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Dirty banana?

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Where land is scarce, farmers are cutting down the forest and clearing hillsides to grow bananas. This causes environmental damage….The farmers use chemicals to improve the yield and quality of the bananas, but they say the chemicals have killed many birds and fish in the rivers.

“If we weigh it all up,” says Earlene Horne of the St Vincent Farmers’ Union, “we realize that bananas have done us a lot of harm.” (The Guardian newspaper. London, 06 March 1993){{more}}

Many voices have spoken of the dirty side of the banana legacy in SVG, including the calypsonian ‘Gao,’ in his lamentation about the “Spray Plane” years ago. However, the above extract from the Guardian newspaper, more than 20 years ago, puts a class spin on part of the problem. Farmers had to ‘go mountain” to grow bananas, because the estate class dominated the coastal and lowland arable lands. In plain terms, the erosion of the Vincentian highlands had a social origin in the rural class structure of colonialism. There was also the failure of government policy to respect the rural working people’s right to land and dignity during the late colonial days when banana was developing. Big planters and a “Crown Colony” kind of governance put a choke-hold on working people, and the environment suffered the consequences.

BANANA GLITTER

… “everybody get a wall house and they move from Suzuki scooter to a motorcar, ‘sketels’ they call them… So it increase the wealth and that’s perfectly in order, …” Dr Ralph Gonsalves, 25 01 16, UWI, Cave Hill. (Taken from SEARCHLIGHT p1, 05 02 16)

At his recent lecture, the above brief extract seems to summarize for Dr Gonsalves, the banana industry’s ‘historic contribution’ to our economy, — ‘wall house and sketel’. On the other hand, he expanded on the ecological downside of the industry in much more detail. It is useful to put a few things in context. The second half of the 20th century, when bananas became established, then consolidated and expanded, was the same period when we gained and operated adult suffrage. Other people’s agencies, like trades unions, credit unions, and a host of local business establishments, schools and political parties, grew up in the same period, functioned and flourished with inputs from the banana industry. In the rural communities, post-harvest cooperatives packaged the fruit; a fleet of rural owned freight vehicles filled the roads, from mountain to packing plant, then to port Kingstown. Other crops began to learn husbandry techniques developed in the banana industrial complex; a national economy and society were being forged on the backs of men, women and children in the valleys on the estates, and on the hillsides. A statutory Banana Association, with registered growers as members, served the industry and collaborated in a Windward Islands functional integration corporation. Under oppressive power relations, and what is now called ‘a preferential trade regime’, the banana and agricultural working people of SVG gave birth to the germs of a nation, a nation which has not yet honoured them. In fact, the one political figure who envisaged and helped the industry leaders to become a trans-national (world) business in the food trade, receives no recognition for his efforts. You may be surprised to learn that the honour belongs to Mr AU Eustace.

The point that is being made is that ‘wall house and sketel’ is an insulting and trivializing reference to the gold and glitter that we have derived from the banana industry in SVG. Banana growers and workers deserve an apology from Dr Gonsalves.

LESSONS FROM BANANA

The ecological lesson must be taken in from the dirty side of the banana industry. Best practices from the Fairtrade or similar agencies need to be considered, and random appropriation of arable land by other users must be managed by policy measures.

The organization of producers in a national shareholding corporation, with local service branches, and possible regional integration, must be considered.

The self-limitation of the industry to transacting only the primary product, the raw material, cannot be contemplated. Value chain and inclusive management is now a must in Vincentian agribusiness.

No more dirty agriculture (or industry, or services, or government for that matter) from this time forward. Let us respect ourselves and our nation.

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