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Banana: Desperate rearguard battle

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Farmers, banana officials and Governments in the Windward Islands are engaged in a desperate rearguard struggle to salvage what is left of the embattled banana industry and to stave off a threatening collapse of the rural economy.{{more}} Should the worst occur, this would have dire social, not just economic, consequences for the entire Eastern Caribbean. The latest stage of the twenty-year fight for our banana industry is taking place in the context of the ravaging of banana fields by the deadly Black Sigatoka disease, which itself followed devastating natural disasters.

To many sceptics and the numerous banana “undertakers” we have in our midst, the Black Sigatoka scenario seems to be, for them, nothing but a flimsy excuse to try and obtain resources to plough into what one of them infamously described as a “black hole”. To such persons, the banana industry is already “dead” and to try and save any part of it is tantamount to a “waste of time”.

Without a critical examination of the situation and using the usual economistic analysis based on contributions to the Gross Domestic Product, that would appear to be the case. In the last 20 years, since the “Banana Wars” began in earnest, the place of the banana industry in the economies of the Windward Islands has seriously declined. In St Vincent and the Grenadines in particular, a combination of diseases and natural disasters, aided and abetted by bureaucratic bungling, has caused banana earnings to fall by some 43 per cent in the last five years alone. The collapse in the fortunes of the banana industry has only been matched by a similar collapse in the status of West Indies cricket.

The critics have been having a field day. “Let’s face it”, they say, “banana will never be the same again in these islands”. So true! But tell me what has not changed in these islands these past twenty years? Sadly, the only aspects of our life that have remained untouched are the sorry level of our politics and our constitutional status. Everything else has been undergoing radical transformation, most, though, not of our own conscious making, but forced by external circumstances.

They also tell us that we should expect this reversal in fortunes because of external “competition”. In fact, banana farmers are being told repeatedly that we just “can’t compete”. Well, if that holds good for banana, what about the rest of our economy; do other sectors face such “competition” and how are they faring? Tourism, for instance, is touted as the way to go, and given our natural attractions, no one will deny that there is much potential in that direction. But we must not kid ourselves into believing that it is a cakewalk to tourism success.

Just as the banana industry has been battered by external winds of trade, so too are extra-territorial clouds affecting our tourism climate. What if the recession in the international economy and the crisis in the Eurozone in particular should worsen? What about the battle of our tourism industry to stave off the worst effects of the imposition by the British Government of an Airline Passenger Duty (APD) that unfairly discriminates against air travel to our region? Is it not akin to the fight by our farmers against the changing of the trade rules governing our banana exports to Europe? And, what about astronomical increases in the price of fuel?

During the two decades of banana decline, similar misfortunes have befallen many giants in the world economy. President Obama had to step in to save the US motor industry. Financial giants collapsed spectacularly overnight. When banana was king, the economies of the USA, Britain and the other European ‘big boys’, ruled the roost. Today, China holds most of them by their economic testicles and they are forced to share the world stage with the likes of Brazil, Russia and India. So, is not “we alone” in trouble.

Therefore, when we cast disparaging remarks in the direction of banana and our farmers, we ought to pause and try and take a more rounded view of the world in which we live. Unfortunately, we are often our own worst enemies. Our banana industry and LIAT airline share the dubious distinction of having the least grateful beneficiaries. Rather than careful analysis of all the factors involved, we are all too ready to abandon our own and succumb to pressures. This is not to make excuses for the shortcomings in the industry, for the failings of our farmers in the face of intense competition, but is it not a trait in our whole society, a failure to up to now acknowledge the realities of a rapidly changing world which demands radically changed attitudes to work and production.

It seems to be a simple solution to say, “let’s move on from bananas”; but if we fail to learn the lessons from our banana experience, we are bound to encounter problems in our other endeavours as well. Our response to the challenges encountered in the banana trade, in air transportation, in tourism, will tell the rest of the world a lot about our resolve, (or lack of it), our capacity to wage protracted struggles in defence of our livelihood. We are already giving wrong signals.

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

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