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Banana farmers picketing – take warning!

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When banana farmers are moved to take protest action, then one should take heed. We should sit up and take note, both on account of the importance of farming to our survival and future and to the role that these farmers play in the rural economy and in social stability in rural communities. The government of the day has even more reason than the rest of us, political reasons, for paying particular attention to the needs and welfare of farmers.{{more}} It is the agricultural heartland on the Windward side of the island which is solely responsible, (in terms of seats won), for the narrow ULP victory in the last general elections.

Yet, in spite of this political loyalty, it seems as though the farmers are being taken for granted. The performance of the government, and the Ministry of Agriculture in particular, suggests that neither agriculture nor the farmers’ interests is being given the priority which they deserve. Now, no one is disputing the individual competence of agricultural officers, nor even their level of committedness on a personal basis; it is just that these are not manifested collectively in the OUTPUT.

Certainly focus and leadership have something to do with this. There is also the tendency to want to hog the show, a weakness of this and many previous governments. It is as though they do not believe or trust in the organisation of working people to partner with government effectively. Even when government, through the intervention of Prime Minister Gonsalves, sought to work with farmers’ organisations for the restructuring of the banana industry, there were those in the Ministry who fought to maintain as much control as possible.

It was therefore no surprise that the joint mechanisms agreed upon to supervise the restructured industry were never allowed to function, as was necessary. Cooperation and joint decision-making took scond place to centralised dictates and, as a result, the sense of collective ownership and responsibility faded into the background, and the “We” required lapsed back into the old “Us” and “Dem”.

But power carries with it responsibility, and there are those who beat their chests over successes, but are not prepared to endure the stripes that come from failures. So it is with the latest outbreak of disease, the Black Sigatoka. Just as in the case of natural disasters, unavoidable they may be, but mitigation and preparedness can help minimize damage; so too could a more focused and committed approach to disease control have prevented the worst. I mean, how on earth, with the disease raging and all the leading agricultural officers living in rural communities, can we pin the blame on neglect or even sabotage (as has been mooted in some quarters), of a public servant in the agricultural ministry? Was nobody supervising her? Didn’t it occur to the Minister that Rome was burning while Nero fiddled?

In every government, this and previous ones, there are employees who are less than cooperative in implementing government’s programmes. Ultimately, just as success will redound to the benefit of the Minister, so too will failure. Thus, it is the DUTY of the Minister to see that those responsible are properly supervised and that they are accountable. To have Black Sigatoka ravishing our fields, while an order lies idle on someone’s desk, speaks volumes about the lack of monitoring for which the Minister must accept final responsibility.

There are broader, political implications for the entire government in its handling of the matter. Over the past few years, there have been a number of incidents concerning government ministers or leading officials, which have been allowed to pass without rebuke. Any criticism is met with accusations of being anti-ULP, as if that were a crime. Montgomery Daniel cannot excuse his outburst by hiding behind the Garifuna flag or the ULP banner. He is a senior government minister, and, if a farmer made a disparaging remark about his ethnic origin, as he alleged, does he descend to the same depths and make even more damaging remarks about the origins of the rest of us Vincentians? Or does he use his platform, his understanding of our history, and his position as a leader, to not only rebuff any ill-informed remarks, but to enlighten the rest of us on such issues?

The Minister has gone too far this time. Poor judgement and poor taste, can only be rewarded with poor marks.

Over to you P.M.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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