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And banana becomes king!

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Fri, Aug 10, 2012

by Oswald Fereira
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Banana did not become a major export crop in SVG until the latter half of the last century. We had bananas, mainly the Gros Michel variety, and we also had the “short banana” that was a staple in most kitchen gardens. We had other members of the banana family, including plantains,{{more}} grindy, maugh faugh baugh, silk and rock fig, and the red banana. However, trade in these was limited, largely at the local market or perhaps some were bought by traffickers to take to neighbouring islands; or just for home consumption.

Then, in the 1950’s, a businessman from Kingstown, S.O. Jack by name, came around the villages, buying our bunches of Gros Michel, and began talking of shipping bananas to the United Kingdom. Soon, shipments of Lacatan banana suckers were arriving on the island and distributed to farmers, who were willing to plant them. In time, a Banana Association was formed, marketing contracts were negotiated with Van Geest and the banana boats became a regular feature in Kingstown.

Farmers’ fields were swiftly transformed and soon the island was a sea of bananas. The lure of the banana crop was easy to understand. Once the crop was established, maintenance was easy enough that most farming families could do the job themselves. Within a year, the crop was ready for harvesting and the successions of suckers made for an ongoing crop for many years. The single harvest of the arrowroot and sugar crops was now replaced by a weekly harvest; the farming families now had a continuous cash flow and with that came a measure of financial independence. The Banana Association looked after marketing; provided fertilizer on credit; sprayed the bananas for pests; and sold herbicides to keep the fields weed free.

As more land was cropped to bananas, there was less land for arrowroot and sugar cane. Many of the small arrowroot factories closed and took with them an aspect of village social relations. In time, the Central Arrowroot Factory at Belle Vue also closed and arrowroot was relegated to a fringe crop. With turmoil in the sugar industry, the sugar factory at Mt Bentinck ceased to operate. However, the loss of sugar and arrowroot was of little consequence; it simply entrenched bananas as the main export crop. The landscape of the island was changed and so too were cultural relationships — Banana was King!

With banana as the main export crop, village life was changed. The constant cash flow enabled us to move from a subsistence society to a consumer society. We were freed from the annual cycles of the arrowroot and sugar crops. Banana also changed our diet; we now had an abundance of bananas to cook and eat as ripened fruit — banana became a staple in the diet, just as breadfruit in season. Our system of cropping was also changed. Bananas did not lend itself to layer cropping. Sure, some farmers would plant a crop of tannias or dasheen with the newly planted bananas, but once that was harvested banana was a single crop. Many farmers did not interplant because of the use of herbicides in banana cropping. We had gained some financial independence, but we were losing some of our other crops. Many farmers started to cut down their coconut trees, cocoa trees, and mango trees — all to create more land to plant bananas. We now had less to share and some of our cultural bonds were being eroded.

Banana cropping created its own culture. In place of the arrowroot mills, we now had banana stations where the banana crop was brought to be graded and weighed, and the bunches wrapped for shipment. We also had “banana day”, the days on which the crop was harvested, at first bi-weekly and later weekly. Our week now revolved around “banana day” and our culture revolved around the banana stations. Banana was a part of daily life, in that a freshly cut banana leaf became everyone’s “umbrella” when it rained. As time went by, the banana stations changed to boxing plants; the fruit was now taken off the bunch and packed in boxes for export. Later, the boxing plants were closed and the fruit were boxed in the farmers’ fields. The activity was now insular and the communal bonds of our communities were severed.

Despite the success of the banana crop, it had inherent weaknesses. The plants were frail and could not withstand wind. Every year a great portion of the crop was lost to windstorms. Then, as with all monocultures, diseases often win out and recently the banana crop succumbed to the Black Sigatoka disease that threatens its continued existence as a major export crop, much like the ills that befell our cotton industry. I sincerely hope that there will be a way to get the banana industry back on track, because it is an ideal crop for the small farmer, due to the weekly cash flow that it generates and because it is a reliable food source.

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