Beyond Bananas

26/10/2012 at 2:12 pm Leave a comment

By Hilary Minch

The Windward Islands (St Lucia, St Vincent, Dominica and Grenada) are the first to be hit by the tropical storms and hurricanes that sweep across the Caribbean.

Renwick Rose, a farmer and founder/CEO of the Windward Islands Farmers Association was in London to open the BOND AGM.

Speaking in a soft Caribbean accent, he told of the victims of false theories of development, communities who believed what experts from the World Bank and global financial institutions told them about the need to diversify from agriculture and to open their markets.

Under the latest economic development classification, many of the islands in the Caribbean are ranked as ‘mid-income’ and so development agencies are withdrawing. While it might make sense in theory to focus aid efforts on the poorest in the worlds, Rose argues strongly, that “beyond the numbers, beyond GDP figures, are people. Poverty is poverty, hunger is hunger”.

The so-called ‘Banana Wars’ devastated the islands.

The banana is the most popular fruit in the world – apparently consumers spend more than £10 billion a year on the fruit globally. The British colonial legacy had ironically provided a guaranteed market for the Windward Island bananas and prior to 1993 most of Britain’s bananas came from there. After European markets liberalised in the mid 90s, and the Single European Market took effect, cheap imports from Latin America replaced the higher cost Caribbean bananas on supermarket shelves across Europe. In addition, the US, and its powerful multi-national agri-businesses based in Latin America, complained in the World Trade Organisation that Europe, and particularly Britain, was giving preferential access to Caribbean fruit and bananas.

The WTO ruled in favour of the US, and so Europe had to open its markets to the cheap bananas from US multi-nationals in Latin America. The farmers of the Windward Islands were unable to compete with huge US agri-businesses with massive economies of scale – and dubious employment practices and human rights records.

According to the Fairtrade Foundation, cheaper Latin American ‘dollar’ bananas, almost insignificant in 1992, now make up around half of UK imports. No doubt the story is similar in Ireland. Caribbean producers remain almost entirely dependent on UK sales and so their falling share of the UK market has had a devastating effect. Dominica, St Vincent and St Lucia have lost more than 20,000 of their 25,000 small-scale banana growers since 1992. There are now less than 4,000 small farmers remaining on the Windward Islands.

‘Working together for a common goal’

However, this is not the end of the story. The farmers of the Windward Islands are organised. They believe in a model of development that has solidarity and co-operation at its heart. For Rose and others, solidarity and collaboration is more important than funding, they believe in “working together for a common goal” – a definition of ‘partnership’ if ever there was one. While they don’t have financial resources and expensive aid programmes, the Windward Island farmers and banana growers have reached out to their counterparts in Latin America and are supporting their campaigns for better workers rights. Rose is chairman of the umbrella civil society movement the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.

The Windward Island farmers are also partnering with organisations such as Christian Aid and Oxfam. And since the 1990s, they have engaged with the Fairtrade Foundation – the first fair-trade bananas were exported to the UK in 2000. Now over 3,500 of the remaining 4,000 small farmers are Fairtrade certified.

In Rose’s words, “behind every banana there’s a story of social justice”. The farmers know they cannot compete against the cheap Latin American imports – but they believe that they can survive, and be successful, if the consumer in the UK and elsewhere demands it and is willing to spend a little more to buy fair-trade products.

In all the debates about post MDG frameworks, the beyond 2015 agenda, Rose’s message is clear: we won’t be successful unless we link our efforts, strengthen our relationships. The MDGs won’t be realised without solidarity. The farmers of the Windward Islands are ‘bruised and battered’, but they have survived and are wiser and have learned from their battles. The solution, says Rose, lies in “re-doubling our efforts and renewing commitments. Whatever we can contribute counts, it doesn’t have to be money” (note to fundraisers..). “We can learn from each other. We can march forward together”.

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