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Charting a course for Caribbean bananas

Charting a course for Caribbean bananas

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There’s no doubt about it, the glory days of banana are over.
Facing this reality, stakeholders in the banana industry, mainly that of the Windward Islands, assembled in St.Vincent and the Grenadines on Tuesday for the first ever International Banana Conference to be held in the Caribbean to chart course for the way ahead.{{more}}
Edwin Laurent, chairing the conference hosted by the Government of St.Vincent and the Grenadines at the Methodist Church Hall, did give the participants a lot of food for thought as they prepared themselves to deliberate for two days on the most significant issues affecting the banana industry.
Explaining why there was a dire need to stage the conference at this point in time, Laurent said, Caribbean farmers, for about four decades, were able to sell their bananas to the world’s most lucrative markets and enjoy a premium. But over the last decade significant changes have occurred within the industry that have changed the entire spectrum of operation and the profitability of the industry.
According to the chairman, since 2001 the writings were on the wall that business in the banana industry was not going to be the same again as usual. He said that year the first major change took place in the industry when the United States and the European Union agreed to the ending of the tariff rate quota arrangements by the year 2006. This, he said, spelled significant implications for bananas coming out of the OECS.
He added that another factor that might have been suggesting that the good days might be drawing to a close was the enlargement of the European Union. While in the ‘old days’ Caribbean governments could have boasted about the number of friends they had in the European Union the mathematics have now changed, Laurent explained. The countries that have recently entered the EU have little or no interest in Caribbean bananas accessing their markets, he noted.
“It is not only a mathematical issue of enlargement. The greatest change the enlargement of the European Union has brought out has been the change to the political character of the European Union. The European Union is less Atlantisist,” said Laurent, as he explained that the focus of the EU is now internally, as it looks at its own development and concerns.
“Therefore if the party is done what are we to do?” the chairman questioned.
Banana, said Laurent, has two options. However he made it clear the stakeholders must be careful how they approach and seek to resolve the way forward.
He suggested the conference come up with an exit strategy, or alternatively, prepare to hang in there and fight.
Laurent however reminded to tell the participants that the decision to exit the banana industry must not be taken on the sole basis of liberalisation or because the Caribbean banana producing states are inefficient. He added neither should they be as “headless chickens who continue to flutter around not realising that we are already dead”.
Chairman Laurent said the conference needed to examine very analytically, and objectively what are the real prospects and also most importantly what are the implications to us as a region and whether we have the guts to fight.
Laurent stated emphatically the decision of the banana industry in the Caribbean crumbling and not having a future is not a decision for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or for the World Bank or the European Union to make. Instead, he said, this decision should be one that the Caribbean stakeholders have to make.
Airing his personal opinion should the stakeholders decide with the option of continuing with the industry he simply said, “I must say it is a difficult one”.
Laurent pointed out the industry will always be faced with the challenges of meeting the supply level with volume, the right size and more so the high cost of production.
He however stressed that the fact that the conference was being staged is an indication that there were leaders and farmers who strongly believed that the survival of the industry is something “doable”.
“There is a determination amongst our people, amongst our leaders to fight for it. “
Laurent suggested that owing to the fact that Caribbean bananas supply a minute portion of the European Market, being 3 percent, to have any impact the banana-producing states must work within a coalition.
Laurent said the commitment of the leaders to the challenge ahead is there to ensure that the region eventually prevails.
He said the objective of the conference was not to make it just another conference or an academic exercise but one that will decide the way ahead.

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