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Apr 16, 2018

Banana Titans Unable to Prove Case in Court

The fallout over the designation by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control of banana businessman John Zabaneh as an alleged drug trafficking kingpin continues. While he is no longer under that designation, he had to publicly withdraw from the industry, sending the Mayan King and other banana farms into freefall. Farm managers Meridian Enterprises Limited lost significant loans needed to prop them up, causing hundreds of losses of jobs as well. Now, Meridian is seeking damages from the multinational exporter of bananas, Fyffes Group Limited, itself since being bought out by Sumitomo Group of Japan. But, could Meridian and its attorney Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay convince the Supreme Court that its relationship with Fyffes was unfairly ended? News Five’s Aaron Humes has the result.

 

Jose David Gonzalez, Director, Meridian Enterprises Limited

“The company Fyffes, a multinational, has an exclusive, a monopoly, so to speak, on the bananas grown here in Belize. So if we were growing bananas, who were we selling it to, if we were not a party to that contract? It’s a no-brainer and we are sure that this is going to be overruled as soon as we get to the appeal process.”

 

Jose David Gonzalez

Reporter

“So you all plan to appeal?”

 

Jose David Gonzalez

“Absolutely, absolutely.”

 

Aaron Humes, Reporting

Be that as it may, Supreme Court Justice Michelle Arana ruled today that Meridian Enterprises Limited, owner-managers of the largest producing banana farms in south Stann Creek District, never actually had a direct contract to sell bananas to Fyffes Group Limited, and therefore could not claim against them for damages sustained when it lost hundreds of millions of dollars in 2015 for non-performance of its contractual obligations as supplier. But as Fyffes’ attorney Senior Counsel Rodwell Williams points out, Fyffes’ agreement is with the Banana Growers Association for reasons of law, and any beef should be with them.

 

Rodwell Williams

Rodwell Williams, Attorney for Fyffes Group Limited

“The Banana Growers’ Association is the only entity that the law of Belize authorizes to sell bananas to Fyffes to export bananas. And it tells the Growers’ Association that it sources bananas from its members, and then the B.G.A. sells those bananas which come from its members to Fyffes. The B.G.A. does not plant or grow bananas; it gets the bananas it sells to Fyffes from its members, and it buys them from its members and it waits until Fyffes pays it to pay its members. That’s how it works in practice and how the law sets it out. Now, Meridian brought a claim against Fyffes – why not bring it against the Banana Growers’ Association, I wonder? That’s just I’m wondering why?”

 

Reporter

“Maybe it’s the difference of a few zeros.”

 

Rodwell Williams

“Because it’s a matter of where the deep pocket is. Even though the contract says Fyffes, B.G.A. and growers, but Meridian, the claimant, [their] name doesn’t appear anywhere in the contract, doesn’t appear anywhere. And then one of the persons who claims to be managing Meridian’s farms claims, hearsay-like, I and some two other bally manage it, and one of them, bally name Andres – A-N-D-R-E-S. And when you look at the contract – see, a bally name Andy signed the contract. But Andy signed the contract, Andy’s name appeared there, but Andy didn’t say he was signing for and on behalf of Meridian.”

 

Gonzalez made clear that Meridian’s damage assessment, reported to be in the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars, does not have to do with John Zabaneh’s ‘kingpin’ designation by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which was in 2012, three years before the farm shut down in 2015. But it seems Meridian paid for it anyway.

 

Jose David Gonzalez

“At the onset of the OFAC designation, there was no running for the hills by Fyffes; there was no interruption in the sale of bananas; they happily obliged with the sale of our bananas throughout that process and we had to transition into a different company. That’s where we came in and we took over the management of bananas. Now when it comes to the losses, we’re looking at the basic loss of value for the land, about eighty percent. So you have land that you have grown the value for decades, and suddenly with the stroke of a pen by this multinational company, you suddenly have land that is valued at twenty percent of what it was originally valued at.”

 

Reporter

“Acreage?”

 

Jose David Gonzalez

“Acreage-wise we’re looking at about fifteen hundred acres.”

 

Williams contends that the other side was not entirely forthcoming about its plans. But then who is responsible for the apparent demise of Meridian? Once again, Williams pointed fingers at the Association.

 

Rodwell Williams

“Perhaps you ought to consider whether the B.G.A. said, I won’t do business with Meridian because of OFAC. Ask yourself the question because the practice and the law is that the farmers sell fruit to B.G.A. and B.G.A. sells to Fyffes. So ask yourself the question: is it not also likely or probable that the B.G.A. said to Meridian, we can’t put you in this thing at all. Because OFAC also affects not just Fyffes – it affects any trader in Belize including B.G.A. And the larger problem with B.G.A. is, if it has a contract with Meridian, and it has a contract with Fyffes along with all the other farmers, you could see how the damage would go across all the farmers, not just Meridian. So the B.G.A. in their self-interest, perhaps, needs to be asked the question.”

 

Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

 

Zabaneh was at court in support of the Meridian team but declined comment.

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