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A non-existent ‘war’

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Over the past few weeks, the airwaves in the Eastern Caribbean, and the print media to a lesser extent, have been flooded with stories of what is erroneously described in some quarters as the Windwards’ own equivalent of a “banana war”. It has had the effect of causing no end of confusion in the farming community, not to mention the society as a whole. Those who revel in such stories have been having a field day reporting every negative utterance, no matter how trivial or irrelevant.{{more}} And the confusion-mongers, not satisfied with the damage they are doing to the industry (and by extension to the fragile economies of these countries), throw in sludge in the bargain, including denigration of WIBDECO’s Chief Executive Officer, Bernard Cornibert, WIBEDCO itself and even WINFA and the Fairtrade organizations in Dominica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent.

To add fuel to the fire, right at the beginning of this week came news of yet another unwelcome development in the banana world. On Monday, April 7, the World Trade Organization (WTO) gave its final ruling on the long-standing trade dispute between some US-backed Latin American nations, led by Ecuador, on one hand, and the European Union (EU) on the other. Caught in the middle is our banana trade, still the lifeblood of tens of thousands in rural communities in the Windwards. The intention has always been to get rid of these preferential arrangements for our bananas in the EU market. In spite of the fact that our signing of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU guarantees us access to the market without any tariff or tax, what happens to our competitors is very much relevant to our level of competitiveness. Those Latin American nations now pay 176 Euros for every tonne of bananas exported to Europe, but the final WTO ruling maintains that this is discriminatory and should be lowered.

So though we will continue to enter tariff-free, when the tariff is lifted (especially if substantially) Latin American bananas will become even cheaper on the market. Not only will this undercut our competitiveness, but it will drive down prices on the market to a level where we cannot compete. Our one saving grace and only hope is the Fairtrade arrangement we have been developing for the last decade, giving much higher prices to the farmers themselves and adding a social premium enabling them to set up programmes for health care and retirement. Important community projects are financed through this mechanism as well.

Common sense will, therefore, dictate that we in the Windwards, those in the banana industry in particular, would be concentrating on combing our efforts to survive and prosper in the face of threat from without. That we would be working together to develop Fairtrade and any other initiatives which give us a chance for survival. But commonsense is not so common and greed is far more prevalent.

Thus at a time when the banana industry (and ALL of our industries in fact) are in dire need of reorganizing, streamlining and being made more productive and efficient, there are those among us who strive to cling to the past, to the privileges they enjoy and the tributes they extract, both from producers and unaware taxpayers. These are the ones who have sat between the producers and the market, never seeking any innovation and displaying little vision. While they twiddled their thumbs, the banana industry declined. Millions of EU Euros came and went; governments and WIBDECO continued to pour taxpayers and banana earnings into sewers.

It was the introduction of Fairtrade in 2000 which provided a breathing space for the industry. Not a single company existing lifted a finger to help, although they, not WINFA or the Fairtrade organizations, were the ones handling farmers’ money. After nine years, the Fairtrade movement in the Windward’s is sufficiently developed to fulfill its obligation of entering into contractual arrangements itself, and not via any third party company. If these companies had farmers at heart, they would have embraced Fairtrade long ago instead of riding on its back.

It is the farmers right to the Fairtrade franchise through WINFA which guarantees the farmers a better price and the society more social returns. Only WINFA which had the foresight to see Fairtrade developing and to move our banana trade in that direction has the right to the Fairtrade label. That is at the heart of the dispute. Those who are complaining, seeking government intervention on their side and taking recourse to legal measures are not only creating unnecessary confusion; they are directing us away from what should be our real focus. The farmers of the Windwards have made an overwhelming choice. Their move to put their destiny in their own hands is one with important implications for our future development. It is a responsibility from which we should neither shirk nor be distracted.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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