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Hope and future

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What role can/should/must farmers play in the agricultural/economic and overall development of the Caribbean? What kind of future

does agriculture have in the region and how can farmers and farmer organizations help to shape that future? What kind of strategies and linkages must farmers’ organizations pursue to defend the interests of farmers and to assure their livelihoods?{{more}}

Those were the kinds of questions with which delegates from the respective national branches of the sub-regional organizations, WINFA, had to grapple as they met in St Lucia last week at their Fifth Biennial General assembly. Those delegates, farmers themselves and producers of cane syrup, honey, processed agro-products, bananas, exotic fruits, vegetables, livestock and poultry, came from the islands of Grenada, St Lucia, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

The Assembly itself was a three-phased affair with a most apt three-phase theme: “FARMERS ORGANIZED, AGRICULTURE REVITALIZED, CARIBBEAN ENERGIZED”.

“Organization” was chosen because in the view of WINFA farmers, the challenges facing the agricultural sector in today’s world are so enormous that only a high degree of organization can provide the key towards unlocking these. Indeed the second part of the Assembly, a workshop on October 11, was pointed in that direction, examining the implications of the Caribbean Single Market and the proposed Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU) for farmers and agriculture in the Caribbean.

Revitalization of agriculture is, for WINFA, a must if the region is to underpin its development thrust on sustainable grounds. There is no doubt that agriculture in such a naturally gifted environment as the Caribbean has been taking a battering. The region has to battle against extraordinary odds merely to keep its export gates open while on the other hand, lack of clear policy and support, alienation of youth from agriculture, the cultivation of foreign taste buds rather than locally-produced food, lethargy and misguided policies continue to inflate the food import bill to astronomical proportions. Many have been the solemn pronouncements, whether from political leader or technocrat/bureaucrat that we ought to look everywhere else for our future but to the land, sea and rich food-producing and culinary skills. Revitalization is not just necessary, but overdue.

It is out of this organized approach to revitalization that WINFA believes that the farming community can make its contribution towards recharging the exhausted batteries that are

supposed to power Caribbean development and provide a new source of energy, arising from a clear vision of the linkage of agricultural development to all other sectors. Agriculture and tourism, education for agricultural production and entrepreneurship, placing agriculture prominently on the agenda of career-seeking young people, are all part and parcel of the strategy that the Windward farmers who met in St Lucia are pursuing.

If one reflects on the tasks set by this humble gathering, then one can only conclude that ambition oozes from every pore. At a time when all the odds seem against it, the farmers of WINFA are pinning their hopes on the revival of the agricultural sector, confident that there IS A FUTURE there. Are these hopes misplaced? Is the ambition too lofty? Much depends on the vanguard role of the farmers themselves and their success in bringing others on board and infusing the younger generation with faith in their creative abilities. No easy tasks these days.

Yet there are clear signs of encouragement and hope for the future. The very fact that WINFA itself has been able to weather the storms for more than two decades and will next year celebrate a full quarter of a century of achievement is indeed itself most encouraging. In the context of the weather-beaten and oft-neglected sector in the Windward Islands, this is just short of a miracle. Where there is survival, therein lie the seeds of development. In all the gloom and doom of the fortunes of the banana industry, WINFA has been able to shine the light of FAIR TRADE, proving that alternatives are possible. The studies in linking agriculture to the hotel and hospitality industry in St Lucia are pioneering studies, offering hope for the future.

These need to be consolidated, to be expanded and built upon. The voice of the farming community in advocacy, in lobbying, in defending and sustaining livelihoods must echo throughout the region. Agriculture may be ailing but it is far from dead, nor are its chief protagonists. There is HOPE, there is FUTURE, if we preserve and adopt appropriate strategies.

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