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Oct 30, 2006

Citrus growers accept committee report

Story PictureWith the first fruits of what should be Belize’s most profitable crop now being processed, the biggest question in the Stann Creek Valley is: who will own the Citrus Company? On Saturday a special general meeting of the Citrus Growers Association gathered to finally make that decision. News Five’s Stewart Krohn reports.

Stewart Krohn, Reporting
The battle lines had been clearly drawn for weeks … but growers on both sides of the debate did agree on one thing: that nothing less than the future of Belize?s most promising agro-industry was at stake. The committee of five had put in over five hundred hours of work to pass judgment on a deal that would sell forty-six percent of the grower owned processing company to a group of Eastern Caribbean investors … a deal that a number of people believe was a sell-out.

Denzil Jenkins, Citrus Grower
?We say no to this agreement; no to this agreement. It would stupid, shall I repeat, it would be stupid on our part at this meeting to say that we accept that agreement subject to changes. The people who are behind this agreement they signed it in secret, they kept it secret from us, they have lied to us and can you trust them? (People yelling no) Absolutely not.?

Tony Chanona, Secretary, Committee of Five
?I am saying Denzil Jenkins is wrong. We must find a way not to micro-manage what we are trying to do but to keep focus on what we want to achieve. If we are stupid to be making a recommendation then that?s his opinion. But I do not want to associate myself with Denzi?s position, because I do not think that that is in the interest of the industry.?

But what is in the interest of the industry was exactly what growers were being asked to decide. The five man committee set out sixteen recommendations that would have made King Solomon proud. Having concluded that the citrus company?s board had the authority to act, and had negotiated in good faith … they went on to propose amendments to the contract that?depending on your view?were either minor clarifications, or major improvements when the floor was opened to debate no one was shy.

Tony Zabaneh, Citrus Grower
?This, gentlemen I want you all?you who have elected and the people have been serving you for the past two years, and have given you better prices and are seeking better prices. So I am recommending to you today to accept the recommendation of the board, because I can only see betterment for the growers and the industry on a whole.?

Muthugounder Venugopal, Citrus Grower
?Prices are better because the global prices are better. It is not because of somebody in Belize.?

Denzil Jenkins
?If the agreement was not seen by me and exposed it would have been signed and it would have been a done deal.?

Frank Redmon, Citrus Grower
?I ask that we not allow unfunded insinuations against individuals who work for us, especially individuals who have done such a good job. Please do not allow unfunded insinuations.?

William Tillett, Chairman
?Can you move beyond that now Eugene??

Eugene Zabaneh, Citrus Grower
?No, because this is a part of the agreement, and if they didn?t want it to be there then they shouldn?t have it there. This is public knowledge this is in the agreement and such Mr. Chairman I have all rights to be speaking on this agreement.?

William Tillett
?You are speaking on the agreement??

Eugene Zabaneh
?That is correct I am speaking on the agreement.?
William Tillett
?Lets move forward for the people who would like to respond to whatever you are saying.?

Eugene Zabaneh
?Oh you don?t want me to touch these?these people are higher than we can touch, so we must not even speak about them, because that is what I am gathering here. It is sacrilege; we should not be talking about them.?

Henry Canton, C.E.O., Citrus Products of Belize
?I think what we should do Mr. Chairman is move quickly towards coming up with a motion to accept and move forward. I think that is what we should do.?

And after more hard talk and some procedural wrangling a set of competing motions were finally put forward. Despite the insurgents best efforts, the majority decided to accept the committee?s report, with the proviso that they also are fully implemented by the negotiating team. And while those on the losing side were gracious they still expressed doubts whether this deal is the best that growers could get.

Stewart Krohn
?Is twenty-five million Belize dollars for forty-five percent of C.P.B.L. enough value to satisfy you??

Eugene Zabaneh
?Well again, this was one of the concerns that we had that we wanted to raise but we were handicapped because of time. We were not given sufficient time to really go through the agreement in detail. But certainly if we look at the value of what we are selling twenty-five million doesn?t even come close to compensating us for what we are giving. So certainly as far as monetary value for the shares that we are giving up, for the block of shares, I think that we are short changed.?

Denzil Jenkins
?And I am saying as a strategic partner that they are not the partners we are looking for because they have absolutely no experience in value added juices and in particular citrus juices. They have none.?

But whatever the abilities of the investors, there will be no contract unless they agree to the new terms. For the man in charge of bringing the deal home, citrus company, C.E.O., Henry Canton, the next few weeks are crucial.

Henry Canton
?What I see is not changes, all I see are clarifications. Therefore, the amendments speak for the clarifications. We negotiated in good faith and we negotiated as a partnership. Therefore, I would find it very difficult to say that the investors would not say yes because it?s good faith. These guys aren?t coming here to try to run our business. The big business is not in the commodity side of the business, the big business is going from here?cost plus twenty percent in co-packing and manufacturing and then cost plus thirty-five percent in distribution and that?s where the business is. And that?s where Belize needs to be.?

And would he have done things differently?

Henry Canton
?What I would do now in hind sight is?because there is no hidden agendas I would have been a little more public with the issues. But there are certain confidential issues that would have not been able to disclose because in negotiating between partners your partner ties you, or the person who is coming to invest ties you, to confidentialities on their part. But yes I would do different; I would try to have made it more public.?

With another acrimonious meeting behind them, it is hoped by all concerned that at some point in the near future Belizean citrus growers can get back to doing what they do best: growing the best oranges and grapefruits in the world.

Stewart Krohn for News Five.

The recommendations by the Committee of Five generally address the issue of insuring that the Citrus Growers Association maintains control of the company, including the dividends policy and the negotiations of prices paid for fruit. Members of the committee are Chairman William Tillett, secretary Anthony Chanona and members Arsenio Burgos, Christopher Roe and Victor Quan. As in most matters involving citrus growers, it?s never over till it’s over. Tonight we are informed that a group of C.G.A. members are seeking to overturn the outcome of Saturday’s meeting on the grounds that, due to an error of parliamentary procedure, vote on accepting the committee’s recommendations were never taken. News Five’s Stewart Krohn, who brought this problem up to various dissident growers following the meeting, reports that they acknowledged the error but agreed that they would abide by the majority sentiment as expressed by the earlier voting. And to further complicate matters, it should not be forgotten that there is also a pending lawsuit against the investment agreement, claiming that the company’s board never had the legal authorisation to conclude any final deal. The full report of the Committee of Five will be available by Tuesday on the C.G.A. website: www.belizecitrus.org

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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