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A new path forward


A new chapter in the history of the embattled banana industry is taking shape in 2008. The year began with mixed blessings in the form of the signing by the Caribbean of an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU). Caribbean nations agreed to sign in spite of misgivings about many aspects of the EPA. They did so just in time to stave over the expiry of the waiver granted by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to the EU permitting the continuation of the preferential arrangements under which our bananas are exported to EU countries, Britain in our case.{{more}}

Had the Caribbean not agreed to the EPA, we would have faced the situation from January 1st 2008 whereby our banana exports would have attracted a tariff. In other words, a tax of about EC$12.88 would have had to be paid on each box. So there is relief in that this potential disaster has been averted. But there is a downside as well, for the EPA has removed previous banana quotas, thereby opening the market to even greater competition with the possibility of depressing prices.

Then there is the livelihood of the competition being even further intensified by the EU itself responding to more banana challenges in the WTO by once more lowering the tariffs on Latin American bananas. The cheaper they become, the harder will it be for us to get good prices for our more expensive bananas. So we have an even bigger fight on our hands this year.

In order to survive in these hostile circumstances, the banana industry in the Windward Islands must become more efficient, more flexible, more productive and turn out higher volumes to reduce costs per unit. The wastage, inefficiency and tribute extraction which has characterized the industry all these years must be brought to a halt. The top-down approaches which leave the producers as the proverbial “hewers of wood and drawers of water” while middle men cream off the benefits must become a thing of the past. The running up to perennial debts and overdrafts to be serviced by taxpayers and the cap-in-hand begging of WIBDECO must give way to new business approaches focused on farmer responsibility and benefits to those who put the most into it.

Fortunately for the industry, WINFA had the vision in the nineties to realize that Fairtrade would be the saviour of the early 21st century. In spite of skepticism, non-co-operation and even hostility, WINFA persisted, and its faith was justified when supermarket demand forced the industry to go mainstream Fairtrade. Now, once more, Fairtrade is being called upon to save the day. The 2008 reality is that the supermarkets in the U.K. are ordering Fairtrade bananas from WIBDECO. But WIBDECO can only continue to trade in Fairtrade bananas if it is certified, and in order to do so it can only sign contract with a Fairtrade certified producer, not the outdated companies and associations which we still have in the Windward Island banana industry.

There is only one such organization in the Windwards-WINFA. This organization has painstakingly registered the 3300 plus Fairtrade farmers who supply about 90 per cent of our exports from this sub-region. But it is the companies which have had the control over the farmers income, not always using it for the best purposes and in some cases (cess, insurance contributions, WIBDECO dividends) appropriating to themselves the right to do as it pleases with farmers’ hard-earned funds. No wonder some of them are so hostile to the changes!

But change is a necessity if we are to survive, and we definitely cannot survive with the old methods and with leadership devoid of vision or bankrupt of ideas. Their only hope is to maintain a stranglehold over the farmers. This must be broken and a new path of farmer ownership, farmer responsibility and farmer authority, forged. A path of fairness, justice and environmental awareness charted by Fairtrade farmers. They need our support.