We mustn't abandon the Windward Islands' farmers

by Renwick Rose and Nick Mathiason

The destruction caused by Hurricane Tomas in the Caribbean in recent weeks is heartbreaking. But although the destruction in Haiti received media coverage, Tomas's intensity was reserved for the eastern Caribbean. A spiralling storm lingered over St Lucia. The deluge created terrible landslides, cutting off the south of the island. The damage is similar in St Vincent and Dominica.

Now we are facing up to the total destruction of the Windward Islands' rural economy. Tomas has ripped up virtually every banana tree in St Lucia and St Vincent where the entire crop has been wiped out. Coconuts, cocoa and breadfruit are also all gone.

Farmers who rely on bananas face an economic disaster, and a food emergency is looming. They will have no income for at least eight months, until the next harvest. That is if they can afford to replant trees.

Parents are also agonising over whether they can afford to enter their children for the summer exams. Entry fees are due in January.

Agriculture is the motor of the Windward Islands' rural economy. It accounts for 9.75% of GDP, according to the IMF. It is the largest form of employment in the countryside, away from the tourist areas. And earnings from bananas allow shops and small business to survive.

Farmers are relying on the compassion of banks to allow them to keep their homes. They are likely to get deeper in debt.

Tomas caps one of the worst ever years for Windward farmers. The financial crisis in the Caribbean is stark. The bank crisis has not just reduced tourist numbers, it has created a damaging economic downturn thanks to the over-reliance on the offshore finance industry. And it has pushed up the price of inputs like fertilisers, which have seen prices double in many cases.
However, the most serious to the future of the Windwards as a banana producing region is the imminent prospect of cheaper Latin American bananas flooding European markets, squeezing out the fruit from the Windwards.

This has come about because the Windwards lost the so-called banana war waged by the US. Egged on by powerful agribusinesses, the US complained that Europe was giving preferential access to Caribbean growers. Washington was backed by Latin American growers. Now that Europe has opened its markets, it spells disaster for Windward Islands' farmers.

To make matters worse, farmers suffered drought at the beginning of the year as well as an outbreak of black Sigatoka – a fungus that lowers banana yields by up to 50%. Drought and Tomas: Windwards' farmers are on the frontline of climate change.

With no bananas coming to Britain from the Windwards for the next nine months, farmers fear retailers such as Sainsbury's and Waitrose will lose sight of the positive impact made by their purchase of Windwards' Fairtrade bananas. This includes enabling small farmers to improve banana quality and packing facilities, and to invest in local education and health. Retailers may now stick with the cheaper Latin American bananas. Urgent clarification is needed from Britain's best-known supermarkets that they will not abandon the Windwards once trees are replanted.

Thanks to the Fairtrade social premium, the Windward Islands Farmers Association (Winfa) has a small disaster recovery fund but it is insufficient to address the loss of income that farmers will suffer. Governments in the Windwards have been mobilising reconstruction. In St Lucia though, efforts may slacken after an election this month.

As farmers face economic ruin, another storm is brewing – linked to the ending of the banana wars. Wrangles over the EU budget could threaten a €190m ($252m) compensation package to help African and Caribbean banana growers weather the loss of income after barriers were lifted on Latin American fruit. The UK Treasury must do everything it can to ensure this fund is not axed.

Some people may ask why the Windwards continue to grow bananas. Surely, they say, there are more profitable sources of income?
However, there are no ready alternatives. And the power of agribusiness, which won the banana wars, is just as prevalent in other crops. But the Windwards can diversify beyond the dependency on bananas. It has the expertise. What it needs is help to develop competitiveness: reducing costs and winning new markets. This is why Fairtrade is so important.

The Caribbean imports food worth $4bn. In the Caribbean political grouping Caricom, only Guyana and Belize are net food exporters. There is an opportunity for Caribbean farmers to answer the regional food security challenge. If only the agricultural sector could enjoy the incentives and tax breaks enjoyed by the financial services industry. Now that would be a welcome wind of change.

This article appeared on the Guardian’s Development website over Christmas at http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2010/dec/23/windward-islands-caribbean-farmers-bananas

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