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Banana: It can’t go on like this

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I had committed myself in last week’s column to continue the banana probe as to how we have come to be in the hole in which we find ourselves at present. However, last Friday’s issue of SEARCHLIGHT had excellent coverage by reporter Dayle Da Silva, including interviews with some of the main players, which spelt it all out. It is not necessary to repeat those stories, so I shall suffice with a few comments of my own.{{more}}

First of all, we must avoid either hysteria or knee-jerk reactions when dealing with this latest disaster. We cannot afford to underestimate the devastating nature of the Black Sigatoka disease, nor on the other hand, must any criticisms of the handling of it be characterised by a semblance of trying to lay blame at the feet of others. Yet, there have been shortcomings and these must be faced squarely, so that we do not continue to repeat the same old mistakes.

Irrespective of the reasons, the reality of the situation is that, once again, farmers find themselves holding the wrong end of the stick. In any disaster affecting agriculture, natural or man-made, it is always the farmers taking the ‘licks’. Often, and many of us non-farmers don’t realise it, when Government is called upon or forced to intervene, tax-payers, you and I, are made to shoulder part of the burden. So, it is imperative that, even though we are not directly involved, we insist that our hard-earned tax-dollars, wrested from us by Government, are properly spent and that there is a minimum of waste and inefficiency.

Over the past two years, Black Sigatoka has ravaged not just Vincentian farms, but those in St. Lucia, and Dominica (to a lesser extent) as well. There, responsibility for disease control lies in the hands of the farmers’ organisations which have had to cooperate and try and cope with their challenges. In this country, the restructuring of the industry had produced an arrangement where Government, through the new Banana Unit, assumed responsibility for disease control, while the National Fairtrade Farmers Organisation undertook the other organisational and administrative arrangements. There was also to be a Joint Coordinating body, to ensure smooth coordination, and a Technical Committee to deal with the technical aspects. However, this is easier said than done. For a host of reasons public officials always seem to have difficulty in functioning in joint mechanisms with non-governmental entities. There is a pervading sense of “we know best” and “why do you want to know that?”, even a sort of paternalistic attitude.

These attitudes have long plagued relations between Government and non-governmental actors, (just ask people in the private sector), which entrenches unnecessary suspicion and lack of trust. Additionally, there is a kind of what we would characterise locally as being ‘thin-skinned’ in government, politicians and public servants alike, in reaction to criticism, merited or not. When you put this with a tendency to be ‘control freaks,’ as exhibited by some in Government employ, you almost have a recipe for failure.

It was based on this recipe that the new partnership in banana was supposed to gel. Not surprisingly, the mechanisms set out in the restructured agreement never functioned in the manner in which they were intended. So, when Black Sigatoka hit the fields, farmers were screaming for control measures, while public servants and departments were arguing among themselves who would pay for the spray oil, or from where the funds would come to purchase parts for the spray plane. All the time farmers were suffering thousands in losses. There were also public servants in the Ministry of Agriculture who seemed to have their priorities all wrong. (I understand that there have been some personnel changes). But the Ministry of Agriculture has earned itself a none-too- healthy reputation over the years.

Curiously, in the face of such weaknesses, the Ministry is headed by a Minister who is the Parliamentary representative of many of the banana farmers, including some of those most affected by Black Sigatoka. One would think that such self-interest and Parliamentary responsibility would manifest itself in utmost urgency and demands for ruthless efficiency on the part of his Ministry. But, like the Emperor Nero, the Ministry fiddled while banana fields burned. There is also the no small matter of the Minister appearing not to know which of his hats, (Minister, Parliamentary representative, and Chairman of the monopoly marketing company, WINFRESH), to wear on which occasion. It is causing farmers to question his committedness to their cause.

This state of affairs cannot continue. Farmers had redoubled efforts after Tomas, committed their savings to the recovery, only to now have to hack down infested fields. How will we be able to encourage them to go through all of this when they are convinced it could be avoided, given due diligence and alert leadership? Tax-payers too will want to be assured that scarce funds, siphoned off from other needy areas to help the industry, do not go down the drain of wastage and inefficiency. Where does the buck stop? How will farmers be compensated? At whose expense? How to re-motivate them and save the industry? When will the Ministry feel the just wrath of the nation?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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