The sugar industry is a vital component of Belize’s economy, providing significant employment, foreign exchange earnings and other social and environmental benefits. Total direct employment is about 4,800 persons alongside the more than 5,000 registered sugar cane farmers. It is estimated that some 40,000 persons are dependent on the industry (equivalent to almost 15% of the country’s population). Over the last 10 years, sugar accounted on average for 7.8% of the country’s GDP and about 34 % of total foreign exchange earnings as a percentage of agricultural exports. .
The industry is largely concentrated in the Northern districts of Corozal and Orange Walk – also called the ‘Sugar Belt’ with approximately 65,000 acres of sugar cane planted but has not been verified. The process of verification is currently on-going with participation of SCPC, BSCFA, BSI/ASR and SIRDI field officers through the implementation of the Sugar Industry Management Information System (SIMIS). The production of cane in the field is considered inefficient and current production of 850,000 tons per annum forms the main source of the industry’s inability to compete on cost competitiveness.
The Belize Sugar Industry is at a critical transition phase since the cessation of the Preferential Sugar Protocol Agreement with the European Union to which most of its sugar production is sold. The succeeding agreement continues to allow sugar produced in Belize and sold to the EU to enjoy tariff free market access. Under these conditions, Belize and other ACP countries also enjoy guaranteed quotas to refineries in the European Union (EU). The quota arrangements are likely to end in 2017/2018 and will most likely be replaced by fully liberalised trade in the commodity. This means that Belize will have to strive towards improving competitiveness and efficiencies. The industry has identified that these broad objectives can be accomplished by increasing cane yield per unit area that would result in reducing production costs, in order to maintain profitability under current market conditions. Belize continues to be the lowest cost sugar producer in the Caribbean region (SAC reports). However, it has recognised that it will have to concentrate on improving field productivity in order to remain competitive in the impending market changes. A policy decision has been taken by industry stakeholders to remain in sugar (Belize Country Adaptation Strategy) as it remains the principal economic engine of the northern region of the country.
The Sugar Industry Research and Development Institute (SIRDI) was legally constituted with the passage of the Sugar Industry Act in 2001. It was activated a few years later to focus mainly on extension service and farmer education. As part of its mandate it worked very closely with the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association’s (BSCFA) field technicians providing advice on the BSCFA’s farmer support programs. Industry stakeholders have decided to augment SIRDI’s role, with the support of the European Union (EU), to provide technical assistance to the industry in response to the above mentioned anticipated changes to Belize’s sugar marketing arrangements. SIRDI main objective is to strengthen the technical capabilities and productivity of the cane farmers on whom the Tower Hill Factory depends for about 90% of its sugarcane supply.
The Tower Hill factory is owned and operated by Belize Sugar Industries Ltd., a private company. The principal shareholder up to September 2012 was the employees of the factory, through a beneficiary trust called Belize Employee Holdings. In October 2012, American Sugar Refiners (ASR) acquired the majority shares of BSI, making the BSI part of the single largest sugarcane processing group in the world. BSI has commenced an aggressive programme of modernisation and expansion that will see the processing capacity of the Tower Hill factory increasing from 1.2 to 2.0 million tonnes of cane in a 25 week processing season by 2020. The projected expansions will almost double the present capacity of the mill. The challenge to the cane farmers, therefore, is to significantly increase cane production by increasing productivity to supply the major volume of this cane from the current area in production, with perhaps a marginal increase in area. SIRDI will play a pivotal role in developing the technical capacities of the producers to respond to the increased demand of cane. Added to this, a new sugarcane company, Green Tropics, a Guatemalan company, is exploring the development of a new sugarcane project and mill in the central Cayo District. SIRDI would also have to support this new venture with required agronomic advisory services.