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By Hilairé Bennett

The Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) has been engaged in a longstanding negotiation with the new factory owners of Belize Sugar Industries, American Sugar Refining Inc. (ASR) regarding the upcoming sugar cane season expected to begin on December 8, 2014.

Both parties have agreed that it is in the best interest of this valuable industry that the new sugar cane season begins on time.

However, the sticking point is that BSCFA does not want to relinquish ownership of the sugar cane after sale to the factory because of the residual value of the bagasse when the sugar cane is grounded. Bagasse has a by-product value utilised as an alternative source of energy in the factory operations. Additionally, BSCFA does not want to accept a proposal of a seven year contract with BSI/ASR. The BSCFA have also decided to begin the new sugar crop with an interim agreement on the table. ASR, the Johnny-come-lately in Belize’s sugar cane industry, continues to “play hardball”, unbeknownst to the history of the industry and the spirit of the caneros. To add to this potential powder keg the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB) with government representative has been silent on the issue taking a side-lined approach knowing fully well that the destruction of one of the Jewel’s valuable industry is at stake.

The destruction of the sugar cane industry would impact the entire country of Belize but especially those whose lives are dependent on their income gains either from being sugar cane cultivators and their helpers of the employees of the company.

The struggle between the sugar cane farmers and ASR in the north has been taking place over many years but now it seems that what is taking place today is of such a nature that the entire country of Belize is likely to suffer if there is a collapse of the industry.

To understand what is taking place today there is need to return to the history of the sugar industry in the north in the late 1800s when the first shipment of sugar to Europe was made. In 1857 one hundred barrels was exported on the ship “Byzantium”, destined for Liverpool.

Sugar cane is a gramineous (grassy) plant considered a gift of the gods and daughter of Apollo. Its cultivation is seasonal with intermittent jobs for many. Sugar, considered the capable matron, was to be found in the cradle as well as on the kitchen table. Consequently, sugar cane became a mainstay of Belize’s economy. However, the economy of sugar was, from the inception, capitalistic. The Yucatecan refugees from the Caste War in Yucatan proved to the British companies that sugar could be exported shipping a hundred barrels of sugar in 1857 to Europe. That was the beginning of the end for the cultivators and producers of sugar and the Mestizo having control of the emerging industry. It was at that juncture that the viability of growing sugar cane took root and the white capitalists wrestled the control of the new industry from the Mestizo. They not only took over the production of sugar cane established plantations and rudimentary factories but transformed farmers that were independent into agricultural wage labourers, a sentiment felt by some of the cane farmers today. The settlement’s treasurer in 1860 even made the prediction that the development of agricultural ventures in the settlement “will soon be valued by capitalists, now that the capabilities of the soil have been practically tested by small planters”. This is the reality that faced the cañeros then and what the cane farmers are facing now. The domination of the sugar industry by white capitalists have always led to discontent with the sugar workers on the other side fighting to be treated fairly. As early as 1869 the first recorded group action in mentioned in Nigel Bolland’s Colonialism and Resistance (1988) when 31 sugar workers went on strike “withdrawing their labour at a critical moment of the production process…”

In the early 1900s the sugar industry dwindled because of the effects of the global market. The industry was revived when in 1935 the colonial government gave assistance to a group of businessmen whom established the Libertad factory at Pembroke Hall in the Corozal District. By 1937 sugar cane was being processed at the plant.

Probably the most important factor in the history of the sugar industry was the enactment in 1959 of the Sugar Industry was the enactment in 1959 of the Sugar Industry (Control) Ordinance and the Regulatory Body, the Sugar Industry Control Board. The SICB’s responsibility was to issue licenses and quotas regarding the delivery of sugar cane to the processing plant. Also established was the Belize Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) imbued with negotiating powers on the part of the cañeros. The BSCFA assisted with the organisation of the cane deliveries and also made loans available to its members. IN 1961 the Northern Cane Workers Union (NCWU) was formed instituting its bye-laws and the first collective agreement which was drafted by V. H. Courtenay. At the helm of the NCWU were two of the fiercest fighters for the cane farmers’ plight for greater participation in the production and wealth distribution attained from the industry. They were Mateo Ayuso and Jesus Ken. Ken believed that the cañero should have been free from the exploitation where the fruits of their labour profited a few. Most notably was the strike led by Ken on 3rd February 1962 that resulted in the burning of several of the company’s fields for a wage increase which was granted thereafter. The strike ended on the 12 February 1962.

Then in December 1963 when Tate and Lyle was in negotiation to buy out the industry, Ken marched unto the compound with about 80 men armed with machetes, shotguns and other weapons demanding that lands be made available to the cane farmers. George Price, the leader of the People’s United Party, agreed to the demands and Ken and cañeros ended their standoff.

It was not until February 2009 that Belize’s sugar industry experienced such retaliatory engagement. BSI and Tate and Lyle introduced the dreaded core sampler which was to be utilised to determine the quality of cane delivered to the factory by the cane farmers. There were reservations about and opposition to the introduction of the new equipment. The cañeros became disgruntled and a protest was mounted. Tension rose and a riot ensued. The famous Tillett buses of Orange Walk blocked the roads in and out of Orange Walk. Flames from burning tires filled the atmosphere and tempers flared. Prime Minister Dean Barrow stepped in, but with brute force and ordered the Police and military to quell the situation. The result was the fatality of Atanacio Guttierez, a villager of San Victor in the Corozal District.

The recent impasse between the BSCFA and BSI/ASR has been going on for some time. The two parties remain at loggerheads and finally the Sugar Industry Control Board has decided to engage itself. The new sugar crop is scheduled to begin in six days however the sticking points remain in the shadows. Hopefully a decision will be made in the best interest of this vital industry without another fiery engagement as witnessed in the past – the world of capital versus the world of labour. Maybe as Oscar Alonzo, Chief Executive Officer of the BSCFA, suggested, “God is watching”.

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