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onion-1From as far back as late February this news-station has been covering the onion crisis in the north. While the rest of the media seems to just be taking notice of an industry which stands to lose millions of dollars, we’ve travelled from Cristo Rey in Corozal to San Carlos in the far south of the Orange Walk district. Everywhere the story and images have been the same – tens of thousands of pounds of onions spoiling in the field and local producers claiming that they stand to lose everything, including their investment, if there is no intervention by government or the Belize Marketing and Development Corporation. Well yesterday, there was finally some comment from an official source, though it certainly did not contain any comfort for local onion farmers. In fact, the Managing Director of the BMDC came across as nonchalant and relatively unconcerned. And worse than that, he claims that there is nothing that he can do, or intends to do. We’ll have those comments by Mai a little later, but we start tonight’s coverage of the onion crisis by repeating a story which we did a month ago in Cristo Rey. Here’s that piece.

Carmelita Perez- Reporting

Local onion producers in the north say they are facing the worst economic times ever. The losses, they say, are in the millions and they cast the blame on the poor decisions of the Government set-up Belize Marketing Development Corporation.

Last month, the Marketing Board imported some 195,000lbs of onions from Holland. This, despite the fact, that Belize has been self-sustainable in onion production.

The situation has caused an oversupply of onions in the local market, which has translated into enormous losses for local farmers.

This year local production is estimated at 1.5 million pounds. Local producers have had to reduce the price of a sack of onion from $55.00 to $20.00, to compete with the Belize Marketing Board who is selling a sack of the imported onion for only $15.00.

Santiago Che- Chairman Corozal Onion Producers

“Nosotros le mandamos un email desde el tres de enero que nosotros ibamos a empesar a cosechar desde medianos de enero para cosechar el local pero sin embargo el dice que no lo recibio pero tengo pruebas que el department de Agricultura lo mando. Ellos metieron 195 mil libras de Hollandesa y todavia metieron como 15 o 20 mil mas de morado y blanco que es de Mexico. Entonces eso nos hizo saturar el mercado porque el estaba vendiendo a $60.00 el saco y nosotros lo ibamos a dar a $55.00 el saco, hasta un dolar estabamos dispuestos a dar la libra para que el consumidor no pague tanto pero el Marketing Board al ver esto empeso a bajar su precio. Ahorita estan vendiendo un saco a $15.00 mientras que nosotors estamos vendiendo a $20.00.”

The email alluded to was sent to the Marketing Board on January 3rd. It spelled out how much onion was expected to be harvested this year by over 70 onion producers in the north and at what price it would be sold. That; however, did not stop the Marketing Board from importing imported onions which arrived on February 12th.

Today the wholesale price per a pound of onion stands at 40 cents. But even with such a low price, producers say it is not selling and millions of dollars are being lost.

onion-2Santiago Che- Chairman Corozal Onion Producers

“Aca en mi rancho estoy perdiendo como 25 a 30 mil libras aparte del precio estoy perdiendo $30.00 por saco de lo que yo estoy vendiendo a $20.00. Total estoy perdiendo como $60,000 mil dolares. Es muy lamentable porque nosotros invertimos nuestro tiempo y dinero y tenemos riesgo de que el banco no nos ayude otra vez y tu sabes necesitamos el dinero para invertir otra vez.”

Raul Mai- Secretary, Corozal Onion Producers

“Last year I got a dollar a pound this year I am only getting 40 cents a pound. I am losing about $50,000 because I planted five acres.”

Raul Mai has been in onion production for 7 years and as far as he can recall this is the worst year ever.

Raul Mai- Secretary, Corozal Onion Producers

“Every year before we come into production we invite different groups especially the Agriculture Department, Marketing Board, the Minister and the Ministry of Agriculture. We invite them so that we can come together to discuss ways in which we can work and in this case it was very important for us to ensure that Marketing Board was to come and discuss with us so that we could decide when to close the importation. I believe that for our economy to grow we need the assistance of the Agriculture Department especially when it comes to technical advice. Since I planted, no day have they reached to my farm, right now they don’t know if I have onions or not. When it comes to the other departments like Marketing Board they did not do anything to help us. When It comes to the Minister from what I can recall the only visit he gave us was three years ago up to now and we have invited him many times and he has not assisted us.”

