Last Friday, this column began commenting on the situation of our banana industry in the wake of the 15th Annual General Meeting of the SVG Fairtrade Organization. We continue today. The removal of the preferential arrangements, which had for long underpinned our banana export thrust, quickly brought about convulsion in the industry. Worse, in spite of the efforts of some, notably the Windward Islands Farmers’ Association (WINFA), to warn of the consequences and to urge both preparation for the worst possible outcome, as well as to mount mobilization and lobbying initiatives, we, in the Windwards, seemed more preoccupied with our own internal differences than in building a solid platform.
In the process we lost sight of the real factors affecting the industry and began to look for scapegoats to blame for the grave challenges confronting us. This was facilitated by the narrow politics of the islands, in which the major political forces, rather than face reality, sought to create unrealistic expectations. Every election in Dominica, St Lucia and SVG was characterized by accusations of who had destroyed the banana industry and what the winner would do to bring back the glory days of “green gold”.
The illusions continue to this day. There are too many who believe that all we have to do is to produce bananas, ship them off to external markets and demand prices. Lip service is paid to the challenges in production and productivity, our continued lack of competitiveness and the drastically-changed market conditions. Few pay attention either to the dominant position of the giant supermarkets in the UK market or to the changing nature of the regional market, demanding much more attention to quality and presentation issues.
Even in the once-attractive Fairtrade market in the UK, the high cost of Windwards’ fruit, a result of both high production costs and low productivity, bananas from the Windward Islands are now facing competition within the Fairtrade system itself. Originally conceived as a tool for ensuring fair trade and benefitting small farmers, fair trade has now been opened to large plantations in Africa in particular, and they are now marketing Fairtrade bananas up to US $5 a box cheaper than ours.
So, while nominally we still have access to the UK market, in which more and more of the major chains are now going 100 per cent Fairtrade, it also means that given our low production levels, we are in no position to corner substantial business from the supermarkets, and our lack of price competitiveness is not making it any easier.
Yet, at the political level, as well as the farmer level, we simply refuse to try to comprehend the changed circumstances. So, when politicians talk glibly about how well we did 25/30 years ago and promise to restore those fortunes, they are talking ‘pie in the sky’. Similarly, if our farmers believe that by playing the blame game and charging that ‘nobody is helping farmers’, demanding more and more support from governments, whilst ignoring production, quality and market realities, we are going to achieve salvation, we have a rude awakening ahead of us.
It leaves us very vulnerable to the wiles of politicians and all sorts of opportunists who take advantage of the gullible in all the islands and use the divisions in the farming community to their own advantage. The distrust, between farmers and their governments, between farmers and the extra-regional marketer, WINFRESH, and amongst farmers themselves, undermines collective efforts to put not just the banana industry, but agriculture as a whole on a sound footing.
We need deep reflection, not romantic dreams of the glories of the past, in order to plot a purposeful and realistic way forward. We’ll conclude on this note next week.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.