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Farmers awards amidst banana battles

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On Saturday, October 31, the SVG Fairtrade Farmers Organisation (SVGFTO) held an awards ceremony as they wrapped up celebrations to mark their annual observance of FARMERS DAY. The ceremony, held at the Methodist Church Hall in Kingstown, was aimed at celebrating the achievements of the organisation and paying tribute to some of the persons who have made outstanding contributions towards those successes.{{more}} Six pioneering Fairtrade groups-Chapmans, Langley Park, Richland Park,La Croix, Greiggs and Spring Village- received awards. Similarly honoured were six stalwarts of the SVGFTO, five farmer-leaders and one administrator.

Significantly, as befits an organisation which has always placed the participation of women and gender equity high on its agenda, four of the six honourees were women. Joycelyn Trumpet (Spring Village), Daphne Cato (Richland Park) and Nioka Abbott-Balcombe, have not only been outstanding farmers, they have been foremost in the leadership of the farmers movement. All three played prominent roles in addition to building the Fairtrade movement, in the regional campaign around the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), signed by Caribbean governments with the European Union. The fourth woman to receive an award was SVGFTO Manager, Ellisia Tesheira, a virtual bedrock on which the organisation was built.

Two male farmer leaders, veteran farmer and organiser, Anton “Tookie” Bowman and Harvey “Kojo” Dick/Cain, the first Chairman of the SVGFTO, were also honoured. Completing the gender balance among the honourees was WINFA Coordinator, Renwick Rose. (My public appreciation for the honour bestowed is hereby expressed).

The significance of the farmer organisation making such a public expression of its appreciation for the work of its stalwarts must not be overlooked. In a country where colonial awards still represents the pinnacle of public acknowledgement of achievement, it is a statement of the recognition of self-worth and self-confidence. Fittingly, not only was it done as celebrations for National Independence were concluding, but it also came as Vincentians move towards deciding their own constitutional status, itself an expression of national self-confidence. May we see a replication of more of these activities leading up to the institution on national and regional honours.

The context in which our farmers operate today is not one very accommodative to the sustainability of their livelihood or to the continued development of the agricultural sector as a whole. In spite of the fact that not only has Fairtrade virtually saved our banana industry, (by securing a market in the UK it has prevented a flooding of the regional market and a consequent price collapse),and that the Fairtrade market continues to grow, other developments in the international trading environment still threaten to derail our entire banana industry. Even Fairtrade will not escape the worst consequences should the banana “price war” being waged in the UK and the wider “trade war” in European and World Trade Organisation (WTO) circles reach extremities.

The “trade war” is a decade and a half old now, but it shows no sign of abatement, at least no sign of being resolved in a way favourable to small producers. Powerful economic interests, in the United States and Latin America are finding receptive ears in European Commission bureaucrats, wily politicians and in investors willing to sacrifice Caribbean interests for the much more lucrative ones of the Spanish-speaking hemisphere. Feverish efforts are being made to reach a “final solution” (was it Hitler who used that term?) to the banana dispute in time for a meeting of the WTO General Council on November16. In spite of strong disagreement from African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, the Commission is not only proceeding with its schedule of tariff reductions but is offering a compensatory package less than half of that demanded by the ACP.

Meanwhile in the UK the predatory supermarkets, who already get up to 40 percent of the banana price, (as against only 12-15 percent for producers and 2-3% for Latin American plantation workers), continue to use banana as cannon-fodder in the “price war”, making the imported banana the cheapest fruit on supermarket shelves. While so far, Fairtrade rules have spared fruit under this label the price ravages, a continued assault is bound to have effect on new contracts and next year prices.

All is not lost, however. In the Fairtrade movement, in the Trade and Justice campaign and amongst European consumers and even Parliamentarians we have allies. Recently, a supermarket proprietor in Britain, (not one of the ‘big guns’), came out in solidarity with Latin American workers and our own farmers. Andrew Thornton, owner of two supermarkets in North London, launched a “Play Fair, Trade Fair” campaign in protest of the rock-bottom prices of the supermarket giants. He is donating his banana profits to Latin American workers but more than that has called on other retailers to join in letting consumers know that our farmers and Latin American workers are suffering because of the ridiculously low prices.

Fairtrade organisations, banana campaigners such as Banana Link and EUROBAN are lobbying their governments to stop this blatant trampling on the livelihood of millions. WINFA is keeping up its tireless lobby, recently writing the British government to support the establishment of a Trade Ombudsman, while one European Parliamentarian whom we continue to lobby raises issues in the European Parliament and the Joint ACP/EU Parliamentary Assembly.

Our governments at home have taken welcome measures to ease some of the hardship on farmers. The government of SVG has been very supportive in terms of fertiliser price support and similar support has come in Dominica and St. Lucia. I commend them all for it. But more needs to be done in lobbying circles and in ensuring that those in decision-making positions understand the situation and can readily respond. We are dragging our feet on compensatory measures and nearly every time our politicians speak it as if they are tolling bells. We can fight, WE MUST FIGHT . We have allies and can still win important battles, IF ONLY WE BELIEVE, IF ONLY WE HAVE THE WILL.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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