R. Rose
December 11, 2009
‘A done deal’ or ‘they done with us’

Once again our banana industry and, by extension, the livelihood of tens of thousands of people in the Windward Islands, is attracting international media attention. Once again, it is for the wrong reason. This time the news agencies are commenting on developments relating to the long-standing dispute between Europe, the United States and Latin America over banana imports into Europe in which our banana farmers have taken a real beating. It now seems that after 16 years the warring factions are to arrive at a final settlement of the dispute.{{more}}

“A done deal” is how the impending settlement is being dubbed, meaning, that for all intents and purposes, the parties have agreed on the contents of that “deal”. Yet, those who will suffer most as a result, banana farmers and their dependents in the Windward Islands, are far from happy with the terms. These include:

– A substantial reduction in the tariffs on bananas from Latin America to Europe, dropping from 176 euros per tonne to 148 euros per tonne in January 2010 (3 weeks time), and then right down to 114 euros per tonnne in seven years time.

– Agreement to settle all disputes and other claims by the US-based multi-nationals and Latin American exporting countries.

– So-called “Banana Accompanying Measures” (BAMs) under which a sum of 190 million euros is proposed to be provided between 2010 and 2013 to assist countries negatively affected by the settlement to improve competitiveness spur economic diversification and to mitigate the social consequences of the adjustment.

The countries in the ACP (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific) group which export bananas to Europe are far from happy with the “deal”. In the case of the Caribbean, the Windward Islands in particular, this settlement is yet another disastrous blow against, not just the banana industry, but economic and social development in general. Already the Latin American exporters, dominated by the US multinational trio of Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita, have more than 80% of the European market for themselves. By contrast, the Windwards have only a 1 percent share, posing no threat to Latin American domination. It must also be borne in mind that these same multinationals have the entire North American market for themselves. Lowering the tariffs means that they can market their bananas even more cheaply than us thereby forcing our producers out of business.

This banana “deal” comes one year after our governments were duped into signing an Economic Partnership Agreement(EPA) with the European Union, under threat that if we did not sign we would lose our market preferences for bananas. Well, sign we did, yet we are still about to lose those same “guaranteed” preferences. What kind of partnership is that? In addition, the sum being offered for compensation, the “bamsee” 190 million euros, is far from adequate, given the scale of dislocation expected, and given the fact that in addition to the Windwards, it must cover the Cameroons, Ivory Coast and Ghana, along with Suriname and Belize.

Concern was also expressed by ACP countries, not just about the amount but also about timeliness. The European Union is notorious for elaborate procedures which are time-consuming. By the end of January some farmers in the Windwards may well have been forced out of production. No one with even the faintest understanding of EU procedures can begin to dream of how such farmers will catch their “bam”. WINFA had proposed to Caribbean governments that they should insist that arrangements for compensation be not only simple and flexible, but that farmers’ organizations should have direct access. That appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

The big problem is not just with EU treachery. Our own governments seem to have surrendered under the stress. They gave in to the EPA, which while having some benefits, is a long way off from offsetting the economic losses as in banana. Then there was a backing away from the further onslaught. Quite frankly, on the BAMs, the Windwards have been acting in a manner which borders on irresponsibility, seemingly waiting to see what we get and not taking the fight to the aggressors. If only the energy we find to fight each other at election time could be expended in defending our own interests!

We have failed to mount lobbies or to take up the matter aggressively with Latin America in spite of the growing links with Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and Costa Rica, among others. We have not reached out to the British consumer or given those who do so, the support they deserve. Worse, nearly all of us, from government to ordinary citizen, fall into the trap of meekly accepting our fate, even hitting out at those of us who defend our right to livelihood, accusing us of seeking preferences in perpetuity. Yet these same people are never shy of begging and lobbying governments for their own preferential treatment as in tax breaks. We seem to be our own worst enemy.

The sad reality is that we will all suffer. Unless we are prepared to stand up for justice and fairness in international relations and trade, we will all lose. If our banana market goes through, then heaven help us all.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.