Like the in the movie, Sparta where King Leonidas led his 300 to face the mighty Persian Empire, Eccleston Irving led a group of about 300 citrus growers in a march to challenge those seeking to oppress them in Pamona Valley on Tuesday, October 30th. Leonidas said, “A new age has begun, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend.” Irving is the Chairman of the Belize Citrus Growers Association (CGA). While their lives may not be on the line, the livelihood of 450 citrus farmers and their family is as the growers are being offered almost $6 million less for their products than they believe they deserve. The perceived villain in this story is the Banks Holdings of Barbados Limited, and what they lack in numbers, they make up for in corporate strength. Banks owns approximately 47% of the shares of the Citrus Products of Belize Limited (CPBL) and the growers own 51%, yet Banks continues to operate the company unilaterally and often completely against the will of the “owners”. Unlike the Greeks, the CGA has elected not to fight with swords. Instead, they will fight with words - words to Almighty God, words to their membership, words to Banks Limited and words to the Government of Belize.
It seems like every year there is a crisis in the citrus industry. That is because the CGA and Banks are engaged in what appears to be an ugly overextended divorce process. It is clear that the relationship between the two parties is beyond repair and unless there is a mutual agreement to focus on reaching acceptable parting terms, the industry will never be able to flourish. In January of 2010, Belize had the opportunity to capitalize on an Arctic air attack on Florida’s citrus plantations. The cold temperature caused massive damage to Florida’s crops - more than 5% of orchids were destroyed. That unfortunate situation meant that Belize would benefit from Florida’s woes, which resulted in higher market prices for citrus products. Instead, the CGA and Banks were fighting over prices then dividends and finally, control of the Board of Directors. In 2011, Belize could have benefited from an early boom that was one positive result of Hurricane Richard. Instead, CPBL refused to accept early delivery of oranges despite the fact that there were thousands of boxes of oranges ready for processing. That again led to wrestling for control of the Board of Directors of the company between the CGA and Banks. 2012 now stands as no exception to this annual saga. The faces are the same and so are the subjects of dispute - prices and control of the company.
CPBL commenced delivery of fruits last week. However, almost all of CGA’s 450 members have decided not to participate. That is because, according to Irving, CPBL is offering growers $8.31 per box of oranges. The association is asking for a price closer to $12 per box, citing record world prices as a basis of their request. According to Irving, “Last year, growers in Florida got $28 dollars for every box of oranges sold and Belizean farmers only received $14.50.” More than the low prices being offered, the CGA is upset at the way at which the price was established. Because of disputes over pricing in previous years, the Prime Minister of Belize intervened, and the Government acted as mediators in an effort to reach an agreement between both parties on issues such as price setting. Both parties agreed that before the opening of a season CPBL should send a memo to the CGA and a committee should then be selected to discuss and determine prices and sales strategy. Instead, CPBL acted unitarily in declaring the season open and announcing that they are now accepting deliveries at a set price. The CGA refers to this act as not only disrespectful to the Association but disrespectful to the law and authority of the country as well because CPBL signed an agreement in which Government acted as mediators and now they are operating in direct contrast to that agreement. In response, the CGA, whose members produce 30% of citrus crop in the entire country, will continue to hold out until CPBL cease its operations and meet at the negotiation table as was promised.
While they could have been making money on delivering their citrus crops, growers marched past the CPBL main headquarters on the Stann Creek Valley Road. While uniformed police officers guarded the compound, the demonstrators stretched out their hands and prayed. They prayed for God to bless the company; they prayed for God’s intervention in the dispute and they prayed for strength to take on their oppressors. Denzil Jenkins is a CGA appointed member of the Board of Directors of CPBL. He is a man of faith, a peaceful man however, he said, “There can be no peace without justice. Where there is injustice there certainly cannot be lasting peace." Jenkins continued, "I'm not here to try and get somebody's company. I'm here to get what is ours."