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Stabilizing banana, revitalizing agriculture – Pt 1

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In spite of all the distractions of a contentious political climate and the festive Christmas season, it is to the credit of the SVG Fairtrade Organization that it had the fortitude to be able to assemble its members on December 29 for its 15th Annual General Assembly.{{more}}

Not many organizations can mobilize their members to meet at such a time. Hats off to the SVGFTO!

As expected, the focus of the meeting was very much on bananas and revitalizing the industry. Times have changed drastically where the fortunes of bananas and banana farmers are concerned. The pity is that too many integrally involved in the industry do not seem to appreciate the extent of the changes and are therefore too susceptible to the cheap propaganda of “bringing back the good days”.

The Fairtrade Assembly heard addresses from the president of the organization, the coordinator of WINFA, and the chief agricultural officer, in the absence of the Minister of Agriculture, who was in court on the occasion of the hearing of an election petition. Amusingly, the judge, in dismissing the election petition, described it as a “fishing expedition”; so, the Minister, who also has responsibility for Fisheries, could be said to be literally absent due to a “fishing expedition”.

All of them expressed optimism for the future of the industry, albeit in a changed form. The NFTO chair, in addition, engaged in the ‘blame game’, citing insufficient assistance to farmers and calling not only for adequate aid, but also for Government to ensure that at least 50 per cent of the dividends from the proceeds of the four-island owned WINFRESH company be allocated to farmers’ organizations.

The chief agricultural officer reiterated a target set by the Minister of Agriculture for 3,000 acres to be put under banana production. Significantly, while emphasizing his confidence in our presence on the regional market, he appealed to farmers to raise productivity levels and, as well, called for attention to be paid to non-banana production.

This latter theme, of the need for greater attention to non-banana production and trade, was further emphasized in the address of the WINFA coordinator. She brought elements of reality to the discourse, insisting that the discussion, and action, go beyond bananas and the perennial demands for “more financial assistance”. Focus should be put on climate change and other developmental issues and farmer representation at a wider level, beyond bananas, is a necessary requirement.

In response, this column wishes to make the following comments:

1. Whether we are willing to accept it or not, banana will never be the “green-gold” of old again. It is critical, for both the banana sector and for agriculture as a whole, that we come to grips with that reality. Our ‘successes’ of the eighties and early nineties were based on specific circumstances, chief among them being our then preferential access to the British market. That helped us to overcome our lack of competitiveness in an unfair trading environment. The situation has changed dramatically since then and those who attempt to mislead by harking back to the past, glibly trying to take credit for the production levels and foreign exchange earnings of that period, are dealing with a ‘pie in the sky’ scenario.

2. Secondly, the ‘blame game’, politically expedient in the past, is totally irrelevant today. Political parties blame each other, farmers blame their marketers and governments, who in turn blame farmers; but if truth be told, we are all at fault, in differing degrees, to be truthful. Now, if we are to go forward, it is time to “take up our bed and walk”, to use the biblical quotation.

3. An essential step is to understand the nature of both the banana industry and agriculture as a whole, its linkages to other sectors, and how it is affected by these factors.

This is where we shall resume next week.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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