Banana farmers must, as of now, put forward a case to government for the survival of their industry. They should be the first sector of our economic engine to have that all important discussion with the new government. To put off such a meeting would be to invite the death knell of an industry that was once our life blood but has been draining away for the last 20 years.
It has not been easy for farmers over this past period of time as they have gone months without seeing a cent for fruit they exported. Today, they need to improve and sustain their yields and work with the government at finding new markets for their fruit or expanding old ones.
While we understand that the banana industry is just one part of the overall agriculture sector which really needs a revamp, we believe that bananas require special attention due to what the growers have endured over the past years, a situation which has drastically reduced their income.
The banana industry, which at one time in Saint Lucia’s history, produced wealth for the country and prosperity for farmers and which held the economy together, is now a shadow of what it used to be. In 2016 when the Allen Chastanet administration took office, a new life was breathed in the industry with the announcement by the administration that it would seek new markets for local banana exports, with France and Martinique touted as places the government would approach to purchase local bananas.
This endeavour by the previous administration never materialised. Dealing a further blow to banana farmers was the WINFRESH debacle. WINFRESH was set up by the governments of the Windward Islands to market and sell overseas, bananas from the Windward Islands.
WINFRESH went into administration last year leaving the National Fair Trade Organisation (NFTO) of Saint Lucia with an empty purse and unable to paid farmers for months for fruit sold.
It was confirmed, by the past chairman of the NFTO, Eustace Monrose that at the time of WINFRESH’s collapse it owed the NFTO in excess of EC$8 million and that it was WINFRESH’s demise that plunged the local banana organization into cash flow problems. Simply put, it was WINFRESH’s inability to pay the local National Fair Trade Organisation for bananas exported that is causing financial pain and anguish to farmers today.
The banana industry may not have the financial clout in the economy that it had in past years, which is not to say that it is not needed as the economy, already weak, would suffer even more should the industry collapse.
Over 300 banana farmers are said to be suffering right now, being in dire need of cash to maintain their farms, families and workers. This much was articulated by Monrose in May of this year. He noted that the industry is in shambles and that the road to recovery will be long and difficult “hence the faster we start to rebuild the better for all stakeholders.”
That is enough reason for farmers to be first in line in seeking government’s assistance in mapping out a way forward for the industry which still plays an important role in the overall economic development of the country.