R. Rose
May 11, 2007
Banana in focus again

On Thursday of this week, Caribbean Trade and Agriculture Ministers, officials from the Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM) and leaders of banana exporting companies met in Belize with banana the focus of their attention.

The meeting was billed as a “Banana Stakeholders” meeting, but for one reason or another, it was without the presence of farmers organizations.{{more}} It came in the context of the European Union confirming that its offer of “Tariff-free, Quota-free” market access pertained to bananas but not rice nor sugar, under the proposed Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) currently being negotiated with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

Any removal of the quota would have disastrous consequences for Caribbean producers since it would result in a flooding of the market causing a drastic fall in prices. Already in fact, the giant British supermarket, ASDA, owned by the US multinational, WALMART, has launched a new “price war” in the UK, dropping prices by 20 percent and forcing its competitors to do the same. Fortunately, the Windwards exporting firm, WIBDECO, has so far absorbed the cut, sparing farmers the harsh blow, but it cannot do it forever.

It appears that these further troubling signs may have upset WIBDECO boss Bernard Cornibert who was quoted in the Dominica newspaper, the SUN, as making some very negative comments about the future of the industry. He spoke of “inevitable chaos” and made reference to a document from the RNM (prepared for the Belize meeting) which was gloomy in its prediction.

That is the context in which the Belize meeting was held. Alarmed about what I consider the pessimism and tendency to surrender of our officials, I sent the following letter, on behalf of WINFA to the meeting. I shall comment on the meeting’s outcome next week.

May 7, 2007

Hon. Montgomery Daniel Minister of Agriculture St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

RE: For the Attention of the Cariforum Banana Meeting Belize City, Belize, May 8, 2007

Dear Colleagues,

Greetings on behalf of the farmers of the Windward Islands, the 4000-odd banana farmers in particular who are registered with WINFA as Fair Trade producers, exporting their produce to the European Union.

We are quite alarmed at the negative developments as regard market access for our bananas in the EU as it pertains to the ongoing negotiations for an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), now in its critical concluding stages. According to the latest information reaching us, the European Union has confirmed that its offer to the ACP states for “tariff-free, quota-free” (TFQF) access under the EPA includes bananas, though not sugar and rice for which special arrangements are to be put in place.

We all are aware of the disastrous consequences that the removal of quota arrangements will have for Caribbean small farmers. This is well documented. In spite of strenuous efforts by resource-scarce farmers’ organizations, our regional governments and regional negotiators, the European Union has refused to take the plight of our farmers and their strategic importance to regional development and food security on board in their proposals.

True, in retrospect we can acknowledge that perhaps even greater and more coordinated and targeted responses from the Caribbean could have been made. Thus we could have made a more concerted effort to lobby Latin American and African producer countries and to try and seek some sort of common ground, difficult as it might have been. Our initiatives in this regards have been too inconsistent and uncoordinated.

It is also true that some times, the farmers’ organization, certainly WINFA, gets the distinct impression that contrary to our public stance on “No Exit, No Retreat”, our governments and negotiators, whether succumbing to fatigue or stress, seem willing to go along, albeit reluctantly with sustained European pressure to have the EPA negotiations concluded by the end of the year.

The banana farmers of the region are yet to be convinced that if the EPA cannot secure their livelihood that it can be of any tangible benefit to them or the development of the rural communities in the Eastern Caribbean. We have tried to be patient and understanding but cannot in good conscience support any agreement which fails to sustain their incomes and provide a basis for future development.

We appeal once again to you not to abandon our farmers and their dependents and request an urgent meeting between our negotiators, relevant government representatives and representatives of the banana and farmer organizations to discuss the EPA and its implications for the rural sector and farmers in the Caribbean.

We look forward to your response.

Best regards
Renwick Rose