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Banana package in difficult circumstances

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I have been searching the online versions of the local newspapers for last week for some sort of response to the package announced by the Prime Minister to assist banana farmers who have suffered from the Ministry of Agriculture’s inept handling of the Black Sigatoka disease.{{more}} Amazingly, I have not seen one official response from the organisations representing the farmers, no statement of appreciation, rejection or whatever. Strange, isn’t it?

After all, over the last few weeks, we have heard a lot from farmers, their apparent supporters and the likes of Renwick Rose about the need for Government to take decisive action to rescue the banana industry and to “compensate” farmers for their losses. I have joined pickets by farmers of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Financial Complex and Parliament, and added my voice and pen to the cause.

Our actions have not been in vain. Meetings were organised between government representatives and representatives of the farmers, and as far as I have been informed, these led up to a Cabinet deliberation on the issue, with representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture and the trading arm of the National Fairtrade organisation, WINFARM, making proposals and agreeing on a joint Action Plan.

Arising out of this, (my assumption at least), Prime Minister Gonsalves announced a package of support for the banana industry amounting to some $2 million. The measures announced and the details of the package must certainly be the subject of much discussion in the farming community. There is no doubt that some will consider that it has not gone far enough and there must be farmers who will be of the view that though the programme will assist, in view of the culpability of the Ministry of Agriculture for their losses, the package does not adequately compensate them for their losses.

However, whatever the degree of our satisfaction or dissatisfaction, one cannot ignore the facts that: (a) Government has been forced to awaken from its bureaucratic slumber to respond to the demands of the farmers; (b) the limited actions of the farmers have borne some fruit, though those who are lining up to collect their ‘compensation’ packages and who did not raise a finger or placard to advance their cause should thank those who made the sacrifice; (c) persons authorised to represent the farmers participated in crafting the ‘package, (whether this conforms with farmers’ demands is an internal matter to be resolved); (d) there is still much resentment over the unwarranted remarks of the Agriculture Minister which cannot be oiled over by PM Gonsalves’ “Gomery is a good and decent man” blessing.

In all of this, I must compliment the PM for his effort, even more than the ‘package’, to engage in dialogue on the matter and to try and fashion a response in extremely difficult economic circumstances.

With the announcement of the package, it is imperative that those in the leadership of the farmers’ movement provide some guidance and clarity to the farmers. Is the ‘package’ a reasonable or acceptable one? Are there areas which need improvement and further redress? More importantly, what lessons have this latest challenge taught us? Do we need to revisit the very structure of the industry, the power relations within it, and to situate it all within the broader concept of agricultural development and its relation to national development in its totality?

We can’t want to “play mas” and “fraid powder”. Neither the Government nor the Ministry of Agriculture can escape the fact that, whatever the semantics, they are ultimately culpable. Yet it is taxpayers’ money which has to be found for such unforeseen expenses, costs which could have been avoided. The rest of us, non-banana farmers, may sympathise with the farmers, but in a tight situation, where there are demands, in health services, for roads, for social services, every unnecessary penny diverted elsewhere hurts some other citizens. That is why this cannot be a case of simply farmers and Government, or whether Gomery is “a good and decent man”.

The critical issues of governance, of allocation of national resources, and of our future direction are all involved. So are YOU, inescapably.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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