EU lobbies for Caribbean bananas
January 28, 2005

EU lobbies for Caribbean bananas

Fighting for the future of European markets, banana farmers in Latin America and the Caribbean may have some hope for survival. That is the assurance coming from Labour Member of the European Parliament, Linda McAvan. {{more}}

McAvan was here in St. Vincent last weekend as part of a delegation at a workshop to prepare for the second International Banana Conference slated for the end of April in Brussels, Belgium.

Preparatory plans are currently on-going for what will be the second major International Conference in seven years, involving the Latin American Coordination of Banana Workers (COLSIBA), Windward Islands Farmers Association (WINFA), the European Banana Action Network (EUROBAN), the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Tobacco and Allied Workers Union (IUF) and the United States Labour Education in the Americas Project (US/LEAP). This cluster of international grouping will knock heads to package a fresh way forward for banana producing countries in African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) member countries and Latin America.

And to weigh the tons of problems banana farmers, particularly in the Caribbean, are now facing, McAvan said that a UK delegation has been travelling throughout the Windward Islands assessing banana production and interacting with local banana farmers.

“We have been going into fields talking to banana farmers trying to find out how much the banana industry means to the islands,” McAvan mentioned while visiting Searchlight on Friday.

The European Member of Parliament is particularly interested in the EU banana regime, which respects Europe’s obligation to support and buy banana produce from African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) member countries.

McAvan, the Labour Member for Yorkshire and Humber in the European Parliament, indicated that the UK is constantly looking at means to promote more “fair trade” on an international level.

“Talking to farmers here and in the other islands you know fair trade benefits farmers more than conventional trade,” McAvan mentioned.

“There is this idea of open free trade of the world, but I think we need to have some preferential trade agreement. We have to recognise that not all countries are at the same level of development and I think we would be looking at some kind of a continuation of a preference for bananas from the Caribbean,” McAvan assured Searchlight.

International help

The region’s banana exports, mainly to the United Kingdom, are being threatened by calls for the deregulation of the global market through policies established from the Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organisation rulings. While the Free Trade Agreement was introduced to level the playing field in international trading around the world, the European MP warned that the free market is not the answer to curb world trade issues. “We can’t take from countries here in the Windward Islands that are making little money out of bananas; it is not fair to pull the rug from under the feet of these farmers just to create a free market,” McAvan lashed out.

She stated that if there were a total free market, farmers would not benefit from the profits of exporting bananas to European countries. McAvan explained that they should be looking at a fair trade agreement and not a free trade as to provide opportunities for small farmers to benefit.

But, the region and other ACP countries have not been prepared for the rapid liberalisation of the EU market and removal of their preferences.

Trade unionists, farmers and NGOs continue to lobby for “fair trade”, as they claim US manipulation over WTO rules may severely damage the economies of small banana producing states.

Large corporations, like US-based company Chiquita, which continues to bombard EU sanctions against ACP producing countries, are quickly cutting off the lifeline for Caribbean and Latin America banana farmers. Thus, the livelihood of survival narrowly depends on the outcome of these timely international conferences addressing issues peaking in the banana industry.

McAvan mentioned that gradually more and more consumers in European countries are buying in to fair trade.

“We continue to work with trade unions, politicians and NGOs to increase the awareness of fair trade,” the MP said

And though the European Union has modified its banana trade and aid regime in line with the World Trade Organisation rules, in what analysts say would threaten the incomes of small banana producers in the Caribbean, Alister Smith of the European Banana Action Network (EUROBAN) mentioned to SEARCHLIGHT that a mass campaign to promote fair trade awareness is sprouting across Europe with the involvement of churches, consumers, the media among other non-government organisations with leading support from OXFAM, Christian Aid, the public sector union and international trade union agencies.

And, with all this support blooming in political circles in Europe – which purchases over 40 per cent of the bananas sold on the world market – the call for “fair trade” provides a flexible alternative if international trade negotiations reach an impasse.

Poor conditions for farmers

Selfa Sandoval, who represents the Union of Banana Workers in Guatemala and Latin America, is hoping that coming out of this second conference more emphasis would be placed on working conditions for farmers.

“We are looking to reverse the current trend which deals with wages and conditions for banana farmers,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval, who was also in St. Vincent for the preparatory workshop on the weekend, said vulnerable small growers in the Caribbean are already struggling to survive at the low prices on the European market, and the Caribbean as a result would be particularly vulnerable to any further price erosion.

“We see ourselves as being very much affected by the negotiations of the Free Trade of the Americas. We believe the free trade, which is being talked about, is just for the benefit of the employers rather than the benefit of farmers,” she stated.

One of Sandoval’s major interests is the treatment women are now facing on farms in Latin America.

She said, though, there are laws in place to protect employees who are often ignored, and women suffer the most under very poor working conditions.

In Latin America where over 25 per cent of the workforce is made up of women, she said that these women, mainly employed in pack houses, are at the bitter end of the stick when plantations are making workers redundant. She mentioned that at present the minimum wage in Guatemala stands at USD$ 6.5 per day for some of these plantation farmers.

Sandoval hopes that through these international conferences the resolutions will continue to provide better working conditions for workers and continued access to markets.

Even though EU countries continue to support Caribbean bananas, within recent years farmers are still left to feel the grind from reduced exports forced on the region’s banana industry.

Not only are they being challenged to produce under higher specifications, through tragedy from natural disasters, pest and diseases, but, the open trade in European markets is just another slump being planted to hamper banana production.

Today, where over 20,000 persons still depend on a direct income from banana cultivation in the Windward Islands, it is left to wonder if there is any real hope for these farmers?

Renwick Rose, co-ordinator of Windward Island Farmers Association (WINFA), believes so. Rose, WINFA’s co-ordinator for over a decade, hopes for a common consensus among all parties involved during the international conference in Brussels.

“I want to see how we can all work together, not just the farmers, but supermarkets, large scale producers like Chiquita, political and trade unions,” Rose said.

At the International Banana Conference, participants will examine alternatives to the European Union’s plan to end quotas on banana importation by next year. The existing trading agreements will be replaced with a single tariff.

The end of the EU’s quotas, beginning January 2006, will make way for all parties to compete where countries and plantations with the lowest cost would be favoured.

Though the European Commission is legally committed to introduce this single tariff, Rose hopes for an alternative through “fair trade” where Caribbean bananas can survive in light of current changes in the global market.

“In the same way some large countries declare some products as sensitive products, they can do the same for bananas; by doing this the produce coming from small farmers in the Caribbean can be protected by the EU,” Rose said

He said last weekend’s workshop was mainly to sensitise people on the upcoming international conference.

Coming out of the meeting, a working group was assembled to formalise plans for the Brussels forum. A meeting in Martinique in the next two weeks will fashion a plan of action for Caribbean banana farmers.