June 11, 2004
There is no crisis

Excerpts from the feature address delivered by Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves at the opening of the International Conference on Bananas held at the Methodist church Hall Kingstown June 8- 10 2004


…Bananas are the fourth most important staple crop in the world…Its importance as a health food has dramatically increased in recent years particularly in Europe to the extent that the humble banana has become the centre of a major trade dispute with the United States and the European Union being the chief protagonists, the World Trade Organisation the referee, and the producers and banana workers of the Caribbean and Latin America the major casualties. {{more}}The banana has become a formidable political fruit.
The Caribbean banana industry, assured of a market under preferential access to the British market in the pre-1993 years, enjoyed a significant boom in the 1980s. […]Not only did production in the Windwards soar to 274,000 tonnes in 1992, but bananas accounted then for between 10% and 20% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the three major banana-exporting countries – Dominica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines – and 30-35% of their total labour force.
With the accession of Britain to the Single European Market in 1993 and the adoption of a common banana marketing regime (COMB), there came a dramatic shift in fortunes.
…The banana industry is witnessing a “race to the bottom” in both prices and social and environmental conditions (i.e. a downward spiral in social, environmental terms and in prices). The three major private multinational companies (Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte), … are increasingly buying from cheap labour countries, such as Ecuador, Brazil (Pernambucco), West Africa (Ivory Coast and Cameroon) and Indonesia (Kalimantan).
Behind the companies, it is the more than 500,000 banana plantation workers and the 50,000 or so small and medium-scale producers spread from the Philippines through to the Caribbean Basin and South America and to West Africa and increasingly, South East Asia who have paid, and continue to pay, the lion’s share of the price of the instability in the industry…
The expansion of banana production in West Africa, Ecuador and Brazil is putting pressure on wages and working conditions. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in the last four years as companies shift from “higher cost” countries, leaving former workers with few or no alternative employment opportunities. Downward pressure on wages to compete with lowest wage sources means that most workers now earn below a living wage, especially in Ecuador, the Guatemalan Pacific Coast and Nicaragua. As wages fail to keep up with the cost of living, under-age workers have become increasingly common, forcing school-age children to seek work on plantations, whilst persecution of independent plantation workers’ unions and repression of their attempts to organise and negotiate collective agreements are persisting. That is story outside the Caribbean.
Smaller-scale producers, on the other hand, continue to be squeezed out of production and/or their lands bought up by larger producers. In the Caribbean as a whole, all this has provoked an unprecedented decline in banana exports and associated income, leading to increasing poverty and vulnerability among sections of the farming community and the labour force.
As banana exports began the downward spiral, so too did the fortune of thousands of banana farmers and workers in the Windward Islands. Exports last year (2003) were less than a quarter of the 1990 high of 277,441 tonnes; and earnings in 2002 were only 30% of those a decade earlier. The casualty list in terms of the number of farmers forced out of the industry is a long one. Of the 24,100 registered growers in 1993, less than 8,000 are left today… The real price today, internationally, is less than two-thirds that of 1990 and in the last 18 months alone, banana prices in our UK market have fallen by more than 30 percent…
The new “Lords” of the banana chain are, in terms of economic power, the giant European and North American supermarkets. Their concentration of capital and fierce rivalry have placed the producers and their companies more and more at their mercy pinch.
…As if all this were not enough, there is the impending end to the tariff quota system from which we still enjoy limited benefits. From January 2006 (and if some officials in Brussels have their way, July 2005) there will be a change to a tariff only system, which, if the tariff is not high enough, perhaps close to 300 Euros per tonne, can spell disaster for us.
So, respond we must if we are to survive in the market and to rescue the livelihood of the tens of thousands of those directly or indirectly dependent on the banana dollar. That is why this Conference is an imperative. […] we have not sufficiently coordinated our efforts in a cohesive and strategic thrust, in conjunction with our friends internationally. We simply have no choice now but to move in a concerted way forward.
[…]WE HAVE NO CHOICE but to change radically our approach to the task at hand. Greater collaboration, unity of purpose, reducing costs and increasing productivity, raising the quality bar, protecting our environment and bringing greater returns to those who produce must be the primary focus of our efforts. Nothing, save the well-being of the producer, must be sacrosanct any more.We in the Windward Islands, however, do not consider that an apocalypse should engulf us in a senseless death struggle. We believe that we can all partner locally, regionally, and internationally to avoid social cataclysms and to ensure economic viability. Thus, this most important Conference is one for honest dialogue, and soul-searching, and the adoption of a common plan of action for urgent implementation[…]
Amidst it all, though, bananas from the Windward Islands have found a niche or place in the market which properly exploited can in part, put the industry in a state of viability. But we need lots of help to do so; and in a concerted manner. If we are unsuccessful, the consequences are likely to be horrific.
Locally, all must be fully engaged in this banana salvation enterprise: the farmer, worker, administrator, government, WIBDECO, farmers and workers’ organisations, and the community as a whole. Regionally and internationally, we need all friendly hands on deck in a sustained, cooperative manner.
For my part, I do not speak of a “crisis” in our banana industry. To be sure, there are profound difficulties for which solutions must be and can be found. To me, a crisis arises only when the principals are innocent of the extent of the condition and have no clear idea as to the way out of the extant difficulties. Such innocence does not exist; and a sure way forward can be appropriately fashioned from the bundle of ideas which have been advanced hitherto and which would be thrown up in this Conference. So, let the ideas contend for meaningful action. And let there be no “learned helplessness”, that debilitating condition which paralyses creative thought and action…