R. Rose
May 7, 2004
Value in Farmers’ Organization

On this date (May 7th) 22 years ago, leaders of farmers’ organizations (in the Windward Islands) met in Grenada and decided to set up an umbrella organization to serve the interests of the farmers of the sub-region. Thus was born the Windward Islands Farmers’ Association (now WINFA but then called WIFA). {{more}}
It was an historic event in the course of regional integration, since it signified a coming together at the base level and not the usual top-down approach, which has tended to characterize unification efforts in the Caribbean.
The fledgling organizations (Dominica Farmers’ Union, National Farmers’ Union of SVG, and the Productive Farmers’ Union of Grenada) which spearheaded this bold move were then young and inexperienced. They emerged in a context of no real history of independent farmers’ movement in the region. Sure enough the small farmers of the islands had played an important role in the struggles against the plantocracy and colonialism and were an important buttress of the mass movements of the fifties, which agitated for democratic rights, access to land being prominent among them.
However, unlike the other main plank of the anti-colonial struggle, represented by the workers, the farmers had no large, militant body like the trade union to represent them. By and large, where they were organized it was in compartmentalized commodity organizations (bananas, cocoa, nutmeg, sugar etc.) based on export crops, with smaller co-operatives or farmers’ groups existing.
The emergence of national organizations of small farmers, with the focus mainly outside the chief export commodities, marked a significantly new stage in the level of the farmers’ movement. The formation of WINFA took it one step further.
After much useful work, in the 1978-90 period on social, educational and organizational projects, the changing demands of the times forced the farmers’ movement to face up to the challenges of the nineties, the challenges of trade liberalization, curtailing of trade preferences and economic policies which have done great harm to the agricultural sector. The livelihood of many farmers was seriously threatened, hundreds lost their farms and title to land, saw their homes and property put up for sale by banks and financial institutions. Many were forced to abandon agriculture as a means of living, to seek employment elsewhere or even to emigrate. Could the farmers’ movement handle such massive problems?
Certainly, not alone, for in spite of the progress of the past decade, the movement is still relatively weak and sporadically organized. It has much potential but is still to realize its full potential and flex its muscles in defence of its interests. Occasionally, in times of crisis, it has displayed remarkable fortitude and taken decisive, united action (St. Lucia in the mid-nineties being the best example) but consistency has been lacking. It is still a challenge to keep a group together for a prolonged period.
One of the strategies pursued has been that of seeking alternative means of sustaining livelihoods. One such successful thrust has been in the area of Fair Trade. Last week, the local branch of the WINFA Fair Trade initiative held its 4th Annual General Assembly. This growing movement is a model of farmers’ participation, collaboration and democratic decision-making. It is based on the principles of ORGANISATION, of farmers belonging to groups, of COLLECTIVE DECISION MAKING (farmers meeting to decide how to spend premium earned) and of SERVICE TO COMMUNITY (social projects to benefit not just individual farmers but the entire rural community). Farmers are learning to administer and manage their own projects, to establish and run their own revolving loan funds, to decide on priorities for action. In Fair Trade, farmer training is an on-going necessity; the idea being to constantly upgrade the level of the farmer, for human resource development is seen as the key to all development.
All this is in addition to the economic benefits, those directly to farmers for sales of premium bananas and to the economy as a whole from such sales as well as several premiums earned.
There is no doubt that Fair Trade has been able to breathe new life, inspire new hope, and to generate expanded vision in banana and agriculture as a whole. It demonstrates that there is in fact HOPE and that ALTERNATIVES are possible and viable.
It underlines the value of organization as essential for the progress of our farmers and our country.