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‘Largest individual citrus grower’ John Zabaneh portends ‘the end of the citrus industry,’ claiming “ridiculous” prices unsustainable

Posted: Friday, January 6, 2023. 8:31 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: This week, Minister of Agriculture Jose Abelardo Mai, fresh off putting out a fire in the sugar industry in the North, issued an alarm for Belize’s other foundational agricultural industry, citrus in the South.

On an appearance on Channel 5 News on Tuesday, he indicated that the grapefruit and orange harvest “[is] not looking well. The yields are down, farmers are reporting to be clearing down their orchards. It appears that the farmers are not satisfied with the price being paid.”

He added that he was planning to meet them this week to look into the situation, as the Government through the Development Finance Corporation, had allocated monies to help rehabilitate existing farms and replant them with more tolerant varieties of oranges and grapefruit.

However, businessman John Zabaneh, who described himself as Belize’s “largest individual citrus grower” with orchards covering 4,500 to 5,000 acres of orange and grapefruit, told Breaking Belize News (BBN) via telephone that it’s even worse than that – that the country is facing “the end of the citrus industry.”

Citrus Products of Belize Limited (CPBL), the manufacturer of juices and other products made from citrus fruits, is only paying $14 per box of orange and grapefruit delivered to its Pomona factory. This is based on calculations derived from the previous crop year’s prices of $15.045 per box of oranges and $15.91 per box of grapefruit, the highest prices ever seen in the industry under the price formula negotiated in 2001, claims CPBL. CPBL further claims it has lost $30 million over the last five years due to “inequities” in the formula and has asked the two main associations of citrus growers, the Citrus Growers Association (CGA) and Belize Citrus Mutual (BCM) to have their members agree to new negotiations, with the $14 price in place only for this crop year.

But Zabaneh vehemently disagrees. He attacked the decision in our telephone interview as “ridiculous and unconscionable – ridiculous and totally unconscionable. At a time like this when citrus [prices are] the only thing that has gone down in the world according to who set those prices, everything [else] has gone up,” citing the costs of fuel, fertilizer and other chemicals which have gone up 100 to 300 percent.

“They expect the growers who are suffering to make a sacrifice they cannot afford; they cannot afford it. So, you’re saying this is…this is the end. If $15.91, they could not survive on that, how can they survive on 14 dollars?” asked Zabaneh, who said that essentially the offer was “take or leave it” and he left it – he refused to harvest his estimated three thousand boxes of grapefruit and says fellow farmers may not as well. “It’s definitely not sustainable at these prices, and for whatever reason that they are offering that low price, because they cannot afford to pay it or whatever, it marks the end of the citrus industry. I don’t see them being serious about bringing back the citrus industry anyway,” he added.

Zabaneh said he was “disenchanted and discouraged,” arguing that the 2001 formula is a good enough formula for both parties and suggesting that CPBL is now simply trying to “dictate” to growers. According to him, some growers responded by leasing their lands that were under citrus production to Mennonite farmers for growing grains, unwilling to tolerate the “arrogance” under the current regime: “it’s a disaster, and remember my word for it – it’s a disaster and taxpayers are going to end up paying the price” for the CPBL losses. “It’s a total disaster”, he said.

There is no comparison to the situation up north with the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers’ Association (BSCFA) and Belize Sugar Industries Limited/American Sugar Refining (BSI/ASR); for one, CPBL has divested itself of its outside interest in Banks Holdings of Barbados, and for another, according to Zabaneh, “If citrus growers were anywhere near half what the cane growers are, there would be a major disruption here in the Valley, a major disruption. This arrogance could not pass.”

Instead, the CGA and BCM, once at odds, have been working very closely together and with CPBL, Zabaneh charged. He further hinted that some “in high places in government” are not looking out for the industry at a time when prices and demand are at their highest.

Zabaneh says he is not interested in borrowing further money to maintain citrus orchards under the current regime: “there is no more citrus growers’ confidence, there is no more citrus grower love for the industry; it’s over. We have all grown up on citrus, went to school, went to college, everything; all we know is citrus here, like the people up north [where] all they know is sugar cane. They stand up for their industry; people here take it like nothing, they take it quietly.”

BBN will be approaching CPBL, the two grower associations – CGA and Belize Citrus Mutual – as well as Ministry of Agriculture personnel to get their take on the current situation and prospects for the industry.


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