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Guardian Award – A vindication of the struggles of Caribbean farmers

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There is an old cliche about “pleasant surprises…” Sometimes, however, such surprises, exceptionally pleasant though they might be, can border on shock, even if not of a life-threatening nature. That was my experience on being informed, unofficially, that I had been chosen as the winner of the GUARDIAN’s International Development Achievement Award 2011.{{more}}

To have been even considered for nomination, much more becoming a finalist, could not have been further from my thoughts five or six months ago. That is itself an honour for a simple man from a small-island chain with a population more than 100 times smaller than that of the London metropolis. To go on to win such a prestigious award is nothing short of miraculous. A miracle in that, with the award being on the basis of online voting, and given the limitations of size of population and access to the Internet, small developing countries like St. Vincent and the Grenadines ought to be in somewhat of a disadvantageous situation, irrespective of the strength of claim of the nominee. No doubt though, the enthusiasm of those who supported my claims, and the efforts of the government of my country in striving to extend internet access to all sectors of our population, as part of its “Education Revolution” must have enhanced my chances. I am eternally grateful for that and deeply appreciative of this aspect of our own struggle for socio-economic development.

Such gratitude must be extended unreservedly to the GUARDIAN for initiating such awards, in which focus is placed on the efforts of men and women all around the globe who are making heroic efforts, often unnoticed, in the face of tremendous odds, to contribute to the most basic human aspirations for justice and opportunity to provide a fulfilling life for themselves and their families. May this noble initiative inspire many others, particularly in the corporate world, to play their part in helping the ‘ninety-nine’ per cent of us to acknowledge, recognize, respect and support similar actions to achieve those humble aspirations.

The award in itself makes an important statement. In my case it is a validation of the long years of work with, and behalf of, our embattled farmers in the Eastern Caribbean island – farmers with tiny holdings based on family labour. In the case of the organisation with which I have worked these past 22 years, the Windward Islands Farmers Association (WINFA), I must make special mention of the struggles of our women farmers, many of them heads of single-parent households, whose lives represent living chapters in an unending story of the pursuit of life with equal opportunities, dignity and honour.

My own part in this noble effort has been to support, to help to give organisational form and leadership and to try and be a channel through which the long muffled voices of our farmers can at long last echo across the world in their clamour for justice. We have worked together since the seventies, fighting for the right to access to and ownership of the land on which our farmers produce, feeding our people and providing valuable foreign exchange which has fuelled our still limited social and economic development.

The successes achieved in land reform, and the end of what was in reality modern estate serfdom, brought with them new challenges. The glory of the heyday of the banana industry, in the eighties and early nineties, masked some realities in production, trade and the environment which were to be brutally exposed. The banana model of those days was based on unfettered preferential access to the UK market, and production methods involving widespread use of dangerous chemical compounds, as harmful to our lovely physical environment as they were to the health of the farmers and workers in the industry and to their families additionally, in terms of exposure to these substances.

The institution of the Single European Market in 1993 and the subsequent changes in the terms of access to the European market has had profound implications for not just the banana industry, but for agriculture, rural development and the very economies of our islands. Most of these experiences have been negative and have been manifested in the removal of preferential access, new trade and environmental regulations and standards that have imposed further burdens on small farmers without commensurate financial rewards; banana ‘ wars’ between the multi-national giants who still dominate the global industry and internecine supermarket price-cutting battles, all of which had disastrous consequences for our farmers in a vicious “race to the bottom”.

But, ever an optimist, I prefer to look at the positives which have emerged in the farming community and their impact on the wider society as a result. For me, the very fact that we could get farmers, most of whom only got a basic primary education, to engage the global giants in a battle right into the corridors of the European Commission, the hallowed halls of Whitehall, Washington and Geneva (headquarters of the World Trade Organisation, the infamous WTO), is a major achievement. True, we have neither won the battles so far, nor been able to bring the ‘wars’ to a satisfactory end, but we have enriched our experience many times over in the process.

I have undying admiration for our farmers who have had to combat both man-made and natural disasters and to demonstrate their resilience, year after year, as well as their commitment to their just cause. Our farmers have responded to the search for alternative trading arrangements, grasping the Fairtrade concept with fervour and making it a shining example to all those who could see no further than the free trade models of modern globalisation, which have caused such havoc and massive social dislocation in today’s world. They have responded to the calls for mobilisation and have taken their demands to their political leaders, to the negotiators for the trade agreements which have impacted on their lives and provided the ammunition for WINFA’s robust advocacy work.

The International Development Achievement Award 2011 is therefore as much theirs as it is a vindication of my own humble contribution. At the same time, it must be used as a clarion call to awaken those who have since consigned the Caribbean to the footnotes of international development efforts. In a sense, we have become the victims of our own success in achieving social stability and preserving democratic practices and the observation of human rights. Today, we are judged by economic criteria, such as per capita GDP, which are as absurd to a female famer struggling on her own to raise and educate five children, while trying to comply with the exacting standards of the British supermarkets which retail her produce, as they are to young people in rural communities facing unemployment and despair as a result of unjust trade policies and financial shenanigans.

The farmers of the Caribbean are calling on the international community to live up to its responsibilities to ensure a fair deal for all. Our vulnerability to natural disasters is dramatically demonstrated year after year and the threat of climate change and its harmful effects can have enormous implications for us. We are deeply honoured to have been recognised through the Award, but for us it must become a platform on which we can all build and collectively play our part in the achievement of a just and sustainable world.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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