Bananas: A Continuing Challenge!
Good Morning St. Lucia
Bonjou Ankò Mésyésédanm.
Every now and then, you hear the claim that “Labour Kill Bananas” or “Kenny
mash-up the banana industry” or “the Government make things hard in the banana
industry.” Amazingly, this kind of talk is even expressed by a few individuals
who are charged with the responsibility of implementing Government’s programme
for the recovery of the industry.
I guess there are those who will always refuse to face the reality that
confronts us. They refuse to understand that we no longer have the British
market to ourselves, that we are producing bananas at a much higher cost than
our competitors, that we cannot control the price of inputs for the industry, or
the prices paid by supermarkets for our bananas.
Let me tell you what intrigues me the most. How do these individuals explain to
St. Lucians that Grenada has virtually gone out of bananas, that production has
fallen drastically in all the islands, yet St. Lucia’s overall share of exports
from the Windward Islands as a whole has actually increased? If, as they claim,
this Government has no interest in the banana industry, how then do they explain
that this same Government has invested over EC $140 million in the industry over
the past seven years? How do these individuals explain that St. Vincent, for
example, did not fully adopt our approach to restructuring their industry, their
farmers continue to abandon the industry, production continues to decline and
their debt continues to climb. How do they explain these objective facts? Talk
about facing reality!
In my view, it is better to share the truth with our farmers, to explain the
full reality we face, rather than feeding them with lies, half-truths and
nostalgia. Where the banana industry is concerned, “the best politics is no
politics at all.”
INCREASED BANANA PRODUCTION
Never mind the decrease in production over what it used to be in the distant
past, Saint Lucia still remains the leading producer of bananas in the Windward
Islands. In fact, the good news is that banana production has again increased in
the past six months.
Prior to the passage of Hurricane Ivan, Windward Islands exports increased by
25% compared to 2003 levels, with Saint Lucia leading this increase. In fact,
for the first half of 2004, exports of bananas increased by 22.3%, in contrast
to a 30.9% decline in the first half of 2003.
One of the primary factors behind this increase was the level of rainfall in the
first half of the year. Another important factor was the harvesting of tissue
culture fruit planted in July and September of 2003. This strong showing has
been helped by the technical support and guidance provided by the Banana
Emergency Recovery Unit (BERU) and the improved quality of our fruit.
This is a timely reminder to all of us that the banana industry is not dead.
Fig-la Pa Mor; O kont-were, Fig La Vivan! And it remains the main revenue earner
for the agricultural sector. It is also a timely reminder to all of us that as
farmers continue to take more control of their affairs through
commercialization, the industry is proving its resilience. The banana industry
is part of our life and all of us in the country benefit when St. Lucia records
these increases in production and export. Fig-la se sa nou toute; ek nou toute
ka pofi leur industry-a ka faire bien!
We must all continue to support our courageous banana farmers who keep the
I understand the challenges our farmers face. I plant bananas. I tend and reap
them for export. I know about the increasing cost of production and the losses
sustained because of situations we do not have control over. For example, the
Government has removed the Duties and Consumption Taxes on inputs for the banana
sector, yet prices continue to rise, because we have no control over the prices
our suppliers charge for these inputs. To compound the situation, is the cost of
fuel. This has led to a worldwide increase in the cost of shipping, and indeed,
in the cost of producing goods and services.
But even while we welcome the good news about increased banana production, there
are some threats on the horizon.
The problems of Leaf Spot management will continue to affect the quality of our
bananas. Today the fruit is packaged on our farms, shipped to the United Kingdom
and transported directly to the supermarkets for placement on their shelves. Our
bananas continue to get good reviews from the British consumer. But we must
continue to manage our quality if we are to maintain our place in the market.
Now too, we must be preoccupied with the new banana regime proposed by the
In 2006, the protection we enjoy for our bananas entering the European Union
market will expire. We will then have to face and compete with the producers
from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific states, and also from Latin America.
In this scenario, the question then becomes how do we protect our market share?
LOOMING BATTLE OVER TARIFFS
The issue is not entirely in our hands. Our future depends on the European
Union, the banana producers in Latin America, Africa and the Pacific and –
remotely – our diplomatic skills.
