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National consensus, regional approach

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St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) and our immediate northern neighbours face a long uphill struggle to recover from the ravages of Hurricane Tomas. The infrastructural damage alone, estimated in the combined cases of SVG and St. Lucia to be in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars, presents a formidable challenge.{{more}} In our sister island of St. Lucia in particular, there has been significant destruction of the communication systems, both physical, in terms of roads and airport, as well as to telecommunications. Add to that, significant damage to the electricity and water systems, and you get a most depressing picture.

What has happened has serious implications in terms of the negative effects on the economies of both countries. We must remember that neither SVG nor St. Lucia has recovered from the disastrous consequences of the global economic and financial crisis. In fact, few countries around the world have fully recovered from the crash of 2008, and this is going to make sourcing of disaster funds even more difficult. Despite this, when we consider the situation of Haiti, which may very well suffer even more devastation from Tomas, our own problems seem relatively minor in comparison.

Most worrying of all however, must be the almost total wipe-out of the agricultural and fishing sectors. This has very, very grave implications for our ability to feed ourselves, already having been compromised by years of partial neglect of these sectors and burgeoning food imports. We are in a real bind here, for on one hand, we have lost our local food production, while on the other, the economic hardships brought on by the hurricane will seriously constrain our ability to purchase food imports.

Of particular concern must be the near-total destruction of the banana industry, which, in spite of the problems and downturn of the last 15 years or so, remained the vital hub of the rural economy. With SVG and St. Lucia not in a position to export bananas for at least 5 to 6 months optimistically, and Dominica, the smallest exporter of the three to the United Kingdom, also having a 40 to 50 per cent damage, it stands to reason that it would be uneconomical for the “banana boat” to come to the islands for minimal shipments. Millions of dollars which traditionally went into weekly circulation in these islands will now be lost.

This is not just a statistic. We are talking here of livelihoods threatened, tens of thousands without an income, even though they have no choice but to plough and sow again. How do they maintain their families while waiting on a harvest which cannot come before next year? How will they manage to generate an income? What of the income of many others like farm workers, shopkeepers, traffickers, the utility and telecommunications workers, those employed in the commercial sector etc., who will directly or indirectly also come under strain?

The crisis is of such a scale that we have no choice but to engage in collective solutions. It calls for consensus at the national level, eschewing the temptation of partisan politics even as both SVG and St. Lucia face impending general elections. It also calls for a comprehensive regional approach to the agricultural and food sectors. An urgent meeting at leadership level in Dominica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines must be a start.