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A significant milestone

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Constitutional reform being dear to my heart, readers of this column would quite naturally expect me to wax warm on that topic this week. After all, the reform process has been taken a significant step further with the commencement of the drafting phase, following the official introduction of the Drafting Committee and the initiation of its work. There has also been the response of the Leader of the Opposition, itself a topic of its own. However, I must “beg pardon,” as we say colloquially, for deferring this topic for next week and, instead, comment on a very significant anniversary for the farming community.{{more}}

Exactly one year ago today, on March 20th, 2008, the Windward Islands Farmers Association (WINFA) signed its first Sales and Purchases Agreement with the Windward Islands Banana Development and Export Corporation (WIBDECO) for the exclusive export of Fair Trade bananas from the Windward islands to Europe. It was the culmination of a long process of farmers’ organizations establishing the right to such contractual arrangements on behalf of their farmers. Fifteen years before that, WINFA had begun to explore alternative marketing arrangements for Windwards bananas as the traditional markets became less competitive.

At the outset, those of us who were bold enough to entertain such a vision (farmers like Wilberforce “Wilby” Emanuel and Anton “Tookie” Bowman of St. Vincent, and Amos Wiltshire of Dominica deserve special mention) were scoffed at as dreamers, out of touch with the realities of the banana industry. In my case, as a non-farmer, it was even worse: “What the……………… does Rose know about bananas?” said the Know-Ahs of the banana industry. And those were relatively kind comments.

In spite of this we persevered, obtaining European Union support to set up a Banana Desk, headed by agronomist Clive Bishop, to pave the way for embarking on trade under the Fairtrade label. But there were major obstacles in the way, chief among them being legal barriers as in the case of St. Vincent, where the law gave exclusive trading rights in the extra-regional market to the Banana Association, the leaders of which would not at the time touch Fairtrade with a ten-foot pole. We tried to encourage the Banana Salvation Committee in St. Lucia, operating in a privatized environment, to take up the challenge, without success.

Undaunted, WINFA continued to lobby, mobilize, advocate and train farmers for the day when the possibility would become reality. We engaged in relationships with Fairtrade and alternative trading organizations in Europe. One of them, BANAFAIR of Germany, was so supportive that they were willing to take trial shipments of bananas and oranges and even lend us one of their members, Hella Lipper, to help us prepare for entry into the European Fairtrade market. Hella was to play a valuable role in getting us started.

Start we did, in the year 2000, with the first shipments of Fairtrade bananas. But we had to go through often uncooperative companies and experienced no ends of problems right up to 2008. Even as we signed, we were facing court cases in St. Lucia and Dominica and public verbal abuse, left, right and centre. Yet it was in the best interest of the farmers that we remained steadfas,t and on March 20th, 2008, we cut the umbilical cords binding the Fairtrade farmers to companies from which they wished to be liberated.

What have been the results?

In the first place, the first year of operation has demonstrated beyond the shadow of doubt that farmers can DO IT FOR THEMSELVES. That is not to say that mistakes have not been made, that serious weaknesses have not manifested themselves, but led by the Fairtrade farmers of St. Lucia, the farmers organizations have been conducting their own business. With the passage of the new Banana Act in St. Vincent, our own farmers will from next month join their counterparts in Dominica and St. Lucia in this venture.

The Fairtrade operations in all three islands now also permit for a new stage in the troubled industry, urgently required if it is to survive. That is the stage of integration of the industry, operating jointly and cutting costs such as through bulk purchasing. Only the WINFA family is in a position to do this and to provide a smooth and united interface with WIBDECO.

Over the year the Fairtrade movement in the islands has grown in stature. It now is in close co-operation with governments and other stakeholders in the islands in initiatives aimed at sustaining and developing the industry. The successful passage of the Banana Act through Parliament here and the transition to a Fairtrade take-over of the extra-regional marketing arrangements is a fine example of such stakeholder co-operation.

So, farmers, WINFA and yours truly have much of which to be proud this past year. What a fitting way to mark the occasion as the purchase of a School Bus to ease transportation problems for school children in North Windward! That is truly making Fairtrade work!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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