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Battling it out for bananas

Farmers' rally in the Banana Battle
Farmers' rally in the Banana Battle

Bananas are the economic life-blood of the Windward Islands. In the critical months leading up to the decision by the European Union whether or not they can continue to enjoy preferential access to EU markets, farmers throughout the banana-exporting islands of the Caribbean have been holding a series of rallies to make their concerns known locally and internationally. "It's become a particularly critical situation for banana farmers in the Caribbean," explains Renwick Rose, co-ordinator of WINFA - the Windward Islands Farmers Association. "What we've been doing is to try to heighten awareness of farmers and people in general of the threat not just to bananas, but how trade liberalisation is affecting all of us in the region. The changes in the global trading regime don't just impact on banana farmers but everyone on these islands."

In one of the biggest events in Castries, capital of St Lucia, producers from Martinique, St Vincent and Dominica joined St Lucians in a rally that coincided with the visit to the region by one of the European Union's Trade Commissioners. Among the marchers was banana farmer Bella Joachim from Dominica. "I know how the large banana companies owned by Americans are trying to sell as much as they can, and push us out of the market," she said. "If we stay silent they're going to win. Traders, shopkeepers, and teachers, everyone is aware what will happen to our communities if the income from bananas disappears."

Meeting exacting international standards

While the islanders are appealing for some concession for their banana-dependent economies, they expect no concession when it comes to the standards of their produce or production methods. Back on her farm, in the lush Layou Valley on the western side of the island of Dominica, on harvesting day Bella Joachim, her husband and son are hard at work cutting, washing and packing 300 kilos of top quality bananas that will be at the quayside in the capital, Roseau, ready for export, by nightfall. Not only are the graded fruits exactly the right size and blemish-free but they have been produced to high environmental standards, which ensure that the fragile, steep slopes of this volcanic island are farmed sustainably. Bella points up the hill to the steepest part of the family farm: "We have taken that steepest land out of production to avoid erosion problems," she explains. Soil-stabilising fruit trees have been planted among the bananas on gentler slopes, and detailed farm records keep account of all crop protection products that are used.

Bella Joachim showing her plant protection/crop records
Bella Joachim showing her plant protection/crop records

"This is the challenge we've faced ever since we began exporting bananas to the UK," says Errol Emmanuel of Dominica Banana Producers' Limited (DBPL), who is responsible for ensuring that everyone in the banana chain from farm to port knows and meets the exacting requirements set by the European retailers. "There are a number of different standards in markets and farmers have continually to change to meet them. To say I'm proud of Dominica's banana farmers would be an under statement; they have shown what resilience and professionalism is," he says.

Social benefits at stake

From the DBPL's seafront offices there's a clear view of the gleaming white banana boat, as the weekly shipment of fruit from Dominica's 900 farmers is loaded. All of Dominica's bananas go to one British retailer -Tesco - under a Fair Trade contract. The income from those exports is vital to whole communities and Fair Trade bananas sell at a premium, the additional money going to the producing community's social fund. Deles Warrington farms 5 acres of bananas and is chairman of the Fair Trade group in Calibishi, northern Dominica, where the group has just bought a bus to get their children safely to the secondary school nine miles away. "We can decide what to do in the community," explains Warrington. "Let's say a poor farmer's house gets burned, we can help. When one gets sick, we can help. We're even looking at pension schemes, because most elderly farmers have no income when they can no longer work"

In the last decade Caribbean producers have steadily lost market share to the large-scale producers of Latin America, down from 70 per cent in the 1990's to 20 per cent in 2005. The EU's decision, expected early in 2006, on whether to open up the European banana market completely, is awaited anxiously. With lower costs of production, the largest banana producers are likely to gain even more market share. But fighting for their future has galvanised the Windward Island farming communities into action; farmers like Bella Joachim are more and more aware of global trade issues and the challenges faced by small-scale farmers everywhere. "As chairman of our local Fair Trade group, listening to problems of farmers here and elsewhere in the world has really changed me a lot," she says. "In a way, I've got a different sense of direction. We have workshops and seminars: reading different things, learning how people are being treated in different parts of the world. It gives you a sense of standing up and fighting for every human being. Not just thinking of yourself alone."

Date published: January 2006


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