As I said earlier, the European Union has proposed a tariff of 230 Euros per
metric ton for bananas entering the European Community. But first, let me
explain this word “tariff”., because this is a word you will hear a lot about in
the coming weeks.
Basically, a tariff is a duty on a particular class of imports or exports. Put
differently, we can regard a tariff as a tax that Government collects on goods
entering or leaving a country.
So, since our cost of producing bananas is so high, we need special protection
because we simply cannot compete with other suppliers. To protect our fruit, the
European Union, as I indicated, proposes to tax fruit from other suppliers at a
rate of 230 Euros per metric ton.
Most industry analysts point out that this is a negotiating rate and in any
event, it is too low. A rate of 270 Euros per metric ton would have offered us
better protection. So, in the next few weeks, I expect intense diplomatic
activity in Europe.
To protect our interests and to argue our case, the Governments of St. Lucia,
St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica have engaged the services of the
well-known St. Lucian diplomat, Ambassador Edwin Laurent.
The situation is exceedingly complex because other Caricom producers such as
Belize and Surinam insist on the route of tariffs, while we would prefer the
status quo. In a sense, we are alone and we have to fight every inch of the way.
En battai sala, nou pa ni jean; nou ka gumen pa kor nou!
TIREDNESS AMONG ALLIES
There is too, an increasing sense of tiredness among our allies in Europe.
According to an industry analyst, and I am quoting him,
“The United Kingdom used to be a strong defender of the EUs tariff-quota banana
regime. However, since the mid-1990s its firms, Geest and Fyffes, have divested
out of bananas, so its pecuniary interests in bananas are weak. Coupled with the
liberalization philosophy of the Government, there has been a move to oppose
higher prices arising from EU policies. France, Spain and Portugal remain strong
supporters of a high tariff, not out of solidarity with the Caribbean per se,
but to minimize the extent to which deficiency payments would have to be paid to
their producers under a low tariff.”
NO STRANGERS TO THREATS
We are no strangers to threats, be they man-made or Acts of God. We have lost
much time in the past because those who were responsible at the time to prepare
us for Britain’s joining of the European Union were afraid to face the truth –
and its consequences. Since those were the days when bananas were “Green Gold”,
the leaders at the time did not have the courage to paint the real picture of
the future. We did not take “a stitch in time” to save the industry. They failed
to encourage diversification. When the crunch came and prices started to fall,
they blamed local opposition politicians and banana farmers for what they very
well knew was not of our doing. The eventual entry of Britain into the EU was
followed by the steps taken by the US in support of the Latin American companies
at the WTO. The rest is history.
But all of that is spilt milk over which we should not cry. Instead, we have to
continue to persevere and look positively to the future.
I am encouraged by some of what I see happening in the industry today. The work
on Tissue Culture is ongoing, but the recent heavy rains have caused a temporary
setback. Nonetheless, we have been able to prepare 400 out of 500 acres of land
for Tissue Culture plants and our farmers have appreciated the importance of
this new approach to maximization of production. People can see the difference
and farmers are satisfied that this will certainly result in increases in yield
Drainage and irrigation is also progressing satisfactorily, especially at
Roseau, where farmers have formed themselves into a group to manage the
infrastructure which has been made available.
On another positive note, some 300 of our farmers who are among the Fair Trade
producers arrangement, had a very successful meeting last Sunday. I am informed
by the Minister of Agriculture that they discussed how to make the best of this
positive initiative. He also reported that, on their own initiative, using the
funds made available through the Fair Trading process, they have been
establishing and promoting and implementing community projects in their
All of this gives me hope. We all know that the road ahead is tough. It is a
long, narrow and winding road. We know we shall overcome, but it will not be
To our farmers I say: congratulations on your recent successes and please rest
assured that the Government will continue, as always to seek the best for you,
every day and everywhere.
As I close on this St. Cecilia’s Day, I wish to hail and salute all of our
musicians and to encourage them to continue to make us proud in whatever their
endeavours. If I may borrow a well-known phrase, let me say to all of our
musicians in St. Lucia: “If music be the food of life, then play on!”
Once again, I wish you all a pleasant week. Until next Monday, May The Good Lord
God, Bless And Keep You.