Letters & Opinion

The Cost of Banana False Promises

By Stephen Lester Prescott

Remember how the other party used to be so possessive about bananas when it was being referred to as Green Gold?

These days they are remarkably cold on the subject of bananas, and distant from the industry they used in the past as a partisan political asset.

Why? Because after years of trying to associate themselves with all that is good about the industry; and the Saint Lucia Labour Party with all that is bad, banana karma has caught up with them.

It now falls on the Labour Party administration to pull the banana industry from the hole dug by the Allen Chastanet Administration.

No sooner had Minister Alfred ‘Starbatch’ Prospere taken up office, when he received the grim news that clients in the UK were at the end of their rope – so to speak – with persistently bad fruit from Saint Lucia over the last five years. The letter from the UK warned that business with Saint Lucia would cease, if the fruit quality problems were not resolved.

“When you receive a letter of this nature in only the first week of assuming office, you have to be very concerned about the state of the industry,” says new Minister of Agriculture, Hon. Prospere, adding that the matter was so serious he had to make the trip to the UK for direct talks with the supermarket chains, following discussion with stakeholders here.

The main issue is the ripening of fruit before it reaches the UK, resulting in mass dumping of shipments, damage to the reputations of buyers, as well as expectations of consumers.

“They told us frankly that they had no desire to do further business with Saint Lucia anymore, unless we do what was required,” Hon. Prospare said. “The task ahead is not a difficult one, but there are pieces which must come together.”

Sadly, it’s the financial well-being of banana farmers, in particular, and the health of the economy in general that are feeling the local shocks in the local industry.

One can trace the beginning of the five-year deterioration of the banana industry to the UWP’s 2016 election campaign during which ridiculous promises were made about dramatically increasing production and exports. In fact, Allen Chastanet starred in an infamous election eve video, dressed in his campaign shirt introducing and interviewing one ‘Eric’ (de Lucy), who he said was the “president of the banana cooperative of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Mr Chastanet gave Eric “the assurance that if the UWP forms the government on Monday – which I think we will – we are going to be very much looking forward to working with you and supporting you because we want to see our banana production back up.”

Eric de Lucy was supposed to be part of Mr Chastanet’s and Mr Ezechiel Joseph’s masterplan to increase production here from what he said was 8,000 tons at the time (because according to him, the then Labour Party administration had been a “dismal failure”) to “50,000 to 60,000” tons per year at $35 a box.

But towards the end of 2020 – the beginning of the end of his government’s term in office – neither he nor Minister of Agriculture, Mr Ezechiel Joseph, could give a satisfactory update on the banana export master plan with “Eric”.

As a matter of fact, the Saint Lucia-based marketing entity of Windward Islands bananas, Winfresh Limited, reached rock bottom and went into ‘administration’ in the UK on 23rd July 2020 on Ezechiel Joseph’s watch. Later that year, we had to depend on the then SLP’s spokesman for agriculture, Mr Moses ‘Musa’ Jn Baptiste for the earliest information on this tragedy. During a virtual Market Steps Public Meeting, Mr Jn Baptiste, a former minister for agriculture, expressed deep concern for the viability of Winfresh, saying that the 2018 financial report had already indicated that the Company had been in deep financial trouble.

Meanwhile, Mr Ezechiel Joseph was not only the minister for agriculture, but also a director on the board of Winfresh. Interestingly, the Minister for Agriculture, was also at the same time a director on the Winfresh Board, something that raised many eyebrows as to the organisational efficacy of the chain of command.

All the signs of a troubled industry were present. The Head of the National Fair Trade Organisation (NAFTO), Mr Eustace Monrose, had been trying to draw attention to the early ripening problem which was causing the dumping of fruit at the Organisation’s expense. Quality claims by the importers amounted to $1.5 million at one point. Outstanding payments from Winfresh pushed NAFTO reserves to the brink. NAFTO sold fruit to Winfresh on behalf of the farmers, but found itself under pressure from the then government to ditch Mr Monrose (who was vigorously speaking up for the farmers) in return for a grant from the government to partially meet outstanding payments to banana farmers.

Prior to Tropical Storm Kirk in September 2018, NAFTO had been exporting 15,000 boxes per week to the UK. That fell to 6,000 per week. Frustrations over fruit quality, delays in Winfresh payments, and uncertainty over the future of Winfresh cast a long shadow over the survival of what was left of the local industry itself.

In November 2020, employees at the Winfresh office here were publicly calling on the Minister of Agriculture, Ezecheil Joseph, to respond to their correspondence asking for information on the state of the company and on the future of their jobs.

Yet, the Chastanet Administration never passed up an opportunity to repeat general election promises to explore opportunities in France and other countries to boost the banana export market.

New Minister Alfred ‘Starbatch’ Prospere has his work cut-out for him, trying to fix what has largely been a man-made disaster in the banana industry during the reign of the Allen Chastanet Administration. The record in agriculture was dismal between June 2016 and July 2021. However, our banana farmers and fisher-folk suffered the brunt of the mismanagement, neglect and false election promises.

Minister Prospere is confident that the capability exists, with support from the Cabinet and all stakeholders, to do better for the banana industry.

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