R. Rose
January 9, 2009
Government support is vital

My apologies once again for breaking off last week from my three-part piece of the fortunes of the banana industry in the Windward Islands in order to pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. In the two previous pieces we had examined the condition in the market place where the titanic struggle for supermarket supremacy is driving producers and suppliers to the wall, as well as the situation of the actual banana market regime in face of the continued challenges by the USA and Latin American nations.{{more}} Mere survival is a task of monumental proportions.

As I write, preparations are already underway for negotiating the terms of a new contract between Windward banana producers and the marketing company, WIBDECO. Since last year these negotiations moved from being between several individual private and state-owned companies in the islands on one hand, and WIBDECO on the other, to a more compact and efficient two-sided one between the marketing agent and WINFA, as a unified representative of the extra-regional exporters. There is still a free-for-all in the regional markets which does not always benefit the farmers.

The 2009 negotiations take place in the context of the hostile environment mentioned in the two previous articles. Naturally, therefore, the issue of the price to the farmer will be a key consideration, determining in the final analysis the very viability of the industry itself. Within the industry, that price to the farmer will also be the deciding factor on an individual basis as whether the farmer can afford to continue to produce bananas for export.

While this will undoubtedly be a personal decision, it has many social ramifications on a collective basis relating to the nature and scale of the industry, economic activity in the rural communities, opportunities for alternative livelihood and social stability, in rural areas, at a national level and in the region as a whole.

Already, the challenge of staying with banana (and taking an annual battering from storms), has proven too much for the government and banana industry in Jamaica. Similarly, a combination of negative, largely external pressures have led to the demise of the sugar industry in St Kitts and Trinidad. But in the other similarly embattled Caribbean countries, a mixture of creative stakeholder approaches and government and international support has ensured the protection of the livelihood of producers.

This must not be lost on those who have already written the eulogies and are waiting to toll the bells for bananas. Alarmingly, they have no bells ready to peel out the news of replacement alternatives. In the current circumstances, there are critical prerequisites for the maintenance of the banana livelihoods. The first is the assumption of responsibility by the producers themselves for their own fate and a willingness to work together to secure those livelihoods under threat at present. The luxury of petty rivalry between companies, imagined ‘principalities’ and inflated egos, is one we can ill afford. A rational, mature and unified approach to both the regional and extra-regional markets is necessary if we are to survive, much more thrive. Efficiency, greatly increased productivity and new marketing initiatives are critical to our success.

The second factor is the unqualified support of our governments. I say for in theory the governments of these islands are all in support of the banana industry. In practice, though, this does not always filter through the corridors of power, and often, worthwhile measures announced are subverted by inactivity, bureaucracy, disinterest and sometimes even hostility. I have had the horror of witnessing many regional government representatives simply bending to foreign pressures or abdicating their responsibility and duty to defend the interests of the people they are supported to represent. Since the days of Sir James Mitchell, Sir John Compton and Dame Eugenia Charles, banana matters were left up to our paramount leaders. It is worse now, for throughout the region, too many behave as though banana is Ralph Gonsalves business. It certainly is, but it is not his only business, nor is it his alone. The entire administrations, in Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, the OECS and CARICOM Secretariats and the private sector throughout the region also have a part to play.

It is to be hoped, nay urged, that the governments of the Windward Islands, in the first instance, would now lend their not inconsiderable weight at the national and sub-regional levels to working harmoniously with stakeholders in mapping out a strategy, and implementing it, to ensure the survival of the industry. The cross fertilization, both within the agricultural sector and with other productive sectors is critical to our development thrust. Working together, we can succeed. YES, WE CAN.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.