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A crucial fight

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The inadequate level of communication between Caribbean governments, their regional trade negotiators and the Caribbean people who will be most affected by whatever deals are made, must be a source of grave concern and worry. It is especially so in the case of perhaps the most contentious trade issue ever to face the region, the dispute over terms and conditions of access to the European Union (EU) market.{{more}}

Whilst particular negotiating tactics are best left to the negotiators themselves, it is nevertheless very important that farmers are always kept in the loop of consultations and that governments and negotiators act in concert with their wishes, not just guided by what they feel would be in the best interest of those who livelihoods are on the line. Farmers, as investors, cannot be left guessing as to what is going on for in that case, given the rumour mill and often irresponsible media reports, panic can set in and jeopardize what is a very fragile industry. Recently for instance media reports quoted both the Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM) and WIBDECO Chief Executive Mr. Bernard Cornibert as warning of extremely grim prospects for the banana industry and even daring to mention the dreaded word “exit”. In the absence of reliable information such reports could well influence farmers to abandon the industry thereby further weakening our already tenuous bargaining position. Yet the official position of CARICOM on bananas is “No retreat, no exit.” Do we not expect our farmers to be confused? Who is fooling whom?

This failure to communicate clearly and consult consistently is one of the many weaknesses of the regional defence of the banana industry. I have long charged that too many people in decision-making positions do not seem to understand the importance, not just of bananas, but of agriculture in general, to regional development. At the first signs of trouble they are willing to abandon our lines and fall for any airy-fairy solution suggested by those who have their own interests to promote. Our defence of banana, our agriculture and rural development is often left to some who either lack backbone or vision. There is no consistency in our struggle.

Take the matter of follow-up for instance. We often make decisions and grand pronouncements but do not follow up on them. We held meetings with producers from Martinique and Guadeloupe, potential allies in our struggle but failed to deepen the contacts and relations. Last year the French Minister of Agriculture hosted a meeting in Paris seeking common ground with us, what efforts did the Caribbean make to ensure the best possible representation. For years we have been mouthing about high-level delegations to Latin America to put the banana issue squarely on the table, but save for a mission headed by P.M. Gonsalves (which was mainly about lobbying for Port of Spain as headquarters for the Free Trade Area of the Americas), precious little has been done on such crucial front.

So it is last week Caribbean producers nations met in Belize with their backs against the wall. There, they had to fight on many fronts. First there was Suriname, continuing to play a Troyan horse and undermine regional unity. Every time we have seemed to make progress on regional unity on bananas, Suriname has sought to unravel it. Then there was a proposed last minute meeting with African producer nations (Cameroon and Ivory Coast), missions which we should have undertaken at the regional level long ago. And there was a summit with Central American nations. The funny thing is that Central America (of most benefit to Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados) and was silent on banana.

We have failed to upgrade our diplomatic missions in Europe; we removed the Eastern Caribbean’s most informed and dedicated banana diplomat from Brussels. Many times Caribbean representatives do not show up at important meetings or turn up as political representation without the necessary technical back-up or briefing. Even on such an important issue as the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) there is no seeming unity of purpose. We hear little from our Parliamentary representatives on it and the Opposition seems more concerned about relatively minor issues. Don’t talk about our media! Sensationalism is the guide. So who is to defend our banana cause?

The fight is at a crucial stage. This week the European Council on External Relations met, discussing the EPAs and naturally bananas within it. This came in the wake of the European Commission insisting on removing quota restrictions which would result in flooding of the market further driving down prices. The African nations, prodded by the same US multinationals which have fought us all the way, support the removal of the quota. But if this happens, the Latin Americans are bound to increase the pressure to lower the tariffs on their bananas (already they have a case before the WTO) so we could get no quota and a reduced or no tariffs on any of our competitors.

Fortunately European countries with their own producers, led by Spain with the support of France, Portugal and Cyprus, are waging their own battle against a complete opening of the market. Significantly, the United Kingdom, OUR sole market, is in the fight for liberalization. Spain has demanded that bananas be treated, like sugar and rice, as a “sensitive product” and France has correctly predicted that “prices will be eroded by complete liberalization”.

In the face of all this, we cannot remain quiet. Fair-trade producers from the Windward Islands met here last week and vowed to fight, to mobilize farmers and demand that governments do all in their power, and more, to defend their livelihoods. We must all give our support!

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