Letters & Opinion

Who Really Killed Bananas?

(From The United Workers Party)

It is becoming increasingly obvious that one of the qualifications for membership of the St Lucia Labour Party is one’s ability to ignore the truth and to distort facts. The latest exponent of the art in the present government is the Minister of Agriculture.

On the surface Alfred Prospere comes across as a more mature individual than most of the other members of the rag tag government of which he is part.  Unfortunately, this positive trait has no relation to one’s ability to speak the truth, especially when one is expected to be constantly reading from the Labour Party’s playbook.

This in part might explain Mr. Pospere’s media statement last week in which he attempted to blame the United Workers Party for the collapse of the banana industry. This is what he said: “In July of 2021 when the Saint Lucia Labour Party government came into office, we found a banana industry that had collapsed under the UWP government”.

He then goes on to tout some of the things he claimed his government had done to revive the industry including the injection of a measly EC$3.8 million into the National Fair Trade Organization (NFTO), a visit to the British market which he led, and so on.

Anyone who is familiar with the St Lucia banana industry and has followed its development over the years will be aware of the real reasons why it has collapsed. To put it mildly, it collapsed because of the effects of the thing called “karma” — the result of a person’s actions as well as the actions themselves. It is a term about the cycle of cause and effect, a kind of retribution, payment for past misdeeds.

In still plainer language, the decline of the banana industry today and the fact that it is now the turn of the St Lucia Labour Party to deal with it, is payback for the mischief both engineered and supported by the SLP and its associates in times past.

The same fate may now be awaiting other important sectors of the St Lucian economy, especially tourism, foreign direct investment and the construction sector. When our economy collapses, if it has not already, we cannot feign surprise or a lack of understanding of what is taking place. The same way the SLP demonized UWP stewardship over bananas to destroy its political base in the 90’s they have been doing it again since coming into office with tourism, investment and infrastructure construction.

Even at this time, there are signs that tourism is on the decline and mainly because the work required to push the sector further following its 66.8 percent GDP growth (Central Statistics Office figures) in 2021 has not been done. We cannot pretend that we are unaware of the massive decline in construction and investment with the SLP government’s stoppage of a number of important projects: Hewanorra International airport, St Jude Hospital, the Rodney Bay and other roads, housing projects etc.  GDP growth in the construction industry rose by 20 percent last year, again according to the CSO.

But let us back up a bit. St Lucians know full well that it was under the United Workers Party that the banana industry established as a fully commercial business to the extent that it became the lynchpin of our island’s economy. At one point, bananas alone held the economy together. The industry was so powerful that it was able to bridge the economic and social gaps between town and country folks throughout St Lucia. “Green gold” they called it, such was its power and richness.

Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada, the other three Windward Islands all joined in producing bananas for the British market, but none was able to challenge St Lucia’s position of dominance as the leading exporter among the islands.

But how did we get there? It was mainly because of the sterling work of our founding father, the late John Compton, himself a banana farmer who championed the industry long before he became leader of the government in 1964. In times of instability and threats to its survival in the British market, it was Compton who virtually lived on aircrafts flying to European capitals to defend and negotiate assistance and terms of trade for the industry. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s he was to be joined in this endeavour by other Windwards leaders, Dominica’s Eugenia Charles and St Vincent’s James Mitchell,

As with any industry there would always be issues affecting production and bananas were no exception, There were issues in the marketplace and issues at home. Quality became a factor as did rising production costs and controlling pests, among others.  Ironically, it was at this very time that some dissident growers began agitating for control of the affairs of the St. Lucia Banana Growers Association (SLBGA) and they found ready accomplices in the St Lucia Labour Party.

Despite all the problems and confusion in the industry, banana exports and revenue in St. Lucia posted record figures: 133,777 tonnes and EC$186.9 million in 1990. In February of that year, Opposition Leader Julian Hunte led a group of about 200 people, mainly banana growers, on a protest demonstration in Castries against conditions in the industry. That march marked the beginning of a new era of turmoil in the industry. There were three major issues to contend with: grower dissatisfaction over their returns from the industry; the constant challenge to produce better quality fruit and the effects of the impending changes in the market in Europe, where a single market was to be created in 1993.

Continued agitation at home resulted in the birth of the Banana Salvation Committee (BSC) which decided to twin itself to the Labour Party and this is when the collapse of the banana industry really began. Banana strikes called by the BSC and supported by the SLP produced a “civil war” within the banana farming community. Farmers who refused to join the strikes had their fields vandalized, trees slashed to shreds and farm infrastructure burnt down. Many left the industry.

The election of the Labour Party to power in 1997 further hastened the collapse of the banana industry. The BSC that had campaigned to put the SLP in power was rewarded with the government handing over control of the SLBGA to a new entity, the St Lucia Banana Corporation (SLBC). The SLP also wiped off a $40 million debt of the old Association. But instead of the new beginning that was promised by both the SLP and the BSC, chaos began to reign dividing the BSC and the SLBC. There were complaints about how the corporation was being run, allegations of maladministration and abuse of power.

In this climate, grower confidence took a severe beating. Over the next 10 years, the number of banana farmers dropped from over 10,000 to under 1,000 but it is the export figures that give the lie to Alfred Prospere’s claim that the industry had collapsed under the UWP.

From 1986, with the exception of 1987 and 1994—banana exports from St Lucia were in six figure digits, meaning more than 100,000 tonnes every year. All that changed when the SLP came to power in 1997. Exports dropped dramatically to five figures annually. From 105,000 tonnes in 1996, the UWP’s last full year in office, the following are the export figures under the SLP over the next 10 years, and these are St Lucia Central Statistical Office figures: 1997—71,397 tonnes; 1998—73,039 tonnes, 1999—65,231 tonnes; 2000—70,282 tonnes; 2001—34,044 tonnes; 2002—48,160 tonnes; 2003—33,971 tonnes; 2004—42,236 tonnes; 2005—30,007 tonnes and 2006—30,318 tonnes.

So this is the horror story of St Lucia’s banana industry under the SLP. With competition in the market what it is and farmers continuing to face challenges at home, in addition to their perennial lack of confidence in SLP governments, it is easy to understand why so many have moved away from the industry. The Labour Party must understand that it is now in office to continue the process of killing the industry which it started in 1997. It is reaping the rewards of its role in destroying the once champion of our island’s economy….and just for the sake of politics.

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