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Fair trade, a saving grace

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“Fair Trade reminds us that trade is about people, their livelihoods, their families, sometimes their survival.” EU Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson.

Over the next two weeks, consumers in Britain will be engaged in activities to mark Fair Trade in the United Kingdom. This year, two Vincentian farmers, Lloyd DaSilva and Maria Sargeant, will be among producers from developing countries who will be in Britain as guests of the Fair Trade Foundation to help promote Windwards Fairtrade bananas. The holding of these events has over the years substantially helped to boost the sales of Windward bananas under the Fairtrade label, which in turn has contributed greatly to the Windwards being able to maintain a toehold on the British banana market. {{more}}

That toehold is not only essential for the beleaguered banana industry; it is tantamount to a saving grace in the sea of gloom surrounding the industry. With farmer confidence battered and bruised by the uncaring dictates of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the decisions of the Brussels bureaucracy, Windwards production and exports have been steadily falling. Many farmers have turned to alternatives, both within agriculture and, more worryingly, away from it.

Nowhere is the vital necessity of the Fair Trade market more graphically demonstrated than in the case of Dominica. Faced with economic bankruptcy resulting in the IMF having to be called in, structures and all, Dominica responded to WINFA’s pioneering Fair Trade initiative and an opportunity from the British supermarket chain, TESCO, with the bold step to convert its entire extra-regional banana exports to Fair Trade. Bananas under this label have been playing a major part ever since in helping to stabilize that country’s economy and to lead a mild recovery.

Now the rest of the islands, being virtually driven out of the fiercely competitive conventional market, are faced with no choice but to go on FAIR TRADE. The results are palpable. Fair Trade is now what St. Lucia Fairtrade banana farmers describe as the “last best chance”. Not only does Fair Trade provide better prices, but it also brings with it a lucrative social premium, which has brought tangible benefits to many rural communities in Dominica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent. Not only are these additional millions coming into these cash-strapped countries (nearly US$ 5 million 2004-2005, with SVG’s share being US$ 1.373 million), but they are being spent in the rural communities, improving the quality of life of the residents of those areas. No other export operation, EVER, has done this in the history of the Windward Islands. Fair Trade has been able to find rural development projects in its mere five years of operations that FORTY YEARS OF GEEST OPERATION NEVER DID.

The list is impressive: a school bus for the village of Calibishie in Dominica, computers for schools in all three islands, construction of a pre-school, provision of equipment and supplies to health centres and schools, repairs of a village church, a community market, a community library, street lights in a remote village, skills training for young people, a green house for a secondary school, not to mention significant sponsorships and contributions to community, cultural and sporting organizations. Through the social premium, farmers have been able to upgrade their own productive skills, help to meet environmental criteria, invest in plant nurseries, initiate a major composting project and provide inputs more cheaply to farmers.

Those are the real benefits of Fair Trade. It must be emphasized that Fair Trade today is a major growth area in Europe. Since we in the Windwards have gone the fairtrade route, it has grown by more than 20% each year. It is now much more than the “niche market” that it used to be. The annual aggregate sales of Fairtrade products in Europe now exceeds 660 million euros (over EC $2 billion), more than double what it was 5 years ago. We should note that the most significant growth areas are in coffee and bananas. Today there are over 25 European countries.

Banana is making its mark and Windwards Fair Trade bananas are Numero Uno as the Spanish will say. WIBDECO, our marketers, just can’t supply enough, being almost 10,000 boxes short weekly of supermarket demand. All this while we agonize about the supposed “death of banana”, wildly speculating about what should “replace” it and engage in all sorts of bare-brained, fly-by-night illusions. We need to WAKE UP and FACE FACTS, encourage our farmers to grab the bone before us and not look for some ghostly shadows.

As we celebrate FAIR TRADE FORTNIGHT, during which we will welcome and entertain representatives of the ASDA supermarket chain, it is important that we place our house in order, get our priorities right and set out to put the appropriate structures in place to ensure that we meet market demand and requirements, provide for the livelihood of our farmers, place our production on a more sustainable basis and ensure that justice, equity and development become our watchwords.

“Unfair Trade is not the magic wand that will solve all global Injustices, but it is undoubtedly one key element in changing the complex and unjust trading realities for the better.”

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