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Sugar and blood

Posted: Wednesday, December 22, 2021. 9:33 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: More than one person referred to the events of February 2, 2009, in discussing the current ferment in the sugar industry this week.

On that tragic Monday afternoon, cane farmer Felix Atanacio Gutierrez of San Victor, Corozal District, was shot in the head and killed almost instantly.

Almost 13 years later, chairman of the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB) Marcos Osorio sought to reassure that we had not reached that point yet: “I agree with you that the board in discharging its responsibilities has to be fair and neutral. It is in this fairness for the good of the industry that certain decisions have to be made, even when it appears that it is one-sided. If you recall the situation of February 2009, and I am not saying that we will have a repeat or we are anywhere close to that, but anything is possible in this age and time.”

As this reporter reported at the time, cane farmers were six days into an effective strike against the mill over the use of a core sampler as the basis for quality control. That Monday, farmers had effectively blocked off the area around Tower Hill and Orange Walk with their vehicles and cane trucks.

Then-CEO of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), Carlos Magaña, told Amandala that the blockades were done as a “coercive gesture” to accelerate negotiations between BSCFA, BSI, and the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB)—talks that had stalled over the weekend. They could not reach an agreement over the weekend on the demands by cane farmers: that the core sampler system of quality control be stopped with immediate effect; that John Gillett be terminated as factory manager for BSI; that Nemencio Acosta, chair of the board, step down, because cañeros felt he was being biased; and that the parties work out a revenue-sharing agreement for the usage of bagasse in the BELCOGEN project (sound familiar?)

A meeting brokered by then-Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega failed and we witnessed angry cañeros nearly overturn his vehicle outside the BSCFA office on the San Antonio Road.

Tempers flared even higher when Prime Minister Dean Barrow asked that the blockades be removed so that he could meet with the cañeros. And they hit a boiling point when police arrived to take control and shot at Gutierrez and others who allegedly tried to enter the BSI factory.

Ultimately, police forced the farmers back, and within days an agreement had been reached to suspend the use of the core sampler.

Things have of course changed in the intervening decade. There is a new government and both the Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister have sugar backgrounds of which only Vega did for the party ruling at that time (attorneys Michael Peyrefitte and Hubert Elrington, who acted as mediators, were also members of the ruling party). The BSCFA was the sole representative of farmers then; its power has since been fractured by internal disputes and court rulings. And BSI is now externally controlled and has drawn what appears to be a hardline on the issues the BSCFA challenges in the commercial agreement.

We continue to follow the story.


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