Islands on the Front Line

Beyond Banana Wars
The Song of the Banana Man
Fruitful Links
Beyond Unfair Trade
Ghana Bananas Rule Oke

The six Eastern Caribbean islands of Grenada, St Vincent, St Lucia, Martinique, Dominica and Guadeloupe supply nearly one banana in six on the market of the EU 15. The Windward Islands in particular are characterised by a family farm structure and are vitally dependent on their banana exports to the British market. Together the four English-speaking islands still account for one third of British banana imports, or around 6% of the EU market in 1996. Half of that volume comes from St Lucia.

Recent changes have seen the Geest business sold to a joint venture of Irish-based Fyffes and St Lucia-based WIBDECO (itself a joint venture between the four Windward Island governments and the banana growers’ associations). For the first time in the history of their industry, Windward Islanders have a chance to control (half of) the fruits of their labour.

Martinique and Guadeloupe, being French, are treated as domestic EU producers and benefit since the new EU regime in 1993, from a CAP-style deficiency payment scheme. This allows them to stay in the market. The majority of production is in the hands of medium-to-large scale plantation producers, with a minority in the hands of several hundred small-scale family farmers.

The articles below chart a story of how Windward Islanders are struggling to look beyond the centre of an international trade storm to a more sustainable banana industry and genuine regional food security in the Eastern Caribbean. The feature concludes with a look at the first “fair trade” labelled banana to arrive on the European market from Ghana. As “Fair Trade” fast becomes the key to a survival strategy, Windward Island Farmers will be studying the progress of such pioneering independent joint ventures very carefully.

by Alistair Smith, Co-ordinator, Banana Link

In the 1970s and 1980s, the banana trade came to symbolise for many Europeans the injustices facing both plantation workers and small producers in developing countries. The ‘banana republics’ - Guatemala, Honduras, Panama etc. - were still dominated by big companies who maintained absolute control over the trade and the lives of the weakest participants in it. The small Eastern Caribbean producers of ‘green gold’ were legally obliged to sell to one British company (Geest), at a price imposed by the company. This near cartel resulted in “a licence to print money” as a Del Monte executive declared in 1990. The new five big banana traders that together account for over 80% of the world banana trade are Chiquita (USA), Dole (USA), Fyffes (Ireland), Del Monte (Grupo IAT, Chile) and Noboa (Ecuador).

In the mid - 1990s, the innocent banana finds itself at the centre of an international trade war involving 20 countries directly and threatening in particular the 25,000 small-scale farmers in the Windward Islands. This conflict pits the European Union against the USA, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and is currently being arbitrated by a dispute panel at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.

The conflict highlights the way private corporate interests can sway governments to defend them. In this case, the biggest player in the US $8 billion world banana trade, Chiquita, with the help of generous donations to both political parties, has persuaded Washington to take up its case that the EU banana regime is discriminating against free trade and Chiquita’s commercial interests.

The complex EU quota and licencing regime installed six months after the rest of the single European market in mid-1993, seeks to protect the banana exports of former colonies (mainly Britain and France) by continuing their guaranteed tariff-free entry to the EU market. It is this political intervention which Chiquita and its allies in governments on both sides of the Atlantic have been challenging ever since the regime was announced. Germany leads the internal opposition to the ten-year system of quotas and preferences given to Caribbean and African exports until 2002.

The banana war’s most serious consequences could be the collapse of the Windward Islands banana industry on which the colonial relationship with Britain brought the entire economies of St Lucia, St Vincent and Dominica to depend. What is at stake, however, is more than pure economic viability. The international conflict over bananas continues to ignore the human and environmental dimensions of banana production and trade. The whole question of ‘sustainability’ from a producer or consumer point of view is set aside for a sterile war of power politics.

With the minor exception of some farms in Grenada, all bananas which enter the entire world trade are produced as ‘mono-cultures’, and around 90% of that trade is just one variety, Cavendish, which requires more and more chemicals to keep diseases at bay. Clearly though, half an acre of bananas grown by a family farm in St Lucia has a very different social and environmental impact in the producing county to a 5,000 hectare plantation managed by a single foreign-controlled company. But the question is how to differentiate between these two bananas at the consumer end. Especially now that the 25,000 Windward Island farmers have the historic opportunity to become owners of their own production and exporting company, WIBDECO, it’s time for crucial questions about economic democracy, sustainable production and fair trade to pushed to the fore.

An international alliance of several hundred organisations in over 25 consumer and producer countries has been forged over the last few years to try and change the terms of the banana trade and promote sustainable production systems. At the European level, for example, the European Banana Action Network (EUROBAN) organised a five-month postcard and lobbying campaign in six EU member states calling for market access for ‘fairly traded’ bananas, produced according to agreed minimum social and environmental conditions. In March 1996, EUROBAN presented over 150,000 signed cards to Commissioner Fischler in Brussels. By the end of 1996, the European Commission is expected to announce a ‘special fair trade banana labelling’ initiative, aimed at channelling financial and technical support to producer organisations to meet EU consumer demand for a different kind of banana. This shows that concerted consumer action is not only possible, but that it may well lead to positive results on the ground for at least some of the most disadvantaged workers and farmers. Such consumer action is bound to be all the more powerful when it is undertaken in full co-operation with organisations involved in production, as has happened in the case of bananas.

