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We cannot afford to fail

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From the time of Britain’s entry into the Single European Market in 1993, the Caribbean banana industry has been drawn into a web of instability, downward spiralling prices, diminishing returns to farmers and serious financial losses by banana companies.
These, in turn, have led to thousands of farmers being forced out of the market, a drastic reduction in exports and vital foreign exchange earnings, and growing economic and social problems, especially in the Windward Islands.{{more}}
The figures speak for themselves. In 1992 the islands exported 274,539 tonnes of bananas to the European market. One year after the European Single European Market came into being (July 1993), the figure had already plummeted to 168,369 tonnes and though there was a slight recovery (July 1995/96), it has fallen steadily to a low of 67,767 tonnes in 1993.
Only during the year prior to 1959 have exports been lower, not even in times of hurricane, drought and volcano. In financial terms, the returns dropped from US/147 million in 1992 to a mere US$45 million in 2002, a loss of more than US $100 million. As for retail prices, when measured in real terms, the 2002 retail market price was only 64 per cent of the 1990 figure.
Let’s not just think that it is banana farmers alone who are suffering. That US$100 million has a multiplier effect throughout the entire Windward Islands. That means EC$270 million less in circulation, reducing demand for goods and services, tightening the money supply, making businesses more nervous.
True, the growth of tourism has somewhat compensated, in fact, on paper, bringing in more foreign exchange. But banana money is RURAL MONEY and the rural areas are the lifeblood of the economy. The banana dollar is weekly, is drastic and circulates more than that earned by any other commodity.
Besides the actual money loss, there is the almost catastrophic drop in the number of growers. Whereas there were 24,100 registered banana producers in 1993, ten years later there were only about a quarter of those still left in the industry today. Production lost, earnings lost, productive lands idle or sold. We really taking a beating. And the blows ain’t done! For if all this has happened when we still have some element of protection, what will happen if all the protection goes? How could we safeguard our interests? In Europe? On the market? On the farm? In our own countries?
These are not just rhetorical questions, they are not just banana issues, they are issues on which the very stability of our countries, the democracy of which we love to boast, the EC dollar of which we are so proud, the relative peace which we enjoy, all depend. So next week’s Conference on Bananas cannot afford to be another talk-shop. If banana goes, every existing Government in the Windwards would go with it, retrenchment, economic hardship, business failures, skyrocketing crime, all loom ahead …
It is thus in the interests of ALL to ensure that not only the Conference succeeds, but that the banana battle is won, or at least not lost. Those who go to the table must realize the heavy responsibility they take with them and the need for them to use their intellect and resourcefulness, to put the regional interests above all else, to draggedly seek consensus and agreement on the way forward. It is not a time for grand-standing, for glorified speeches and little action, but a test of our committedness and creativity.
These islands have been living for a long time now on a false illusion of prosperity. We have First World consumption patterns on Third World economies. We have expectations of people in developed countries. There is nothing, except the waste, wrong with that. But we have productivity rates of very underdeveloped countries.
Labour costs for instance are a factor in the banana equation. Can we afford to be under-producing, whether working on the farm, in the office or at the negotiating table? Real, hard choices have to be made and must not be postponed by political expediency or the “friend-friend” syndrome which plagues us all.

Next week will begin to tell us how serious we are!

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