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Government of Belize’s rice woes; a delicious dilemma

Posted: Friday, January 22, 2016. 1:52 pm CST.

Guyan riceBy BMG Staff: The government of Belize has put itself in a delicate international situation regarding the importation of rice from Guyana.

Recently, businessman Jitendra Chaula, better known as Jack Charles, was ordered to re-export the rice to Honduras then re-apply for a permit to import the rice. He has accrued a cost totaling several thousands of dollars for having the rice stored at the Big Creek port and still hasn’t been given any definitive reason as to why his permit wasn’t approved in the first place.

GOB seems intent on not allowing any rice from Guyana to enter the Belizean market. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture Gaspar Vega also recently made public comments responding to questions from the media on whether or not GOB would import cheaper rice from Guyana.

Hon. Gaspar Vega

Hon. Gaspar Vega

“I don’t think that we would ever do that, not even contemplate that. I don’t know exactly what price the present importer is buying and willing to sell for, but I am certain that if the situation will appear where we would have a short fall we would ensure that we imported from a CARICOM country like we have done from Guyana and we would just ensure that we get our investment back,” Vega said after returning from meeting with his counterparts in Guyana.

Charles, however, has made it quite clear he intended to retail the rice for 69 cents per pound compared to the local rice which is retailed for $1.29 per pound. The price of Grade C rice, however, was dropped to 90 cents a pound recently, still more than Charles’ 69 cents for Grade A rice. GOB, however, seems intent on protecting local rice producers and blocking competition from foreign producers. But why? Considering Charles only intended to import rice to supply 20 percent of the market demand.

And according to Article 150 of the Treaty of Chaguaramas, which establishes the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME): “Nothing in this Treaty shall be construed as entitling any Member State to apply safeguard measures against the products of Community origin of a disadvantaged country where such products do not exceed 20 percent of the market of the importing Member State.”

As Vega explained, Belize’s counterparts in Guyana, like CARICOM Secretary General Irwin LaRoque, understand that Belize denied Charles’ import because he went about doing so before legally acquiring a permit, which is technically true, but what’s not being explained to the international community is that Charles has been applying for this permit since early last year and the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) is yet to provide him with a valid reason as to why he is being denied.

As LaRoque said during his recent visit to Belize, no country can site phytosanitary reasons as a factor in blocking imports from a fellow CARICOM member nation, which is exactly what Charles and his team have accused the government of.

Jack Charles

Jack Charles

Several weeks ago GOB found itself in a precarious position after applying to the court to destroy Charles’ rice. There was obvious public outcry against the proposal and GOB was presented with two options, each which would have

had negative backlash either way.

GOB could destroy 75 tons (150,000 pounds) of Grade A, 69 cent per pound rice in a country where 41.3 percent of all people live in poverty, many of that below the indigence line, and be seen as a cold-hearted, business-first government; or it could have donated the rice to charitable feeding programs as was proposed.

The problem with the second option, however, would mean that GOB acknowledged the rice was perfectly fine for consumption in Belize, yet, provided no grounds for which Charles could not import the rice.

In the end, Prime Minister Dean Barrow stepped in and GOB chose the safest route, which was for Charles to re-export the rice with the promise that if he went about following due process, he should have no trouble. But “should” is the key-word. On paper, the process seems simple enough but GOB has made it clear that local rice producers must be protected for fear that the industry could collapse.

And the fear is legitimate. 2015 was not kind to Belize’s industries as shrimp, banana and citrus all suffered, incurring losses totaling millions of dollars. GOB even recently imposed higher taxes on fuel imports to boost government coffers because the petroleum industry in Belize is dwindling. Financial Secretary Joseph Waight confirmed this himself. So the concern is legitimate indeed, no arguments here.

And the point GOB made about Charles being able to hike up the price on the Guyanese rice once the Belize rice industry were to collapse is also legitimate, so it must be considered on all sides.

But all the politics and processes matter very little to the single mother with several mouths to feed, or to the working father with a whole family dependent on him. People need to eat and people need to be able to afford basic commodities like rice.

Joseph Waight

Joseph Waight

And if rice can provided at a lower cost than local producers can provide, then it must be an option, maybe not a 20-percent-of-the-market-option, but an option nonetheless. The working people should be the priority in the decision making process, not the farmers and local producers who have had ample time to reap the benefits of rice being sold at marked up prices for so long.

This is not to say that farmers and producers don’t need help also. They do. Subsidies and other exemptions would go a long way in helping producers lower the retail cost.

Still, the average, every-man consumer should be the number one priority, especially for a government that rose to power on the promise of “lowering the cost of living by any means necessary” as one of its major selling points.

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