The reluctance of the Government of Saint Lucia to guarantee an EC$1.9 million loan from the Saint Lucia Development Bank (SLDB) to the National Fair Trade Organisation Saint Lucia Limited (NFTOSL) is causing anxiety amongst farmers who, for the past four weeks, have yet to be paid for exported fruit.
Efforts to get a comment from Agriculture Minister Ezechiel Joseph have not been fruitful, however farmers, are calling on him and the rest of his Cabinet colleagues, reminding them of their responsibility to the industry which right now is struggling due to the financial collapse of WINFRESH West Indies which market and sell fruit on their behalf.
WINFRESH currently owes the NFTOSL EC$8 million of which the Government of Saint Lucia, through the Ministry of Agriculture and Invest Saint Lucia, advanced the NFTOSL EC$2.4 million. According to the NFTOSL Chairman Eustace Monrose, “the Minister specifically said that this was an advance on behalf of WINFRESH.”
Monrose said these monies, along with the reserves of the NFTOSL, have all been used up, hence the call on government for assistance, an assistance Monrose said the NFTOSL will repay and of which will be of no cost to government.
He said that from October 2020, the NFTOSL has been speaking to Minister Joseph of its need for some extra cash since it will be dealing directly with supermarkets in the United Kingdom, now that WINFRESH is no longer viable.
“We expressed to the Minister that going direct will carry with it certain responsibilities, that is we may need a greater cash outlay which will require temporary cash support for the purchase of packaging materials and some other attendant costs. All we are asking is for government to facilitate a loan of $1.9 million from the Development Bank and an advance of $500,000 from Invest Saint Lucia while we await the approval of the loan.
“However, we were stopped in out tracks when we were told by Invest Saint Lucia that they required a letter from the Development Bank that they will approve the loan. The bank has written and said that they required a government guarantee and the Minister for Agriculture informed that government will not give the guarantee unless they have the chair of the NFTOSL,” Monrose.
Monrose is of the view that government, which is a major shareholder of WINFRESH – which still owes the NFTOSL EC$5.6 million from the EC$8 million previously owed out of which EC$2.4 million was advanced to the NFTOSL – has a responsibility to honour WINFRESH’s debts therefore since WINFRESH cannot pay its debt then government should do the right thing and give the bank a guarantee for the loan asked.
“In these COVID times when farmers are catching their royals I call on the government to respond to its obligation to either give us an advance of EC$500,000 on the balance owed to us by WINFRESH, or give us the guarantee so that we may obtain the EC$1.9 million from the Development Bank while we wait for our money from WINFRESH’s liquidator,” Monrose said.
The NFTOSL Chairman is unhappy with Minister Joseph’s approach to requests for assistance from farmers, appeals contained in a 4 February, 2021 letter written to the Minister that Monrose said the Minister has yet to respond to.
According to Monrose, it was the Minister who advised the NFTOSL to approach the SLDB for financing and that the Minister’s advice came with the blessings and facilitation of the Department of Agriculture.
Monrose believes that the onus is on government not to allow the banana industry to collapse and to avoid the problems such a collapse may spurn.
“The board of the NFTO would like to have an urgent meeting with you to discuss the above and the view to arriving at a modality of business continuity for the banana farmers of our Fair Helen,” the NFTOSL letter to Minister Joseph stated in part.
The situation between the NFTOSL and Minister Joseph muddied when Monrose, at a press conference this week, said that while awaiting a response from the Minister to the February 4 letter “we heard him (Minister Joseph) on Juke Bois on March 4 saying many things which were inaccurate.”
“He (Minister Joseph) attempted to refer to the (NFTO) bylaws saying that the bylaws does not prevent us from giving the chair to government…. I’m sure the Minister will appreciate that what we agreed at the meeting with him at the Ministry of Agriculture, and for which he prepared a memo to take to Cabinet; we agreed that on that board of the NFTO the delegates agreed to have at least three directors that are non-members of the NFTO that will come from government and NFTO will have four members from each of the respective NFTO groups,” Monrose said.
Monrose noted that while government’s request to hold the chairmanship of the NFTO may seem a small thing, the Fairtrade Standard for Small Scale Producer Organisation, (like the NFTO) forbids such a thing.
He said that that version 03.04.2019_v2.3 sections 4.2.1 and 4.2.12 of the Fairtrade Standard for Small Scale Producer Organisation states that the Chair of the NFTOSL must reside with the farmers. Further, should government attained chairmanship of the NFTOSL, the NFTOSL will lose its Fairtrade status which will sound the death knell for the industry.