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onion1Our news teams have travelled to three locations in the north of the country – Cristo Rey, Little Belize and San Carlos – and everywhere we go the story is the same. There is an onion crisis. Farmers through no fault of their own are in real danger of losing everything they have invested into onion production. By any measure it is a critical issue which requires immediate action. That action has not been forthcoming from this administration. In fact, it seems that government is turning a blind eye to the crisis in the hopes that it will just go away. But it won’t. Today we spoke to Jose Abelardo Mai, who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture for 17 years and has vast experience in growing and marketing onions, and asked him if it is as serious as we think it is.

Jose Mai – Agriculture Expert

“It is a serious as 2 million Belize dollars it is people’s lifetime so I think that we must give importance to this crisis and if the Government does not put importance it means that they don’t care for the Belizean farmer and the economic situation that people are undergoing.”

According to Mai, the work of balancing local produce and imported onions is not rocket science, but something went drastically wrong along the way.

Jose Mai – Agriculture Expert

“There are a number of facts that we need to know and it is out there we know it. First and foremost we need to know when onions are planted in this country, how much acreage is planted the expected time of harvest, the monthly or weekly consumption and these facts we know because the extension service has done a good job in informing the Marketing Board of these facts. Now having that information the Marketing Board must then operate under these facts. We know that the country consumes between 60 and 70 thousand pounds of onions weekly so we know that if you are to import onions this is what you must provide the country with. It is not the first time that Marketing Board is importing onions from Holland because onions in Holland is very cheap and they have a long shelf life. Now if they would have been studying or reviewing the information provided to them, they would have know that onions by last month would have been harvested so your shipments have to be ordered before so that it can arrive in the local market and be absorbed by the population before the crop comes in. There is still a substantial amount of Dutch onions in the local market now the entire local production has come in and almost everything has been harvested and what has not been harvested is because they are leaving it out there so that it stores In the ground but everything almost has been harvested and yet there is still Dutch Onions so that means and that shows that there was a substantial amount of Dutch Onions imported at a much later date than when the local harvest came in so this is a very huge miscalculation”

And although he chose his words carefully, it was obvious that he had his own thoughts on what went on at the Marketing Board.

Jose Mai – Agriculture Expert

“It is too big to say it is an error or a little miscalculation I believe that someone knows exactly or new exactly what they were doing and they imported onions intentionally. It is a money maker hence someone may have gotten a little over ambitions and may not have observed or foreseen the level of the economic damage it could have done to the small farmer and now it has blown up in their face. So I believe that yes it is too much of a large volume imported to say it is and error. This is a serious miscalculation and to me in my analysis someone new exactly what they were doing.”

And then, of course, there is the million dollar question…or in this case the 2 million dollar question. What now? What can government do?

Jose Mai – Agriculture Expert

onion“It is already bad that the onions have been imported at a wrong time but it is double bad when you do nothing about it now at that time when it happened to us the Minister was the Honorable Servulo Baeza and his instructions were you go out there and you do what you have to do to help the onion producer. I remember going out to Cristo Rey and getting information as to how much onions were in the market and how much we had in stack and we made an agreement with the farmer that we would purchase their onion that are on the market right now. We signed an agreement with the farmers and we purchase a large amount of onions so that we would not compete with the small farmer and instead market the local onion. The amount of local onions out there right now and the amount of the imported onion is huge we are talking about 2 million pounds of local onions nobody knows the amount of imported onions out there because no one wants to release the information. I do not know if this alternative is viable at this time it is a practical one can you go out and buy 2 million pounds of onions, 2 million pound of onion is like 8 months supply of onions. From my judgment I would even go as far and say that the Marketing Board should dispose of their onions and start buying from the local producers. The second option I believe is that the Marketing Unit for the Ministry of Agriculture must quickly make contact with Caricom and ask then for possible outlets we all know that Caricom also imports Dutch Onions and onions from Europe. The Caricom also has a very strong jerk sauce industry that if we have onions that are not completely destroyed or spoilt them we can find an outlet for that. We must also look at the Fresh Onion Industry too we have onions at 70 cents a pound or the Government may say we have to sell to Caricom at 40 cents a pound which is below the cost of production but the Government must come in and subsidize the farmer.”

But expecting that government will step to the line and do what it has to do might be expecting too much. For now, things are looking really bad for onion producers in the north.

Jose Mai – Agriculture Expert

“I do not see movement in any direction now the worst case scenario is that these farmers would lose their shirts this year. If you would listen to the farmers you would know that they are ailing and this is the worst time to be an onion producer in this country.”

Despite weeks of trying, CTV-3 has been unable to speak to Roque Mai from the Belize Marketing Board or CEO of the Ministry of Agriculture Gabino Canto. Both seem to have become chronically unavailable, at least when we call.

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