THE impasse between the Government of Saint Lucia, in particular the Ministry of Agriculture, and banana farmers who are members of the National Fair Trade Organisation of Saint Lucia (NFTOSL) is over.
The impasse was over the NFTOSL’s unwillingness to hand over the chairman’s position to government. That disinclination was based on the Fairtrade Standard for Small Scale Producer Organisation which stated that the chair of the NFTOSL must reside with the farmers.
Government refused to acknowledge the above and threatened to hold back financial assistance asked of it by the NFTOSL unless the latter handover the chairmanship to the former. According to the NFTOSL outgoing chairman, Eustace Monrose, the NFTOSL found itself in a financial stress following the collapse of WINFRESH. At the time of its collapse, WINFRESH owed the NFTOSL in excess of EC$8 million.
WINFRESH’s collapse meant that it was unable to remit monies to the NFTOSL from the sale of bananas. Farmers have asserted that it was the demise of WINFRESH that spilled over to the NFTSO which compromised its cash flow, since WINFRESH was unable to pay the NFTOSL for bananas exported.
The impasse ended because government got its wish, which was to hold chairmanship of the NFTOSL.
“The chairmanship of the NFTO was relinquished to the Government of Saint Lucia as confirmed by letter to the Minister of Agriculture dated 7th April, 2021, albeit under duress,” said Monrose on Monday.
Monrose told reporters that the Government of Saint Lucia held the farmers of this country to ransom, stating that the government clearly indicated it would not give any assistance to banana farmers unless the chair of the NFTOSL was relinquished to them.
Said Monrose, “The ransom was paid and one month after the ransom was paid farmers are left empty handed and are still struggling in a time of COVID. Farmers have neither received any direct assistance or the facilitation of an advance on monies owed to them by Winfresh which is in liquidation; a company owned by the Government of Saint Lucia and the remaining three islands of the Windwards, with the Saint Lucia Government having the largest shareholding.”
Officials of Invest St Lucia, the Ministries of Finance and Agriculture met recently to discuss a mechanism to facilitate the strengthening of the management capacity and the financial standing of the NFTO, following receipt of a letter from the NFTO Board of Directors stating its approval of the appointment of a seven-person board to oversee the operations of that company. It was agreed that the Board will comprise four persons elected by banana farmers while the other three will be appointed by the Government of Saint Lucia.
One of the three Government directors will hold the position of Chairman. It was further agreed that the Bylaws of the NFTO will be amended in compliance with the Fair Trade Standards.
A statement from government noted that at the request of the Ministry of Agriculture, a detailed list of the NFTO’s payables in the amount of EC$2.18 million was received.
“To this end, the Ministry of Agriculture reassures banana farmers that all outstanding payments due them is being given immediate attention for a final resolution, and implores their patience and understanding as it works assiduously to resolve this unfortunate situation,” ended the statement.
But Monrose is unmoved by the statement. Banana farmers, he said, have not been paid for exported fruit for five months or more and are suffering.
“However, it came to a point where the suffering was excruciating and so (farmers) gave up, for mere survival, irrespective of the consequences of the possible loss of the Fairtrade brand,” Monrose said, adding that the close to 300 banana farmers that were starving held out long enough before deciding to hand over the chairmanship of the NFTOSL to the government, which was confirmed in writing on 7th April, 2021.
Monrose said that the NFTOSL is currently in the process of amalgamating the NFTO groups and that members will meet next week to select four directors to add to government’s three to make a new board of seven members.
“The farmers are in dire need of cash flow to feed their families, pay their workers and maintain their farms. A number of farmers have abandoned their farms. The industry is in shambles, the road to recovery is long and difficult, hence the faster we start to rebuild the better for all stakeholders,” Monrose said.