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Hitting the road early

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A most welcome signal to banana farmers in the Windward Islands was given this week when on the first working Monday of the year, stakeholders in the banana industry met to plan for the future of the industry in 2006 and beyond. The sense of urgency and the need to hit the road early were clearly manifested. The fact that the meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Gonsalves himself accompanied by three of his ministers, Deputy P.M. Sir Louis Straker, Agriculture Minister Montgomery Daniel and the man in charge of the newly created Ministry of Rural Transformation, Selmon Walters, and was attended by WIBDECO’s top two executives, Chairman Eustace Monrose and CEO Bernard Cornibert, spoke volumes of the importance with which the meeting was viewed. {{more}}

This gathering took place eight days after the new European banana import regime came into force officially, though for practical purposes the old arrangements would continue until the end of February. Under the new regulations, while Caribbean and other ACP bananas would continue to have duty free access up to a quota of 775,000 tonnes annually, other bananas, principally Latin American would pay a duty of 176 euros per tonne, worked out to be the equivalent of EC$10.50 per box. Unfortunately though, there is no restriction on the quantity thereby the risk of flooding of the market. Additionally, since there would be an estimated amount of 940,000 tonnes from ACP countries, duty would have to be paid on the excess amount over the quota.

The other worrying factor is the introduction of the complicated First-come-First-served (FCFS) system, threatened since 2001 under which licences would be granted on a periodical basis. Stakeholders in the industry believe that a combination of all of these factors can be very detrimental to the industry and hence have asked P.M Gonsalves and his other Prime Ministerial colleagues to do their utmost best to persuade the European Commission not to go ahead with 100 per cent FCFS from 2007.

In this context, the survival of the industry is the vital factor and all our lobbying skills must be employed to that end, seeking support from friends and allies. Within this strategy, FAIR TRADE is the key factor. For as long as British and European consumers remain convinced of the need for fair trading and hence buy our bananas, our farmers will have a lifeline. Ironically, the stone which the builder originally refused, Fair Trade bananas, has become the head corner stone around which the industry is to be re-built.

We cannot stay there however. Fair Trade is not just for bananas. Already exploratory probes by WINFA have revealed interest in other Fair Trade products on the British and European markets. For years we in the islands have been talking agricultural diversification and agro-processing. Very few entrepreneurs have done anything about it, BELLO in Dominica being a notable exception. These are ways to increase the income of farmers, to put agriculture and agro-processing on a more secure footing and to deal with linkages in a meaningful way.

Monday’s decision to move in that direction with our marketing company WIBDECO playing a critical role as partner in a business venture is one of the most sensible decisions made. It will provide the basic for the revitalization of agriculture in the region, creating employment, boosting exports and raising incomes. We have to make it work, for the sake of us all.

SHOW MORE SOLIDARITY WITH CUBA

The “vision” programme under which Vincentians get gratuitous assistance from the Government and People of the Republic of Cuba in the field of eye care, has resumed in 2006, with the first batch leaving here on Wednesday for treatment in Cuba.

A mere 10 days before, Cuba celebrated the 47th anniversary of the triumph of its Revolution in 1959. That Revolution not only brought about momentous changes in Cuba, it also had a profound impact on the rest of the world. It brought dignity and honour to small nations, demonstrating the possibilities of oppressed people to free themselves and make decisions in their own interests. It revealed how a so-called Third World country could reach First World standards in education, health, sports, science and research, relying on its own resources.

Nelson Mandela may have still been in jail had not the Cuban army broken the back of the racist apartheid murderers in Angola. Many of our people who could hardly see in 2005 are now staring widely at all before them. A whole generation of young professionals have emerged and are contributing to Vincentian and Caribbean development, courtesy of the sacrifice of the Cuban people. We just cannot even begin to quantify Cuba’s contribution.

So why don’t we reciprocate on an official and national level? Why do we let January 1st pass each year without a big THANK YOU? I am calling on the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, spearheaded by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Health and the Cuban graduates to organize an appropriate event that we can all express solidarity and say MUCHOS GRACIAS. January 1st may have passed but it is never too late.

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