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Banana industry facing major threat

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Windward Islands as a whole), has faced multiple challenges which have severely tested the mettle of our farmers.{{more}} Constantly changing market demands, the ravages of natural disasters and pest diseases, international trading regulations which have not favoured us, careless and sometimes reckless production methods by some farmers, and the rank ineptitude of many local officials and administrators have time and again put our backs against the wall. Yet, each time that it seemed that the end was nigh, our farmers have proven their resourcefulness and resilience.

Last year, after all the battering by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the virtual abandonment by the European Union, which had held out the signing of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) as a salvation for the banana industry, Hurricane Tomas devastated our banana fields and decimated the industry. But, within the space of a few months, heartened by the support of the Government, WINFRESH, the National Fairtrade Organisation and WINFA, our farmers had made a remarkable recovery. Tomas, at the end of October 2010, destroyed some 2,400 acres of pure-stand bananas, bringing a halt

to the export of bananas and causing severe

hardship for farming families, as well as the rural economy.

By March of this year, 2,300 acres were at different stages of the production cycle, and even some farmers, who had become disillusioned and left the industry, began to return. Shipments to the United Kingdom resumed in June, with just over 2,000 cartons per week, and, encouragingly, reports were received from the market that the “ripe” sightings in the UK were acceptable, being only 3% and that the issue of special packs for sale to supermarkets, which bring higher prices, was back on the cards.

The optimism was short-lived, however. By the fourth and fifth weeks of shipment, there were reports of “ripe” sightings of 90% and over. Drastic action was taken by the marketers, WINFRESH, in relegating St. Vincent to the export of low-priced products and even a threat of total suspension of shipments altogether. In addition, WINFRESH made good its long-standing threat to pursue quality claims against the trading arm of the Fairtrade organisation, WINFARM. This Fairtrade business unit, like farmers, deprived of revenue for seven months, has now been handed a bill from WINFRESH totalling over US$13,000 for quality claims. If this money is deducted from shipment payments, already at a minimum because of small volumes and low-priced bananas, WINFARM will not be able to pay the farmers.

WEY CAUSING DAT?

What is the reason for this dread situation? The answer lies in the presence of the dreaded disease, Black Sigatoka, and, importantly, our handling of it. Black Sigatoka, named after the Sigatoka valley in Fiji where it was first discovered in 1963, is a leaf spot disease which severely reduces yield and results in premature ripening of the fruit. It can hardly be eradicated and is very expensive to control, making control of it by poor, small farmers individually, almost impossible. Therefore, in countries like ours, control is only possible by collective effort.

The disease was first spotted here in October 2009, in the north-east of the country. However, it took three months of hush-hush before it was officially confirmed in December of that year. Following confirmation, the Ministry of Agriculture organised a stakeholders’ meeting for all those involved in the industry, at which a number of measures were agreed upon as follows:

That a series of meetings be organised, island-wide, to sensitize and inform farmers about the new threat.

That ground crews which usually carry out spraying of banana fields be re-outfitted to deal with the danger.

That there should be an increase in the number and frequency of aerial spraying. (Please note this).

That existing legislation be used to get the authority to cut back those abandoned fields which were serving as hosts to the spread of the disease.

Farmers, too, were assigned specific responsibilities:

To establish a proper system for the regular application of fertilisers. (Note this as well).

To put in place good weed control programmes, so as to reduce humidity in banana fields.

To widen planting space to allow for ventilation.

Were we successful in these noble endeavours?

We shall see next week.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social com-mentator.

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