R. Rose
January 29, 2010
Show respect for farmers

I spent much of last weekend in meetings with leaders of the Fairtrade farmers’ organizations from the Windward Islands. They are preparing for negotiations for a new contract to be held this week with WINFRESH (formerly WIBDECO) in St. Lucia. The Fairtrade farmers took a major step forward in 2008 when WINFA signed their first-ever contract with WIBDECO and they have been valiantly trying to keep the industry and their rural communities afloat since then.{{more}}

It has not been an easy task. Years of battering from external forces, benign neglect and careless management locally, had seen banana slump from its glory days to yet another struggling industry. In fact, had it not been for Fairtrade, we would not be in the UK market today, and would be cutting each other’s throat for the regional market. But Fairtrade has assumed leadership at a very difficult time.

Last year was especially troubling for farmers. In the UK the supermarket giants were engaged in dangerous price-cutting to attract customers, banana being made the sacrificial lamb. Continued problems with certification resulted in significant reductions in the number of farmers in production, particularly in Dominica. To add to this was the scourge of disease, both moko and the dreaded Black Sigatoka decimating acres in St. Vincent. Then there were the ongoing quality problems, something we have not been able to get right. To crown it all, there came the betrayal by the European Union in the “Banana Deal”, making nonsense of our leaders’ claims that they signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU to “save banana”. More on the implications of that tariff reduction later.

Given all this, it is truly remarkable that farmers have the fortitude to soldier on, in spite of the formidable odds. There is not even much support for their efforts for in every one of the islands, all but a few seem to have bought into the fatalism of accepting the tolling of bells for the industry. Every statement about the economy seems to begin with “now that the banana industry is…,” and rather than seeing other non-banana initiatives as complementary to bananas, we view them as alternative replacements. Yet not a single one of these has delivered what banana has, nor do they provide the regular cash-flow, nor do they have the infrastructure to be able to maximize the opportunities. In St. Vincent where the Lauders Agro-Processing (LAP) is getting off the ground, it is banana money, provided by WIBDECO/WINFRESH which is helping to fund the investment.

To be fair to the governments of Dominica, St. Lucia and SVG, there has been some support, particularly in providing fertilizer. But too often, that support is hamstrung by bureaucratic inefficiencies and blunt disregard for the views of farmers and their organizations. Sometimes some simple matters retard production. One Dominican farmer for instance, explained that the bridge leading to his farm has collapsed and he now has to feed high quality bananas to pigs because he can’t get them out!

Worse, many officials do not seem to realize that it is people’s livelihoods at stake. I mentioned the EU’s “banana deal”, earlier. Well, part of this provides for what is called “Banana Adjustment Measures” where the EU is funding a 190 million euro assistance package for the entire African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) region. Since last year we in this region were supposed to begin preparation for this, in terms of proposals. I had the opportunity to attend two supposed “high-level” meetings in St. Lucia out of which mechanisms for developing the Windwards proposals were supposed to emerge. Weeks after the second meeting, not even Ministers of Agriculture could say who, or how, these proposals were to be organized.

Now it turns out that WITHOUT CONSULTING the farmers or their organizations, Ministry officials have drawn up their own priorities. In the case of St. Lucia and Dominica, it is proposed that just under 40 per cent (39%) of the funds sought are earmarked for bananas. That figure in St. Vincent is 25 per cent with less than 5 per cent of the overall total proposed for “improving productivity.” There has been no consultation with the major farmers’ organization over these proposals. How can we go forward like this?

Over the years, the same lamented “fallout” from bananas has brought millions of euros to the shores of the Windwards, in STABEX, SFAs and now BAMs. The governments simply decide on their priorities and access the funds. No one disputes government’s right to make the ultimate decisions, but if the money is coming because banana farmers are being disadvantaged, shouldn’t they at least be consulted about priorities? What about the dividends from the WIBDECO investment? And, is it true that a loan /grant is being sought form WINFRESH for the arrowroot industry here, as one irate banana leader from St. Lucia has alleged?

We can’t go on like this. There is much talk about a new atmosphere of engagement with civil society organizations. But RESPECT has to be one of the key ingredients. Government officials cannot continue to “do wey yo like,” and disregard the legitimate leaders of the farmers and civil society organizations. Farmers will have to stand up and insist that their views be respected.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.