Mai strongly believes onion producers are not receiving the assistance they need from the corresponding authorities. And with approximately 100,000 lbs of onions spoiling in the fields, producers hope their voices will be heard.

Santiago Che- Chairman Corozal Onion Producers

“No se si el Ministro de Agricultura sabe de esto o talves no quiere darle importacia a lo que esta pasando. Yo le pido que si el lo oye que haga algo porque el es el hombre que tiene que ver lo que esta pasando aca porque si no nosotors como vamos a pagar nuestra cuenta en el banco si aca esta el producto no es que no sabemos trabajar es que lamentablemente no podemos vender el product.”

Raul Mai- Secretary, Corozal Onion Producers

“I am asking the Government especially the Ministry of Agriculture to please try to contact us farmers let’s sit down and let’s talk about this problem.”

That story was aired on March 21, and nothing has changed – including no word from the Ministry of Agriculture and no word from the BMDC. Well, no word from the BMDC until yesterday, when Managing Director Roque Mai made the media rounds to inform the nation that the BMDC and the Ministry of Agriculture are as innocent of blame as newborn babies and the farmers are responsible for the current crisis. We spoke to Mai by phone yesterday evening.

maiRoque Mai – Managing Director, BMDC

“There is allegations being said that BMDC is undermining farmers but there is trend that every year the local production would come in mid February and BMDC would stop importing at mid February but however what transpired this year is that farmers started harvesting early in January 15th they started to harvest. At that time we already had the shipment of imported onions on the way which was two containers. The last one arrived in the first week of February that would have been finished around the 13th or the 14th of February. But as I mentioned the farmers started harvesting too early and that caused a clash between the local and BMDC when it comes to the imported onions.”

According to Mai, BMDC is not underselling the farmers by selling onions for $15, and he claims he has the receipts to prove it.

Roque Mai – Managing Director, BMDC

“We still have about two containers of onions in stack right now and what we are doing is that we are selling at $20.00 in contrary to the $15.00 which farmers say we are selling for and we have the receipts to prove it. The sales have declined over the past three weeks we are selling maybe three to five bags which we believe would not affect the massive amount because total consumption of onions weekly is 90 thousand pounds.“

And he goes further to say that BMDC is not the problem – he claims that the farmers are their own worst enemies because they are competing with each other.

Roque Mai – Managing Director, BMDC

“The problem is not BMDC, I am looking at this point here the problem is the over supply of production there is a lot of farmers that planted this year and everybody want to sell so the competition is amongst themselves because on the 15th of February BMDC purchased some 130 bags from the local farmers of Corozal at 45.00 a bag and the next day it was a t30.000 a bag so who is competing?”

And like we said at the very beginning, Mai claims that there is absolutely nothing they can or will do to assist farmers at this point, since both parties are losing money.

Roque Mai – Managing Director, BMDC

“If we write off all the onions tomorrow believe you me next week we will listen to the same cries again because there is an oversupply of onions what can we do with the onions? We cant force the Belizeans to eat it. There is certain amount that can be consumed and to tell you the truth BMDC is taking a loss and the farmers will take a loss. It is a pity, I am really sorry for them because as a farmer they work hard and to sell their onion for $20.00 a sack is not much profit and the same goes for BMDC. So taking a look at it we are both losing.”

Mai also told us that the Ministry of Agriculture cannot be blamed for anything. And of course, we were not able to reach either CEO Gabino Canto or Chief Agriculture Officer Eugene Waight today. For weeks CTV-3 has been attempting to get an official comment from the Ministry, but with no success. We’ll have much more on this story early next week.

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