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Banana in SVG back on track


Banana shipments from St. Vincent and the Grenadines resumed on Sunday last, June 19, following a seven-month break occasioned by the destruction by hurricane Tomas in October last year. Such was the scale of the devastation, not only here, but in St. Lucia as well, that Fairtrade banana consumers in Britain, who are the main purchasers of our fruit through the big supermarket chains, were starved of the pleasure of Windwards fruit.{{more}} The only Fairtrade bananas from the Windwards available in the UK were those from Dominica, sold in Tesco stores, since Dominica did not suffer the same level of devastation as the other islands.

Vincentian farmers must be highly praised for their resilience in resuscitating this still very vital industry. It has not been easy for them and their families these past seven months, a period without income. No money for Christmas, none to send their children to school none to pay for exam fees-such was the fate of our farmers. In addition, those in the north-east had to undergo further blows when the rainstorms wreaked havoc in Georgetown and its environs some weeks ago. These mishaps would have tested the faith of even the hardiest and brought many close to despair.

Besides the natural disasters, the farmers also had to endure the ravages of the dreaded Black Sigatoka disease which decimated many fields and resulted in further losses. Even the recovery effort would have been affected by the disease and the failure on the part of some in authority to react with the urgency which the situation demanded. These combined blows not only hit the farmers hard, they also had a very negative impact on the economy as a whole.

There are some people who are fond of what we refer to as “running off dey mout” on bananas without understanding either its importance or role in the rural economy. Others like to pontificate about how “hard” things are in SVG, but do not for a moment stop to reflect on the cumulative effect of the natural disasters and the temporary suspension of shipments. It is not just farmers who lost; the entire turn over went into a tailspin as well; just ask the merchants and financial houses.

One must also thank the Government for the support and assistance rendered to the farmers. This was not without blemish, nor hiccups, but if one is to be fair, the decision to provide not only recovery and replanting assistance, but moreso some level of income support must be commended. It is a pity that some unscrupulous persons attempted to ride on these programmes and to benefit unfairly from them. Every effort has to be made in the future to stop such selfishness.

Though the farmers have been able to resuscitate the industry, there is still much dissatisfaction, particularly as regards the tardiness in making resources available to combat disease affecting the plants. Farmers perceive that there is too much foot-dragging on this and not enough effort to give priority towards assisting them. It is not easy to lose a major part of your production when it could have been avoided.

As it is, the fact that shipments to the UK have resumed and will now continue on a weekly basis, is a feather in the cap of all those who worked so assiduously to make this possible. The first shipment itself had a number of problems, some of which could have been avoided. One which could not was the bad weather on Sunday, which made it even more difficult for farmers. But there were some labour problems too, caused by the fact that Port Kingstown is under repair and the bananas had to be transported to Campden Park to be loaded. In addition, there is an on-going dispute between workers and the union which has the loading contract. This held up loading operations until late on Sunday night.

Overall though, the fact that another area of revenue-earning for our country has been reopened is a positive factor. Satisfaction has been expressed by banana officials with the quality of the product, though the quantity suffered as a result of disease and the other problems mentioned. The plugging of this gap will not only bring much-needed money for family farmers, but Fairtrade bananas make an additional contribution to the economy, since every box of Fairtrade bananas brings in an extra US dollar in the form of social premium, which the Fairtrade organisation uses for valuable social programmes, such as the school bus service it provides. God knows how much our country needs every extra penny and dollar it can get.

Well done, our hardworking farmers!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.