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More banana promises: How to have faith?

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Fri, Sept 23. 2011

Save and except for natural disasters, there has not been a time in the more than half a century of banana exports to the United Kingdom when things have been so bleak. Not even in the turbulent days of the mid-nineties, when pressure from US-based banana transnational companies and European acquiescence opened the door to rulings by the World trade Organisation (WTO) against Caribbean preferential access to the EU market has there ever been such a feeling of despondency, hurt and betrayal on the part of farmers.{{more}}

The resilience for which our farmers have traditionally been known has been sapped to almost breaking point. Some farmers, long recognised for their commitment to the industry, and to Agriculture in general, are beginning to question whether it is worth soldiering on in the face of the continuously mounting odds.

Many banana farmers have simply given up hope and abandoned fields, but the realities of sustaining life, limb and family in these economically testing times pose real challenges which must be faced.

The expected alternative boom from dasheen and other crops has not worked out as planned, and the regional banana market, once considered “the future”, has not been as rewarding as envisaged. The same competitive market, opened by free trade rules in Europe, has come to haunt our banana producers in the shape of competition from South and Central American companies.

To compound all of this, up came diseases in the form of Moko, and the deadly Black Sigatoka. Given our history, our relatively long experience with a myriad of banana challenges, one would have thought that we would have made every effort to protect the tiny window still open to us. Unfortunately, two years after the initial discovery of the outbreak of Black Sigatoka, we have been proven unequal to the task.

The result is quite frightening, particularly in the context of the deepest economic crisis in the global economy for eight decades. This past week, once-proud SVG shipped just about 1,000 cartons of fruit, a mere 10 per cent of what would be expected in normal circumstances. Farmers are forced to cut down acres and acres of fruit-bearing tress, and with those strokes, wiping out hopes, expectations and livelihoods. Some farmers, driven to extreme frustration, are simply refusing to cut back infected fields, delivering fruit for export, only for the consignment to be rejected in the UK and hefty quality claims made against the farmers exporting company WINFARM. This is a crisis as never before.

The stark truth is that the Ministry of Agriculture, and by extension the government, has placed our farmers and the entire country in a bind by what it admits to be “bureaucratic bungling”. Others will have far more harsh terms to describe what has happened. The sad reality is that the Ministry has failed to deliver on its commitments, whatever the internal reasons, and has virtually cost the country a valuable industry at a time we can ill-afford. As reported elsewhere in these pages, it has belatedly accepted responsibility and made commitments to rectify the situation. That, at least, is a step forward.

The problem lies in the lack of credibility. Even in the current crisis, the Ministry’s prior commitment to resume spraying by mid-September was not fulfilled. Can farmers trust the officials now? We have gone beyond the stage of trust and faith. It is up to the farmers and their organisations to ensure that those commitments are met and arrangements put in place to avoid such disastrous and costly bungling in the future.

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