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EPS: Signed, sealed and delivered?

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At this time of the year, I ought to be offering greetings of “Great Joy” and so on to all my people, in the Caribbean and beyond. But I have had the privilege, and ill-fortune, to be associated with the banana industry in the Windward Islands these past years and, where there is banana these days, there is not a lot of joy or cheer.{{more}} As a consequence, much of my pre-Christmas season is spent in meetings, negotiations, mobilization and planning where the future of the industry is concerned.

Here, I must offer my public apologies to Dr. Richard Cox for not being present at the official launching of his book “WERE MAMA’s TEARS…” which took place on Wednesday at the Peace Memorial Hall. Though I was one of three people to whom Dr. Cox wished to pay tribute on the occasion, my reality was an intense meeting with farmer leaders in St. Lucia, trying to strategize for the difficult year of 2008. To Dr. Cox and all who attended the ceremony, I say like David Rudder, “I’m SORRY.” Hopefully, history will absolve me.

Just as I set out for St. Lucia, for the fourth time in three weeks, there came the announcement that the Caribbean had at last agreed with the European Union over the contents of an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) being hammered out over the past four years. The chief negotiators for both sides initialled the Agreement, the only full one to have been assented to by any of the six ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) regions so far. The EPA, the subject of much contention, is a wide-ranging free trade agreement with some developmental content providing for the opening up of the market on goods and services between both regions, in some cases over a 25-year period, and co-operation between them with the EU providing some development assistance. While being hailed as being “a good deal” for the Caribbean, by negotiators and government officials alike, it has its pluses and minuses, the effects of which are to be felt in the future.

For the Caribbean banana industry, the signing of the EPA has at least avoided the worst case scenario. Its duty-free preferential access to the UK market was due to end on December 31st and, if the EPA had not been signed, we would have had to pay duty equivalent to almost EC$13 per box on our banana exports to the UK as of January 1st 2008. The EPA agreement avoids this. However, all it does is to continue our duty-free entry. Good! The downside is that it removes all quotas exposing us to the worst of a free-market, the possibility of dumping and the further depression of banana prices. That is what “Duty-Free, Quota-Free” means for bananas. In this context, the embattled Windwards industry will have to do its utmost to try and survive in a more hostile environment. That the industry has survived at all has been mainly due to its adaptation to market demands in terms of conversion to Fairtrade. It is Fair Trade, with its guaranteed minimum price and social premium payments that has allowed banana farmers to stay in the market these past seven years. To quote a Director of WINFA, Mr. Steve Maximay.

“Organized into Fairtrade groups under the leadership of their regional association, WINFA, hundreds of farmers have been meeting stringent production, environmental and social criteria. The banana industry that was viewed as a “walking dead” is now the lifeblood of countless communities where the proceeds from the social premium, a consumer-driven reward for ethical production, tangibly improve their lives. Renovated hospitals, repaired schools, constructed day- care centres paved roads and computer- outfitted learning centres are just some of the benefits that have accrued.”

It is on this same Fairtrade that the industry must continue to rely for its survival in the challenging EPA years.

(Next week: WHY THE INDUSTRY MUST CHANGE RADICALLY)

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