The Belize Agriculture and Health Authority (BAHA) has seized 3 containers of Guyanese Rice belonging to Importer Jack Charles (Vinod Chawla), and his Belize City business outfit Xtra House.
Those 75 tonnes of rice, which Charles says is Premium Grade “A”, are sitting on the compound of the Port of Big Creek just a few miles east of Independence Village (Mango Creek). That rice arrived on Friday, December 18, in the early hours from the port in Santo Tomas, Guatemala. It landed by barge at one of the berths at the Big Creek Port, and it was offloaded unto the compound. Physically, the rice is in Belize, but until the Government Agency the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) and the Customs Department clears it, the port’s management and staff cannot release it to Charles. He needs permits to import the rice, and he claims that he applied for all the necessary documentation from all the Government agencies involved in importation of goods and services into the country.
As has been widely publicized, BAHA has refused to grant him that permit, and no reason has been given in writing to Charles as to why there is such a refusal. He showed up in Independence Village on Friday, December 18, in the afternoon, where the Senior Quarantine Inspector from BAHA refused to allow him the permit from BAHA to clear the containers. That officer informed Charles and the General public, via the media houses who went down, that the rice cargo was being seized. As you would expect, Charles is not the least bit pleased by this decision, and he is pressing BAHA to give him the written grounds on which they have chosen to detain his shipment of rice.
He and his technical advisor, Sergio Garcia, say that BAHA has a very limited legal jurisdiction by which they can detain and seize a cargo, and those are only for phytosanitary reasons, meaning if the shipment of rice is detrimental to human and agricultural health in Belize. They also assert that BAHA has to provide any importer who’s cargo has been seized with these written reasons so that they can appeal the decision if they so choose. For 5 days now, they’ve been waiting for BAHA to provide those written grounds, and it has not come as yet. Charles says that at some point, he will have to make a decision to sue the Government if the shipment is not released, and if no reasons are provided in writing for it’s continued detention.
On the Government’s side, Jose Alpuche, the CEO in the Ministry of Agriculture, and Dr. Leroy Almendarez, the Director General of Foreign Trade, have discussed the issue publicly, as to why the Barrow Administration is refusing to allow Charles to clear his cargo. They have explained that they are blocking him market access to sell rice in Belize, because the Government must protect the local rice producers. The reason for that is that each CARICOM state has signed onto the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas to allow for equal and fair competition of goods and services. This is the treaty by which Charles is trying to import the Guyanese Rice, which allows for the free movement of goods, services and labor through the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME).
They say that Guyanese Rice is highly subsidized by that country’s government in it’s production, while in Belize, the local rice producers do not enjoy any subsidy by the Barrow Government. They make the point that because of these subsidies, Guyanese rice is able to be produced at a lower cost, which drives the price down for the consumer. This lower cost, if it is allowed to compete with locally produced rice, allows for unfair competition advantages which, if left unchecked, will decimate the local rice industry. According to both officials, there is a threshold percentage of Government subsidy that is allowed, which is capped at 10%.
The Director General of Foreign Trade has commented that if that threshold is exceedingly high the imported good is denied market access because it is considered “illegal”. The Government suspects that this Guyanese Rice that Charles has imported has been subsidized by that country’s government and has far exceeded that 10% threshold for the cost of production. The Government officials have also advanced the argument that under the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas there are different tiers of member states. Lesser Developed Countries (LDC’s) and More Developed Countries (MDC’s). According to the experts the treaty establishes that countries from MDC’s cannot compete with countries from LDC’s for market access, because the more developed countries will have an advantage. Belize is an example of the Lesser Developed Country, while Guyana is an example of a More Developed Country.
The CEO in the Ministry of Trade made the point that in the 1980’s, Haiti had a very vibrant rice industry, but that’s around the time when they decided to allow rice to be imported from America, allow for cheaper rice to the Haitian population of consumers. That unfair trade relations caused the local Haitian rice industry to collapse, forcing it more into the culture of having to import food. He said that the Government and People of Belize need to learn from experiences such as these so that knife-edge balancing act can be done where the best interests of the consumer is weighed against the perpetual viability of industry and productivity in Belize.