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Jan 5, 2016

A Comprehensive Look at the Rice Wars of Belize

Businessman Jack Charles’ attempt to bring in the Guyanese rice for retail started months ago; tonight he is seeking to stop the destruction of three containers of the staple. In the following report, News Five’s Isani Cayetano takes a look back at how the issue of introducing cheaper rice into the local market evolved and ended up in the courts.


Isani Cayetano, Reporting

As a cereal grain, rice is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of Belize’s population.  By and large, we eat as much as twelve thousand tons of rice each year.  That’s a total of twenty-four million pounds prepared for dinner plates across the country.  Over the years, local producers have been working tirelessly to ensure self-sufficiency in rice and, for the most part, they have been fairly successful.  So, when the idea of introducing grain from Guyana was initially proposed in March 2015, the suggestion was very much frowned upon by industry stakeholders, as well as government.


Prime Minister Dean Barrow [File: March 25th, 2015]

“There are ongoing meetings between the Ministry of Agriculture and the local rice producers.  I will only say at this point that we believe that the situation can be managed in such a way as to bring the price of rice, locally produced rice, down for the consumer in such a manner as would make it unnecessary for them to want to consume instead the imported rice.  It’s a work in progress and the situation is still fluid.”


And, that’s how it would seemingly remain for the better part of nine months, until businessman Jitendra Chawla revisited the notion in early December.  Only this time, the proprietor of Xtra House was prepared to put his money where his mouth is.  Through another company, RC Imports, Jack Charles, as he is better known, proceeded to bring in three containers of prepackaged Guyanese rice.


His determination to introduce cheaper rice into the local market triggered a back-and-forth between farmers and government officials, past and present, about the issue of food security.  The supply of rice and access to it became the issue at hand.  Enter former agriculture CEO and regional trade specialist Sergio Garcia.


Sergio Garcia

Sergio Garcia, Regional Trade Specialist [File: December 15th, 2015]

“I’ve heard the C.E.O. and other senior officials speak about food security and even the Mennonites and the other millers speaking about food security, but they have the wrong concept of what is the problem in Belize.  Food security, in Belize there is no lack of availability of supplies, there is.  The problem is access.  The problem is that the average Belizean consumer cannot afford the price of rice, okay.  And what that tells you?  We are saying that we can bring rice that is more affordable to the consumers and ensure their food security.”


Sure enough, Jack Charles made good his promise.  On the morning of December seventeenth, a consignment of three shipping containers, each carrying fifty thousand pounds of rice, arrived at the port in Big Creek.  That delivery had made its way from Guyana to Belize via Guatemala.  Prior to its coming however, the Belize Agro-productive Sector Group, a consortium of individual growers from across the industry weighed in on the legitimacy of the cargo, in the absence of an import permit.


Henry Canton

Dr. Henry Canton, Chairman, Belize Agro-productive Sector Group [File: December 15th, 2015]

“The case here is that even though rice may have come from Guyana in the past, each time that rice hits Belize or comes to Belize it has to have a valid BAHA permit for that specific shipment, and our understanding is that BAHA permit for this specific shipment has not been granted.”


That nugget would essentially form the basis of government’s argument in a subsequent proceeding.


Back at Big Creek on the afternoon of December seventeenth.  Jack Charles has made the journey south to retrieve his freight.  At the local BAHA office however, he is met with news that the payload would not be surrendered to him.


Israel Pech

Israel Pech, Senior Quarantine Inspector, BAHA [File: December 17th, 2015]

“Based on the instructions from my supervisor, that I explained to the importer, we are detaining the cargo, the shipment of rice.  And if there is further information that he needs, he can contact my supervisor.”


Jack Charles

Jack Charles, Proprietor, RC Imports [File: December 17th, 2015]

“As you can see, I had already processed my customs entry to get my goods to be released and after the customs, we have to come get clearance from the BAHA.  Yes, as you guys know, we don’t have the permit, but we had already applied for it – the BAHA SPS requirements, but we had already applied in July right.  And we are here; we brought all the documents, all the certificates needed basically.  Those same kind of certificates they had used for the last year importation of rice from Guyana.”


With the shipment impounded, Jack Charles would later initiate legal proceedings in an effort to challenge BAHA’s decision to confiscate the containers.  On Christmas Eve, representatives of all parties, including the Mennonite communities of Blue Creek, Shipyard and Spanish Lookout, appeared in Supreme Court.  An application had been filed to grant leave for judicial review.  This, while the batch of grain accrued stowage costs in Big Creek.  Despite their confidence that government would end up absorbing that expense, Justice Sonya Young set aside the application.  Again, not having secured an import permit prior to receiving the cargo proved fatal.


Leroy Banner

Leroy Banner, Attorney, RC Imports[File: January 4th, 2016]

“What happened is that the court held that because there was no import permit, and that was so important, that because the importer did not have that import permit them what he did was unlawful and she would not grant leave to apply for judicial review.  She is pretty much saying that you needed the import permit and without that you cannot import goods into Belize.”


From a regional perspective, the saga involving Jack Charles and the importation of rice has a lot to do with the CARICOM Single Market and Economy framework.  Under the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas which establishes the CSME, member states are allowed to trade goods and services across the Caribbean.  While that may be so, regulations are also in place to protect markets in Lesser Developed Countries such as Belize from being infiltrated by More Developed Countries like Guyana. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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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