R. Rose
February 25, 2014

The banana cycle – Conclusion

By the turn of the 20th century, Windward Islands’ banana exports to the United Kingdom had suffered a drastic reduction by almost 50 per cent, from the all-time high of 274,539 tonnes in 1992. This was largely as a result of stiff competition from cheaper ‘dollar’ bananas from Latin America, as our tariff preferences were steadily eroded, a consequence of the banana wars between the USA (in support of its multinationals) and the European Union.{{more}}

The banana industry in the Windwards faced a bleak future, with prices to farmers less than the cost of production and mounting debts accumulating in the books of the various administrative bodies. Here in SVG, the Banana Growers Association was virtually bankrupt, forcing the new ULP administration in 2001 to assume responsibility for the debts and to initiate administrative reform, a long-standing demand of many farmers.

One year before that, history was made in the industry with the commencement of banana exports under the Fairtrade label, initiated by the Windward Islands Farmers’ Association (WINFA). That development ushered in the establishment of National Fairtrade Organisations (NFTOs) in the respective islands under the WINFA umbrella. These became virtual parallel administrative structures and in spite of the hostility of the ‘old guard’ in the industry, soon became pre-eminent.

The new Fairtrade arrangement proved to be a boon for the banana industry in the islands. It rescued the farmers by providing an alternative market when it was clear that the Windwards could no longer survive in the cut-throat competition which characterized the market. Most importantly, farmers received a guaranteed price which could not be below their cost of production, while in addition, the payment of a Fairtrade premium ensured that resources were made available both for capacity-building (training, administration etc), as well as for valuable social programmes which benefitted the farming communities.

Above all the new environment facilitated farmer control of the industry. This included the negotiation and signing of export contracts with the sole marketing agency, WIBDECO (now WINFRESH). But power brings with it responsibility and the need to manage the affairs of the industry in an efficient manner. This is easier said than done, particularly in an industry long racked by divisions, maladministration and inefficiency, and riddled with political differences.

Regrettably, many of the new leaders refused to adapt to the rapidly changing environment, and clung to the policies of old. Critical but unpalatable decisions kept being postponed, excuses were made for inefficiencies and the blame for recurring instances of poor quality was put on everyone else but the farmer. In the meantime, the market conditions were becoming more unfavourable, the demands of the supermarket more stringent and global standards more rigorous and costly.

The petty politics of the banana world undermined the advantages gained in the early years of this century. It only took the outbreak of diseases like black sigatoka and recurring natural disasters to bring about a virtual collapse. As production and exports were decimated, internal rivalries exposed the failings and weaknesses of the administrative structures. Divisions multiplied when the challenges confronting the industry called for maximum unity.

The result can best be seen in SVG where the glorious opportunities to demonstrate the value of democratic farmer control and administration have been practically frittered away. At a time when we need to demonstrate the value of “those who labour must hold the reins”, we have gotten ourselves into a situation of further dependency, of running to Government for rescue, of playing the proverbial “crab in a barrel”, pulling down our own, abandoning our vision and looking only for short-term selfish gain. This will not, and cannot, save the industry. It is not banana that is dying; it is the will to survive, the vision of development, the cohesion of our farmers, which are all ebbing away. It is not too late to salvage what is left and to re-invigorate the industry, but new, enlightened and inclusive approaches are necessary.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.