Letters & Opinion

Regional Industry Growing, But Farmers Still Going Bananas Over Bananas

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

What happens when Green Gold loses its shine?

The answer lies in Saint Lucia’s current experiences in trying to keep its once-thriving banana industry from heading to the burial ground.

For decades, banana exports were the island’s main export earner and an industry that touched and positively changed the lives of almost every Saint Lucian, the banana industry was then referred to as ‘Green Gold’.

But not anymore – not after the Bill Clinton Administration (in the mid-90s) successfully petitioned the World Trade Organization (WTO) to rule against European preferential treatment of Caribbean bananas, on behalf of US-owned multinational banana corporations in Central America.

Trade with the UK went on an endless downward slide in the first two decades of the 21st Century, British supermarkets naturally going for cheaper Central American fruit and Caribbean bananas being priced off the market while those responsible for the trade on the two sides of the Atlantic offered more excuses than efforts at solutions, eventually opting to phase the Windward Islands out of the market.

Saint Lucia was always the leading windwards producer by far and even after the other three islands completely pulled out, previous governments kept the industry alive, the island being the only one exporting to the UK, up to 2016.

The new administration in 2016 promised early solutions, including immediate access to the French market through Martinique, but it never happened, the industry instead continuing the earlier climb-down that had earlier rubbed-off the brightest shines from the Green Gold.

The next new administration in 2021 promised to again try to revive exports to the UK, but also to seek and find new ways to address the old banana problems.

The current administration – now only 15 months old — inherited a collapsed banana industry after trade with the UK was halted for two years.

By the Agriculture Ministry’s latest account: The critical infrastructure required to efficiently operate the industry was dismantled; the main banana-exporting company WIBDECO/Winfresh Ltd. went into administration; key assets such as the ripening facility at Stanstead (UK); and Winfresh’s stake in the Geest shipping line were sold off to third parties to meet debt payments.
The local producer-based farmer’s organization, the NFTO, facing financial losses and technical challenges, forcibly assumed responsibility for the commercial arm of the trade, without the necessary resources and expertise.

The new administration established a loan facility to inject $3.8 million dollars into the NFTO and the minister led a delegation to the UK to meet supermarket representatives on how best to resume trade and finalize contractual relations with local farmers.

In early May, a technical delegation from the UK visited St Lucia to determine the island’s readiness and trade resumed on May 15.

Government continued subsidizing inputs such as oils and fertilizer to farmers and pursued other regional markets, but the long-term impact of COVID on the supply chain and the ongoing war in Ukraine presented major challenges that still threaten the industry, like high shipping costs (US$8,200 per container – and rising), plus fuel costs.

The increasing cost and extended journey time for local bananas to reach the UK proved uncompetitive as compared to other suppliers, especially from Central America.

Stakeholders eventually reviewed the state of the banana trade to evaluate the business case and the Minister announced this week:

“The contracting parties, NFTO and the UK supermarket chain, have now informed the government that they have mutually decided to suspend the trade as they monitor the current situations impacting the trade both in the Caribbean and the UK” — and “As soon as both parties are satisfied that it is profitable to proceed, then the trade will be activated.”

And there went the last shine on Green Gold…

Fortunately, as the minister acknowledges, “the newly-developed regional markets are showing signs of progress and growth and bananas originally destined for the UK market will now be diverted to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) market and the weekly trade will be maintained.”

The decision to tap the regional market is a positive and progressive one, but sad that it took the loss of the UK market to have led to what should have been only natural.

From the pre-independence era, the likes of Calixte George and Cyril Matthews (Permanent Secretaries in the Ministry of Agriculture), David Demacque and others in the directorate of implementation), with farmers’ interests first-and-foremost in mind, went out-of-their-way to warn against overdependence on only shipping to Europe and pushing for diversification locally and regionally, by utilizing all the other nutritional, manufacturing and other value-added aspects of the banana plant.

The Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), from inception, has also offered all the scientific elements and practical ways and means of expanding the productive and earning capacity of the banana industry, only to be largely ignored.

But it wasn’t until now, the beginning of the second quarter of the 21st Century, that industry stakeholders realized that Caribbean citizens love ripe bananas even more than Europeans — and providing them is quicker and better.

Bananas lost their Green Gold shine, but the new inter-Caribbean trade developed between Saint Lucia and Antigua & Barbuda needs to be sustained, while more is done to remind local and regional citizens that it’s not for nothing that Olympic athletes are required to eat at least two bananas per day – and that Caribbean bananas have established a reputation for the highest nutritional value on the European market, which can definitely add more healthy value to the region’s quest towards Food Safety and Security By 2025.

The shine might have been rubbed-off, but in this case, the new gold can be ripe yellow bananas — and the scores of value-added, banana-based foods and products displayed in the Banana Festival hosted here last year — have sterling capacity to return the shine back to Caribbean bananas – and end the daily nightmare for too many farmers still going bananas over bananas!

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