The Zafra is off to a shaky start. Quick response and the political will to work closely with farmers has averted the crisis that threatened to stop the cane crop before it had begun. While most people were at home enjoying the long holiday, the Minister of Agriculture and his technical team were on the ground and hard at work figuring a way out of the shambles created by the Sugar Industries Control Board and the Sugar Cane Production Committee. It seems that a few months ago under those who will not be named…these boards prepared production estimates or quotas for this year’s crop. Unfortunately, that formula castigates those who did not fill their production quota the year before. The shortfall is then redistributed among farmers, benefitting those that fulfilled their commitment the previous year and who are generally the giants in the industry. Would it surprise anybody to know that one of the biggest cane farmers in the country is actually BSI/ASR? Many Belizeans do not realize that in fact they not only own the factory which process the sugar cane, they are also farmers. Farmers who compete with Belizeans for delivery quotas, some would say, with an unfair advantage.
The last few years have been tough on farmers. Sugar cane production has been impacted negatively, and severely by drought and floods over the last few years. The farmers who have not been able to deliver their quotas have been those most severely impacted by climate change. These changes in their quotas would mean that they would not have been allowed to deliver this year and effectively forcing them out of the industry that has been the backbone of the economy in the North for decades. The Minister of Agriculture has devised a tiered structure to divide the quota, while not perfect, it does not condemn those who had been unable to deliver cane, giving them a chance at redemption now that conditions are more favourable. It even provides more quota for those that did deliver incentivizing even more hard work. It is an innovative and inclusive plan that takes into account that we are living in unusual circumstances, and that the government must provide solutions that put more people to work not less. Even though Sugar is no longer the King of the national economy, Tourism having long ago usurped its place, it still brings in a nice chunk of much needed foreign currency. It still provides economic stability to the North and is still an important ingrained part of Northern Belize’s culture and traditions. In light of the pandemic this Industry must be preserved, and its most vulnerable stakeholders encouraged and supported. This industry provides employment for hundreds of families who because of the current economic climate have no other recourse.
It is encouraging to finally have a Minister of Agriculture that gets it. Hon. Jose Abelardo Mai, understands what this industry means for the North and the thousands who depend on it for their livelihood directly and indirectly. Perhaps because it has also been his own, he knows the struggle, the back-breaking work and the grit it takes to grow sugarcane. While some reach for the sugar to sweeten their morning coffee without a thought, Hon. Mai knows what it takes to get it there, and he can appreciate the road is not always sweet and easy, but for cañeros like himself, it is certainly always worth it.