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Farmers staying focused

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Last Wednesday (October 26th), Fair Trade farmers from the vast majority of the 16 Fair Trade groups in St. Vincent engaged in a very relaxing but also productive social interaction on Mt.Wynne beach.

There the groups were able to intermingle, exchange views and experiences in an informal atmosphere that allowed for a more free expression of views. In addition to the bonding which the activity provided, the most important result to emerge from the day’s activities was the historic agreement to designate October 26th as FARMERS DAY to be commemorated each year henceforth.{{more}}

The desire for a specific day to celebrate the contribution of farmers to national development is perhaps as old as the Farmers Movement itself in the Eastern Caribbean. Since the early eighties, WINFA and the various national farmers’ organizations have tried to arrive at some consensus on a FARMERS DAY. After all we have WORKERS DAY, FISHERFOLK’S DAY, MOTHERS DAY, CHILDREN’S DAY, INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY and the like, but no day for the hard working farmers. No wonder agriculture is in crisis!

So the fact that some consensus was arrived at on a day for farmers, albeit by Fair Trade farmers, is a significant one, particularly because the initiative came from the farmers themselves. It is they who decided to take the bull by the horns and claim October 26th for themselves, pledging to include ALL farmers, irrespective of whether they be in banana, root or tree crops, poultry, livestock or even horticulture. ALL must be equally honoured and their work respected.

Of even greater significance is the context in which the farmers met and arrived at a common decision. This is election time in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the hardest possible time for mass organizations to arrive at any common position. Political loyalties are tearing even families apart, much more organizations. Yet in the heat of all this, the farmers, many of whom actively support one party or another, kept their focus and concentrated on what UNIFIES them rather than the more minor issues on which they disagree, such as political affiliation. That is not to say that there was no political banter nor heckle, just that they never became dividing lines.

To maintain your focus in these times of political bluster is no easy task. There are people who read my column for instance who believe that every line must deal with the politics of the day, every comment on whether ULP or NDP, Arnhim or Ralph is right or wrong. Yet in all this, important developments are taking place which are going to have far-reaching repercussions for our society, long after the election dust has settled. And not many want to hear or read about it, caught up as we are in the tribal warfare of electoral politics.

Is banana I talking about, for when on October 27th, we were either relaxing at home on a rainy day or mobilizing to go “support de Comrade,” the Second Arbitration Panel of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was handing down its verdict on the dispute over what type of import arrangements should be put in place in Europe to govern the imports of bananas from 2006. This Panel, like an earlier one, ruled against the position of the European Union, for an import duty of 187 euros per tonne on Latin American bananas, while those from the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries would attract no duty but would be bound to a quota of 775,000 tonnes annually. The Panel however made no recommendation for a solution.

As it stands therefore, the ball is back in the court of the European Commission. It can unilaterally go ahead and impose the tariff and quota rejected by the Panel. This would have grave implications since the Latin Americans nations will virtually “raise hell” in the WTO and can derail the upcoming Hong Kong Ministerial Conference, on which Europe is pinning hopes for an agreement. Or, it can seek some sort of agreement with the Latins, through negotiations.

The Latins themselves have made it clear that they expect Europe to negotiate. While insisting on a tariff level of “no more than 75 euros per tonne,” on their bananas, it must be clear to them that there is little chance of getting agreement in time to prepare legislation to be passed by the European Union Council of Ministers in time for implementation by January 1st, 2006. So the present system is likely to survive beyond that date.

However for the Caribbean there is a dilemma. Our preferential treatment is permitted in the WTO only as a result of a waiver due to expire whenever the new tariff regime takes effect. But Europe is bound under the terms of the Cotonou Agreement to continue the preferential treatment until the end of 2007. So how to solve this diemma?

The Latins, meetings in Bogota, Colombia on Tuesday of this week, again reiterated their position and emphasized their unity. What about the Caribbean which stands to lose the most? Where is the show of unity, of urgency, of meetings of minds and wills? Are we twiddling our thumbs like NERO while Rome is burning?

Ecuador put forward three proposals to the Latins in Colombia:

(1) A gradual tariff reduction without quotas, starting with 150 euros per tone and reducing over 5 years to 75 euros per tonne.

(2) A gradual quota increase

(3) A combined system of two years of the current system and the years without quotas until the 75 euros per tonne is reached.

Meanwhile, we in the Caribbean continue to languish in fool’s paradise. Are we really aware of the social and economic devastation that a collapse in the banana industry would bring about, the dark forces it will unleash in our society in its train. We face the danger of this scenario in just TWO MONTHS time if we do nothing. In SVG, one side or the other will not even have time to celebrate an election victory.

We need to employ all our forces NOW. Already the office of our Special Envoy needs greater support, we need high level missions to Europe and Latin America. Are we using the Summit of the Americas in Argentina to engage Latin America? Precious time is slipping away; we must keep our farmers, our agriculture, our future IN FOCUS.

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