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Hard times, tough decision

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It is back to the regular grind of hard work and survival after the independence holiday weekend. The nation’s teachers have returned to the classrooms after the impasse between the teachers Union and Government over the reclassification exercise. Though advocating the return to work, the Union has signaled that it still does not accept the Government’s position and that it will seek “mediation” to have the matter resolved. But Prime Minister Gonslaves surprised many by not making any direct reference to the dispute in his Independence Day address.{{more}}

For persons like me, without a detailed understanding of what is obviously a complex reclassifications exercise, it is difficult to understand the depth of feeling and even rancour when the position of both sides do not appear to be miles apart. Could it be that even more than the substance, it is peripheral issues that are causing the stalemate? Are the comments of the P.M., which appear to have riled some of the Union leaders, to be given greater weight than the real substantive issues? And how to balance the various agendas within a comprehensive approach that best serves the needs of the majority of those affected? No easy answers to these but one can only hope that common sense and civility will prevail. These are not easy times-not for teachers, public servants, police, nurses or those on the public payroll. But at least their employer is THE GOVERNMENT, which, if forced, can always yield to demands and concessions. What of the rest of us? Those workers in private employ: the farmers, fisher folks, lowly-paid, unemployed. From where is our relief to come? It is imperative that we get an understanding of our situation in a world where we are yet to feel the worst effects of the crisis. How can we cushion the shocks without destroying the vehicle?

An important cog in the global wheel is the economy of the United States. Hence the issue of leadership there is a crucial one not only for the American people but for all of us. Next week the electors in that country go to the polls with expectations at fever pitch the world over that the voice of reason and openess, as manifested in Barack Obama will triumph. In spite of our local differences, we are united in wishing for an Obama victory. But make no bones; Obama is no saviour, about to rain down manna from high. And, if as expected, he is in the Oval Office from next January, the tasks before him are enormous. It is important that we temper our enthusiasm with sober appreciation of the circumstances, of Obama’s limitations as well as potential, and not overburden him with unrealistic expectations. We wish him all the best.

“The best” is far from the situation facing our farmers who last weekend, made the third effort at promoting the celebration of a Farmers Day. Led by the National Fairtrade Association, the farmers held a Church Service at Black Point last Sunday. Due to a personal emergency, I was not able to attend, from all reports, whilst the insistence on observing the Day (October 26th) is commendable; the turn-out was far from what it ought to have been. There are frankly all kinds of contributing causes, not least of all the indecisiveness of the leadership of the farmers, the failure to reach out to non-fairtrade farmers and organizations and to involve the wider society.

There is also the tendency of farmers, like many of the rest of us, to give full support. We cannot always just hope to receive, we must give as well. It is true to say that these are very are very challenging times facing farmers. Not just banana farmers, mind you, ALL FARMERS. This is in spite of the current spate of high food prices. Farmers do not automatically benefit because there are a host of middle-people between the producer and the consumer. Internationally these “middlemen” have developed the rip-off into a fine art, extracting most of the profit from both the input end and the output (sales of farmers produce).

Just two giant corporations control 65 and 44 percent respectively of the world seed market for two important grains, maize and soya. Six of these giants control between 75 and 80 percent of the global pesticide market. Another five have 80 percent of the world’s banana trade to themselves. On the other hand a mere 30 percent of the largest food retailers in the world have fully one-third of total grocery sales and their sales increased by 40 percent between 2004 and 2006.

In that context some of the same giant retailers are placing pressure on retailers in the UK to DROP PRICE, not just for bananas, even as the world moans about high food prices. The European Union, with whom we have just signed a “comprehensive partnerships agreement” is negotiating with Central America now. On the table is a proposal to lower the tariff on their bananas from 176 euros per tonne to 95 euros per tones, which could well wipe out the Windwards bananas export to Europe. The retailers are insisting on standards under the Global GAP and hundreds of farmers in the Windwards are being decertified. Banana now, what next? Dasheen? Eddoes? Sweet potatoes?

So there is every reason for the farmers to be worried. I have not even mentioned the cost of fertilizer and other inputs. But there is no place to run and hide. In fact it is all more reasons for us to band together and fight. We were told that signing the EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement) would protect us, but not even the governments seem to believe this. Why are they so low-keyed about it? Who signed for St. Vincent and the Grenadines? Have we had a report?

Let’s examine some of this next week.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.