crop. We need Cabinet ministers who are qualified in their field and we need professionals who are up to the task of Building a Belize that Works for Everyone!

 

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