THE upheavals in the banana industry appears to have stabilised following government’s attainment of the chairmanship of the National Fair Trade Organisation Saint Lucia (NFTOSL).
But does that mean from henceforth it is smooth sailing for farmers? Can government, which has been fighting for control of the NFTO guarantee fair trade prices for fruit exported, increase Saint Lucia’s banana output, reduce on quality claims by buyers and source new and sustained markets for farmers?
The banana industry, over the past five years, has had it rough; a situation that spilled over into 2021 that saw farmers pleading with government to act as a guarantor to a bank loan which they sought to sustain them in the coming months since WIBDECO, owned by the governments of the Windward Islands, collapsed.
Government played hardball with farmers by refusing to give that guarantee unless the chairmanship of the organization was given to them. The situation reached a stage where farmers, who for months had not received payment for fruit exported, yielded to government’s demands by handing over the chair of the NFTO, contrary to bye-laws governing the fair trade standards. (For a comprehensive understanding of the situation as it pertains to the banana industry and the NFTO, see the following issues of THE VOICE Newspaper: 30 January, 2021; 13 March, 2021 and 5 may, 2021).
Eustace Monrose, outgoing chairman of the NFTOSL said government held the farmers to ransom and worked to rid him from the NFTOSL.
“Government failed to honour its promise to the NFTOSL and banana farmers of this country and did not make the financial resources available, not even a government sovereign guarantee to the NFTOSL so that farmers could be paid their weekly sale. Instead, government held the farmers of this country to ransom and demanded the chair of the corporation,” Monrose told reporters Wednesday.
He took the Banana Productivity Improvement Project (BPIP) to task for selling to farmers inputs/fertilizers instead of simply offering it to them seeing that they could not purchase inputs not having received money for fruit exported.
“Farmers left the industry in droves,” Monrose said, adding that although the chairmanship was relinquished, government engineered a scheme to get him out of the NFTOSL Board of Directors.
The Northern Fairtrade group of farmers last Wednesday held elections for a chairman of that group who would serve on the Board of Directors of NFTOSL. Monrose was nominated along with two other contenders but lost out to David Ruben by three votes.
“I was reliably informed that the night before the election, 16 persons sympathetic to the ruling party were contacted instructing them to vote against Mr. Monrose so that he would not be on the reconstituted Board. The question is, why?” Monrose asked.
He accused Agriculture Minister Ezechiel Joseph of failing to deliver to farmers during his five-year tenure in charge of agriculture on island irrespective of the amount of resources that were at his disposal.
“What is his flagship achievement,” Monrose challenged, referring to Minister Joseph.
Government, meanwhile, through the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Natural Resources and Cooperatives this week said it made payments to banana farmers trading with the NFTO.
“With the facilitation of Invest Saint Lucia, an amount of $500,000.00 was made available to pay farmers for fruit sold to the NFTO for weeks, eight to 12. The amount includes direct farmer payments as well as amounts due by farmers for packaging material and inputs for the said period,” stated a release from the Ministry.
According to the Ministry, the payment forms part of the declaration by the Government of Saint Lucia to support and strengthen the industry, and precedes a broader investment of four million five hundred thousand dollars to restructure the NFTO, improve quality and increase the current level of exports.
“The banana industry is an important contributor to the economy of Saint Lucia. The Government of Saint Lucia remains fully committed to the industry, and more so, to the industrious banana farmers,” the Ministry stated.