– by Angel Nunez – Up until the 1930’s and 1940’s Sanpedrano men were mostly employed and engaged in the coconut industry, but the Hurricane of 1942 flattened the coconut plantations and destroyed 90% of the houses in the village. Sanpedranos were out of a job and San Pedro without an industry. To survive they turned to the sea for subsistence fishing and eventually took their surplus product to Belize City to be sold at he market. During this time lobster had no market so fishermen caught only what they would consume and threw away the rest from their fish traps. Lobster was considered a pest.
An American heard of the abundance of lobster in the region and offered to buy lobster at 6 cents per pound of tails. The problem was that he did not pay the fishermen until after he had sold the product in the U. S. He exported the lobsters with two sea planes. On one of those occasions the two sea planes never returned. Not too long afterwards another American, one named Devorak, established two companies in Belize City and both San Pedro and Caulker fishermen sold to him at great prices – 10 cents, then 16 cents.
By this time the local fishermen knew that they had to get rid of the middleman in order to get better prices. Some prominent names of SanPedrano fishermen include Geminiano “Gemi” Aguilar, Octavio “Tavo” Alamilla, Alfredo “Fedo” Alamilla, and Allan Forman. This was when the idea of a fishing cooperative came about.
A Catholic priest by the name of Father Ganey had introduced the concept of credit unions and cooperatives in Belize and the entire country was embracing the concept. It was not an easy journey because the foreign buyers tried to boycott their efforts. When in San Pedro the folks scheduled a meeting in 1961, Devork had his agents come to San Pedro and distribute rum to get them all drunk so they could not attend the meeting; this first attempt failed. Furthermore the foreign buyers lobbied with government NOT to give the fishermen an export quota.
However Sanpedranos were persistent. In 1962 they organized a second meeting assisted by PUP Area Representative Louis Sylvestre and had a meeting at the famous Blake House. The cooperative was organized and members were selected to sell shares at a rate of $60, with five dollars down plus 50 cents for record keeping and advances given to the producers. After eight months $1,800.00 had been collected and several meetings had been held to work out details for the new organization.
Peter Hancock, an American engineer who had immigrated to Ambergris Caye in the 1950’s and lived at a cocal north of the village gave invaluable assistance to the new cooperative. He gave advice, wrote letters, drafted the cooperative’s by-laws and consulted with government officials. Because he was loved and trusted, his presence encouraged many more fishermen to join the movement. In March of 1963 the San Pedro fishing cooperative was registered as Caribena Producers, Cooperative Society Limited.
The cooperative received lobsters at the beach from the fishermen who received a redeemable receipt at their small office set up downstairs of Tio Pil’s house. The lobster tails were handled by Caribbean Queen in Belize City. By now Caye Caulker was receiving $2.10 per pound in the U.S. markets so San Pedranos kept working hard for their own freezers and processing plant. The break of good luck came in 1964 when Jim Blake, son of James Howell Blake, brought an American named Adam Smith to the island and he promised to help them with their processing plant – equipment, generators, compressors, refrigeration equipment, etc. provide they sold to him and pay him 20 percent of their profits of each shipment.
By 1965 the cooperative was exporting 115 pounds of lobster and 180,000 pounds by 1980. Their record high was in 1982 when Caribena Producers exported 184,000 pounds. During this time the fishing cooperative also added the purchase and exportation of whole fish, fillet, conch and even shrimp. The success of Caribena was also measured by electricity and refrigeration offered to the entire village.
But the most remarkable mark of success was the financial benefits to its members. The cooperative got to pay its members as much as $2.20 per pound upon delivery and at its annual general meeting it offered as much as $6.00 per pound to its members, with some members totaling 5000 pounds. You do the maths. And then there was another one dollar per pound rebate around Christmas time accompanied by hams and turkeys to each member.
Caribena grew to become the most powerful and successful cooperative in the country of Belize but eventually ran into problems and fell. In a few years its production declined to only 10,000 pounds and its membership to a handful of fishermen. Eventually it went defunct and today is only a memory. I will one day give you a story of its success and final death.