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Marcella Harris

Marcella Harris gives her views on Fairtrade and export markets
Marcella Harris gives her views on Fairtrade and export markets

Surviving the Banana Crush

Marcella Harris is President of the Windward Islands Farmers Association.

WINFA (the Windward Islands Farmers Association) represents thousands of farmers, most of them make a living from growing bananas for export. In the 1990's the tune the world sang was telling our farmers to reduce costs, to be more competitive. But this was impossible: their returns were already less than the cost of production. Between 1993 and 1998, 50 percent of our farmers were forced out of business and we were left with only 1200 producers.

When the first whispers about Fair Trade reached us, a lot of our farmers were suspicious. Oxfam - the UK-based development organisation - showed us their Fair Trade coffee, tea and honey, but bananas? We didn't think so because, would the new market be worth pursuing? Could it be relied on? So we had to sell the idea not just to farmers but to the shippers as well. We knew the buyers in Europe had yet to be convinced. However, the lobbying in Europe went ahead, the first order came, and in July 2000 we sent our first shipment of Fair Trade bananas on its way.

Fair Trade depends on customers being willing to seek out and pay more for goods. It also makes demands on farmers; too producers have to form groups. We now have more than forty accredited groups across the Windward Islands. To meet the standards required, and get the premium for their produce, growers have individually to adhere to strict standards and to run their groups properly. Every member must attend regular meetings. If you miss three meetings of your group you can be de-registered and will no longer be able to sell your fruit. But now we see how the structure, the responsibility and the information flow are making farmers aware of what's going on in their industry. They talk about supermarkets and consumers in Europe as if they are here on our own islands rather than in a distant place. From a small start a few years ago we have grown and exported more than 350,000 shipments in 2003.

Feeling proud to farm

But it's about more than trade and sales and getting a better price for bananas. This alternative market, and the way it has professionalised farmers has done several things. There is greater trust in our farming association; it has tested our ability to lobby and our skills in negotiation; most of all it has given farmers a say in their industry. But that doesn't mean that everything is rosy. It is a big challenge to get and keep all the stakeholders in the banana business collaborating. Migration from rural communities is still a problem. There are more dollar (Central American) bananas on the world market to compete with. And, as an organization, it is hard for us to secure funding to do all the work that needs to be done to keep the farmer groups going, to give training and to deal with all the requests for information and queries on traceability, that the supermarket buyers want answered straightaway.

From my perspective, another big challenge is trying to keep the self-esteem of farmers high. With the history of low prices and other production problems, so many farmers -a quarter of our growers are women - have had a hard job to hold their heads up. Crime and HIV/AIDS have hit farming communities, and they can give a really downbeat feel.

But Fair Trade includes a social premium. That means for every box of bananas bought from a group a fee is deposited in a fund for a community project. One of our groups used its fund to buy desks and chairs for its Primary School, and now every one of those children knows what Fair Trade bananas mean. Another group spent its social fund on a group-owned weed-cutter, and one built a bus shelter, all painted up in Fair Trade colours! Such investments give farmers a sense of pride that they have been able to contribute to their community.

All around you hear farmers being told to work hard, to be 'businesslike'. A lot of farmers take that to mean that it has to be you alone fighting against the world. I don't agree. Another message farmers everywhere are being given is 'be efficient'. A lot of people interpret that to mean being independent, isolated even, but I don't believe it does. I think if we look around we see everyone else getting together to move on to get what they want. We see the G8, we see the churches, we see the big companies getting together, but farmers haven't. I believe farmers, particularly smaller scale farmers, need to group and do certain things together to get better markets and get what they need so as to improve as producers. Information is so very important. Even if we are different sizes, growing different crops in different places, I realise that a lot of farmers have the same problems. We can learn from one another.

The new Fair Trade market that's opened up for Windward Island farmers is a welcome opportunity. Our farmers see it as a hope, but we know we also have to keep coming up with new ideas.

Marcella Harris has been managing a small livestock farm on Dominica for 12 years. Recognising the importance of being part of a farmers' organisation she joined WINFA and is currently serving her second term as president. She also represents WINFA in Via Campesina, an international small farmers' organisation working in the area of farmers' rights, land reform and food sovereignty. WINFA (Windward Island Farmers Association) represents farmers on the islands of St Vincent, St Lucia, Dominica and Grenada.

Date published: November 2004


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