R. Rose
August 27, 2004

September worries – Prepare or perish!

In my early days, September used to be known as the “hurricane month”. It was the month when one expected torrential showers, frequent gusts of wind, heavy seas. While it is true that the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines have enjoyed extraordinarily good luck, over all those years, in being spared the full brunt of a hurricane, nevertheless one always was on guard in September, particularly. {{more}}
Today, that run of good luck seems to have led us into not just a state of complacency, but bordering on recklessness and irresponsibility instead. It is as though we consider ourselves as the UNTOUCHABLES of the Caribbean where hurricanes are concerned. Even the more enlightened make flippant statements, dismissive of any probability of a “hit”. It is becoming part of our psyche, an illusion that we are safe from any such disaster. In such a thinking lies the seed of real disaster, a failure to plan for such an eventuality, thereby heightening the risk of a major catastrophe should we so suffer at the hands (or winds) of NATURE.
What September means to us today, education-conscious as we are becoming, is school worries. Worries about the placement of our children in school, even though, to the credit of the government, such opportunities have been greatly expanded. What seems to be a problem is getting your children in the school of choice, given the gap in facilities and teaching staff between different schools, to say nothing of the travel horrors often encountered. Worries about books, in spite of very noteworthy book loan and assistance programmes available today. Worries about uniform, food and pocket money as rising costs erode spending power. And this September especially, worries about transport costs as the skyrocketing cost of fuel increases the temptation to raise the costs of travel by bus. Yes, real September worries.
With CXC and related examination results coming out in August, the following month is also one of anxiety on the job-market. Newly graduated looking for space and position, CXC passes seeking employment and study opportunities. It is a testing time even for developed societies, for those like ours where limited private sector development puts the strain on the state to find both jobs and tertiary education spaces, September can be a major headache – a headache that we have traditionally tended to treat with aspirin rather than studied diagnosis and long-term remedial treatment.
But this September, 2004, there is another looming cloud. It is the cloud that has steadily been darkening over the horizon of our agriculture for a decade and more. While we were still groggily recovering from our Carnival fete, the European Commission, responsible for the rules and regulations governing our major export market, the European Union, published notice that it is prepared to enter negotiations in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to modify concessions granted to countries like ours on bananas.
Yes, this September, we are about to witness the crucial stages in protracted negotiations that will determine, not whether banana survives or not, but whether we ourselves will survive, at least at our current level or standard of living. For if and when these modifications are made, it will affect everyone from supermarket owner to hospital maid. Initially these new conditions will come into effect on January 1, 2006, but there is an even darker cloud beyond, December 31, 2007, where our preferential terms of trade with the European Union will expire.
So during September, our trade officials have their work cut out for them. They have the unenviable task of trying to negotiate more space, time and opportunities for us to put in place programmes to sustain our economic and social development. In regard to banana, the situation is already bordering an emergency. Yet, most of us, banana farmer, farm worker, truck driver, post worker, office staff, seem not to fully comprehend the seriousness of the situation we are in. Nor are we alone, for the rest of the society continues to mistakenly believe that it is a banana problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. If production ceases on the farm, then it is not just the farmer and family who lose, so does the farm worker (no job), then the truck driver (no contract), and the port worker (nothing to load), so too the administrators. This in turn reduces buying power and demand, so then comes the lay-off in the supermarkets, the store, and the airlines. Vendors will suffer, artisans will not get paid, banks will be left with bad debts, government with drastically reduced revenues. DO WE UNDERSTAND?
Sadly, it doesn’t seem so for we are still reluctant to engage in the battle for our survival. Out there, Latin American governments, banana companies and people are meeting, discussing, strategizing so as to avoid a crisis. Two weeks ago, a gathering of British organizations met to work out what to do to help us, our own media seemed not to have the space to publicize it. Young British-born people of Vincentian parentage, the 2nd generation, are commendably mobilizing to fight for banana. We are still fighting each other. At Britain’s Notting Hill Carnival, British citizens will be sharing out leaflets, posters etc. and organizing a band to promote and defend Windwards’ bananas.
But we here? We who have the most to lose? From government to ordinary citizen, we must join the line and prepare to fight. We must let our voices be heard, put on our marching boots, hook up arm in arm and whether at the negotiating table, at political or social gatherings, enjoy the battle to save banana, jobs, economy and future.
Just as we must prepare for national disaster, so too it is equally necessary to prepare for and avoid, where possible, a man-made catastrophe.