R. Rose
February 7, 2014

The banana cycle

It is said that life goes around in a cycle and often circumstances seem to bear this out accurately. Take the situation with the management of the banana industry in St Vincent and the Grenadines as a good example. In the six decades of extra-regional export of this precious fruit, we have moved from an autonomous association of banana farmers, (in the S O Jack days) to a financially robust Banana Growers Association (BGA), then becoming increasingly dependent on the central government leading to near bankruptcy and finally in the 20th century, to producer responsibility for the management of the industry.{{more}}

But, just over a decade since assuming responsibility for the management of the industry once more, there seems to be a grave danger of farmers once more running to Government for rescue and of state control and direction of the ailing industry. It is a most unwelcome state of affairs partly brought about by the precipitous decline in the fortunes of the banana industry since the mid-nineties. Over these past two decades, the industry, and farmers have had to confront a range of very formidable challenges. These range from drastic removal of preferential trading arrangements on which the export industry was premised, to an unprecedented series of natural disasters and pest and disease infections.

This is the context in which, in the early years of this century, the debt-ridden BGA, having lost its way and apparently purpose, was wound up and management of the industry returned to the farmers with Government retaining responsibility for pest and disease control as well as importation of key inputs. It was a novel arrangement brought about partly by Government’s own reluctance to continue to shoulder the financial burdens of the BGA as well as a reflection of the new market realities.

In 2000, as it became increasingly more and more clear that the bananas from the Windward Islands could no longer hold their own in the conventional market in Europe, faced with unfair competition from cheaper bananas from Latin America, foresight on the part of Windward Islands’ Farmers Association (WINFA) had resulted in the first exports of bananas under the Fairtrade label.

This did not come about by chance, or with the blessings of many of the traditional ‘powerhouses’ in the industry. In both SVG and Dominica, there was resistance from the then banana institutions and it was in St Lucia, where the industry had been freed from the shackles of legislative state control, that WINFA had to begin with the first exports of Fairtrade bananas. Furious efforts were made to frustrate the process, based mainly on personal interest, but with some political connotations.

It took not only fortitude on the part of the Fairtrade farmers of these islands, and WINFA, as well as a change of government in SVG and the overburden of a $30 million debt, to force the necessary legislative changes and to permit the farmers to once more take responsibility for their own affairs. Each of the three exporting Fairtrade organizations, under the umbrella of WINFA, chose their own administrative model, in keeping with their circumstances.

The St Lucian famers, in a free-for-all environment, opted for full responsibility, while in SVG, a co-operative arrangement was arrived at and legislated, providing for cooperation between Government and the National Fairtrade Organization, in a novel pioneering initiative. There are some who cynically hold the view that Fairtrade was only allowed to take hold because of the virtual collapse of the local institutions. That may be true, what is even more correct is that from the very beginning, the Fairtrade farmers had the odds stacked against them.

In such a situation, the big challenge was to prove that farmers could manage their own affairs, could demonstrate their maturity and responsibility and prove their critics and the prophets of doom so very wrong. Have they been able to do that in SVG? What do we make of the political row over the administration of WINFARM? And, where do we go from here?

(Continued next week)