Mr. Manases Canto
San Antonio Village,
Mrs Isabel Gonzalez
Ms. Lourdes Lazo
|Photos courtesy GOB – Press Office|
Annually in Belize, only two events bring together the mightiest of Belize’s agricultural and commercial/industrial sector: the National Agricultural and Trade Show in Belmopan, and Expo Belize (formerly the Festival Grand Market) in September. Of the two, the “Agric,” held this past weekend under the theme “Agriculture: Feeding Belize, Earning Foreign Exchange,” more primarily focuses on farmers and their contributions to Belize.
But for the most part, agriculture and agro-industry took a back seat over the weekend to the art of the deal – big deals, little deals and all kinds of deals. NATS officials say that about 40% of the booths in the Showgrounds belonged to agricultural or agro-industrial businesses, a slight increase from last year and something the Committee says it will work to improve for future shows.
According to chair of the NATS Committee and Chief Agricultural Officer, Eugene Waight, this has been a consistent trend in recent years of the show, but he gave no particular reason why.
Most local businesses did have a presence at the Showgrounds, and nine Mexican companies were specially invited to showcase their wares, including honey products, snacks, clothing and dry goods.
26,500 Belizeans visited the Showgrounds over two days, and there were no major incidents to speak of, as the police kept a close eye on the event. The figure represents a significant increase from last year’s figure of 18,000, and while above-average for the show, does not match the record figure of about 32,000 set several years ago, possibly due to lean times for the economy.
Worries that heat would be a factor – on Saturday the forecasted temperature was 96° – seemed groundless, as Bowen and Bowen and other beverage makers kept visitors cool and refreshed with water, soft drinks and beer.
And in terms of entertainment, Corozal’s Gilharry 7, Kenny G and New Creation, Leela Vernon and Supa G kept visitors dancing to various tunes on the main stage.
The prize for best booth went to the Citrus Growers Association of Stann Creek District.
Gabino Canto, CEO of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, explained the choice of theme to Amandala after the opening ceremonies on the National Showgrounds in Belmopan on Friday, April 30, by saying that Belize considered herself self-sufficient in most basic food crops and fruits and vegetables, and that the challenge now for the Government is to 1) convince Belizeans to begin eating healthier and pay more attention to agriculture as a means of living; and 2) to gain access to international markets for Belizean products, thereby earning much-needed foreign exchange for the battered Belizean economy.
And so before the festivities of the Labour Day weekend, there was some stocktaking done.
At the opening ceremonies on Friday, Minister of Agriculture, Hon. Rene Montero boasted of 3% growth in the agricultural sector in the last financial year and bumper crops of rice, beans and corn in particular. The only downside appears to be poor years for the traditional export crops, most notably sugar, which has been wracked by labor turmoil and wrangling between producer BSI and the various cane farmers’ associations, and which has lost its preferential market in Europe.
Amid the saving of foreign exchange by increase in food production locally and promises to reduce imports of fruits and vegetables by 20% in the coming year, the Minister announced that Belize would begin moving in the direction of exporting more local products, such as rice and beef.
An upcoming program to eliminate the diseases brucellosis and tuberculosis and running checks to eliminate the infamous “mad cow” disease will clear the way, he stated, for Belize to export 10,000 head of cattle to Mexico, earning about BZ$12.5 million in foreign exchange.
But locally, farmers have much to say about the present conditions and their hopes for the future, according to former Government advisor and economist Dr. Carla Barnett, who addressed the gathering.
Dr. Barnett, currently a consultant for the Horizon 2030 national development project, cited consultation sessions held with farmers across the country in the last few months, among others, in stating a number of concerns about the place of agriculture in Belize’s future development.
Violence in our society, a lack of accountability of government officials and Belizeans in general, and most importantly inadequate infrastructure for both social and economic development in the rural areas are key concerns that must be addressed in any development plan for it to work: “the dealbreakers,” as Dr. Barnett called them.
She went on to say that farmers consider agriculture “more than a business;” that it was crucial to the stability and prosperity of rural communities and that young people in particular seemed to no longer show respect for farmers, or for their produce by committing to a healthy lifestyle.
The farmers, she told the gathering, say they want more of programs like REAP, which taught agricultural science to schoolchildren in the rural communities many years ago but which was discontinued, and greater cooperation between the government ministries, particularly Health, Agriculture and Education.
The issues of land policy, lack of access to capital, proper management and protection of local farmers against aggressive outside competition and illegal activities such as contraband are other major issues that should be addressed.
Most importantly, the farmers want action and commitment from both major political parties to implement any future agreement without resorting to politics.
According to Minister Montero, the Government is “serious” about establishing credit and loans for local farmers, through the Development Finance corporation (DFC) and foreign partners, as well as the introduction and establishment of new technology such as greenhousing and integrated farming systems to ensure diversification and reduce dependency on one crop, as well as recycling materials and developing seeds and other tools at the Ministry’s Central Farm outpost.
What the Minister meant is demonstrated most aptly by those selected as farmers of the year: junior winner Maritza Lazo of Bomba, Belize District; female winner Julia Gonzalez of Rockstone Pond, Belize District, and senior male winner Manases Canto of San Antonio, Cayo.
Lazo runs a 30-acre farm and cultivates a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in addition to cattle, pigs and chickens and makes use of drip irrigation for vegetable production.
Mrs. Gonzalez’s 17-acre farm mixes cultivation of crops and livestock, in addition to tilapia fingerlings, and her products are sold under a label locally.
Mr. Canto’s operation is semi-mechanized, among those who have converted from milpa farming, and on 20 acres produces and sells fruits, vegetables, cattle, pigs and chickens in San Ignacio. He is trained in animal husbandry and vegetable production, pest and disease control and wants to convert to a fully integrated farming system.
On Saturday, the winners were handed an assortment of prizes, including cash from the NATS committee, various agricultural implements including organic solution, seeds, a cold storage unit and other items.
Story courtesy Amandala | Images courtesy Mike Hyde