After numerous requests from the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), the Cabinet has agreed to convene a Commission of Inquiry to examine “the modernization of the sugar cane industry and improve its viability.”
On Thursday, the Government announced in a statement that after hearing presentations from both the BSCFA and BSI/ASR, the Cabinet has decided to acquiesce to the BSCFA request and carry out a commission of Inquiry.”
The announcement came shortly after the Cabinet’s previous statement in which they revealed that a sub-committee, chaired by Honorable Kareem Musa, would be formed in an attempt to mediate the dispute between the BSCFA and BSI/ASR.
In an interview with The Reporter, the Chairman of the Council of Management of the BSCFA, Alfredo Ortega, explained that the association held some reservations over the potential outcomes of the sub-committee meeting.
“We do not see the benefit. This sub-committee appears similar to the one made in November and nothing much came of that either. What we have been really pushing for is the Commission of Inquiry.”
After peaceful protests and private protests held by the BSCFA, the request was granted.
In the statement released on March 7, the Cabinet announced the formation of the sub-committee as an attempt to “try to get the parties on a collaborative path for the better interest of the industry” and declared that the sugar industry does not need to be nationalized.
Ortega explained that the BSCFA rallied for a Commission of Inquiry so that the farmers may have a clear understanding of where the miller’s funds are allocated. “It is a given that the farmers must pay for certain processes. However, we found out that it only costs 24 dollars to transform raw sugar into ready-to-eat sugar, yet, farmers are paying $150 for this process. That is a very large price difference,” He stated.
Alongside the Commission of Inquiry, the BSCFA also called for the method of payment to farmers to be changed from a Net Stripped Value system to a gross revenue split of 60-40. Ortega claims the implementation of these will only benefit the industry. He stated that the inflation of sugar would be reduced as it would be added to the true cost of the processes. The association remains optimistic that further requests will be heard by the Cabinet.
How Broad is the Commission of Inquiry’s Remit
The BSCFA, in a letter dated March 2nd, had written to the Prime Minister to request the convening of the COI. Therein, they wrote:
“The BSCFA has sought to obtain … a fair sugar-cane price through negotiations with BSI/ASR and a mediation process. But this has not been possible due to the intransigence of BSI/ASR to fully disclose all information to validate their calculation of the sugar cane price.
“For this reason, we urge you to establish a Commission of Enquiry forthwith in order to arrive at the determination of a fair price of sugar cane to be paid to cane farmers.”
Speaking in a media brief on March 3, BSI/ASR’s Director of Finance Shawn Chavarria, when asked whether he believed such a Commission would be practical, said, “We don’t believe so. We know that Commissions of Inquiries have typically been reserved for looking into public bodies and institutions. In this case, BSI is a private company, and the BSCFA is a private organization, made up of private individuals. This includes cane farmers who are business men and women. And so it would seem that a Commission of Inquiry is not an appropriate mechanism to use to try and settle this dispute.”
The Commission of Inquiry Act’s section 2 outlines the parameters under which a Commission could be formed. The law reads:
“Whenever it may seem desirable to the Prime Minister, he may issue a Commission, appointing one or more Commissioners, and authorizing such Commissioners … to inquire into, (a) the conduct or management of any department of the public service; (b) the conduct and management of any public or local institution; (c) the conduct of any public officer of Belize; or “any other matter in which an inquiry would, in the opinion of the Prime Minister, be for the public welfare.”
As Chavarria mentioned, there is some debate over the extent and conditions under which a Commission could be used to look into the affairs of private enterprises.
Futhermore, in Supreme Court Claim No. 33 of 2022, which pitted former Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow against the Commission that was tasked to review the handling of government vehicles, the defendants argued that purpose for forming a Commission could be fairly wide. The court document states:
“The scope of what a prime minister may issue a Commission of Inquiry to inquire into is broad and open-ended. … There is nothing in the Act that limits the scope of its inquiry as exists in other commissions of inquiries legislation in other jurisdictions. If parliament intended to limit its scope, it would have so done.”
The Judgment would add: “This Court, having been provided with other Commissions of Inquiries Act from Caribbean jurisdictions, agrees with this contention.”
Notably, the Cabinet Brief released on Thursday, March 9th, did not speak specifically to any matter related to the “determination of a fair price of sugar cane to be paid to cane farmers.” Instead, it spoke to “the modernization of the sugar cane industry and improve its viability.”