In Britain, dialogue has started over fair trade labelling with export companies as well as with some of the major retailers. Attitudes vary considerably, but with more and more consumer interest and support a fair trade labelled banana from the Eastern Caribbean should be possible within the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the ‘Five Isles’ banana from the Windward Islands remains the best buy if your concern is for a more sustainable future. The Body Shop now tries, as far as possible, to use Windward Island bananas for its products and has promised a weekly order on fair trade terms.

Banana Link, a new non-profit co-operative, is co-ordinating efforts in Britain to move towards a more sustainable banana economy with support from Christian Aid, Oxfam and the Fair Trade Foundation. Banana Link also works closely with the Windward Island Farmers’ Association and the Co-ordination of Banana Workers’ Unions of Latin America. Banana Link’s activities range from publishing a Banana News Trade Bulletin to organising a float in the Notting Hill Carnival, from classroom sessions to meetings with the companies and public campaigns.

At one level, the key to the Windward Islands farmers’ survival in the banana market rests with three lawyers sitting in Geneva. After 50 years of bananas being imposed and the price non-negotiable, these lawyers will need all the support they can muster in order for the farmers of the Windward Islands to gain a fairer share of the fruits of their labour. In the short term, buying their fruit and pressing supermarkets to support fair trade initiatives are strategies which we can all take up. Even if a farmer-owned WIBDECO does emerge, it will still be a small fish in a pond dominated by bigger, more aggressive fish. So it is the historic responsibility of the British consumer above all to send a signal to the big sellers and buyers that a Windward Island banana is the best of the bunch because it is grown by small-scale family farmers and involves less environmental damage than those from large plantations.

by Evan Jones

Touris, white man, wipin his face,
Met me in Golden Grove market place.
He looked at m’ol’ clothes brown wid stain,
An soaked right through wid de Portlan rain,
He cas his eye, turned up his nose,
He says, ‘You’re a beggar man, I suppose?’
He says, ‘Boy, get some occupation,
Be of some value to your nation.’

I said, ‘By God and dis big right han,
You mus recognise a banana man.’

‘Up in de hills, where de streams are cool,
An mullet and janga swim in de pool,
I have ten acres of mountain side,
And a dainty-foot donkey dat I ride,
Four Gros Michel, an four Lacatan,
Some coconut trees, and some hills of yam,
An I pasture on dat very same lan
Five she-goats an big black ram.

Dat, by God and dis big right hand,
Is de property of the banana man.

‘I leave m’yard early-morning time
And set m’foot to de mountain climb,
I ben m’back to de hot-sun toil,
An m’cutlass rings on de stony soil,
Ploughin and weedin, diggin and plantin
Till Massa sun drop back o John Crow mountain,
Den home again in cool evenin time,
(Sung) Praise God and m’big right han,
I will live an die a banana man.’

‘Banana day is my special day
I cut my stems an I’m on m’way,
Load up de donkey, leave de lan,
Head down de hill to banana stan,
When de truck comes roun I take a ride
All de way down to de harbour side —
Dat is de night, when you, touris man,
Would change your place wid a banana man.

Yes, by God, and m’big right han,
I will live an die a banana man.

De bay is calm, and de moon is bright
De hills look black for de sky is light,
Down at de dock is an English ship,
Restin after her ocean trip,
While on de pier is a monstrous hustle,
Tallymen, carriers, all in a bustle,
Wid stems on deir heads in a long black snake
Some singin de songs dat banana men make,

Like (sung) Praise God and m’big right han
I will live an die a banana man.’

‘Den de payment comes, an we have some fun,
Me, Zekiel, Breda and Duppy Son.
Down at de bar near United wharf,
We knock back a white rum, bus a laugh,
Fill de empty bag for further toil
Wid saltfish, breadfruit, coconut oil.
Den head back home to m’yard to sleep,
A proper sleep dat is long and deep.

Yes, by God, and m’big right han
I will live an die a banana man.

So when you see dese old clothes brown wid stain,
An soaked right through wid de Portlan rain,
Don’t cas your eye nor turn your nose,
Don’t judge a man by his patchy clothes,
I’m a strong man, a proud man, an I’m free
Free as dese mountains, free as dis sea,
I know myself, an I know my ways,
An will say wid pride to de end o my days.

(sung) Praise God an m’big right han
I will live an die a banana man.’

by Polly Pattullo, journalist, specialising on the Caribbean region

Growing bananas and tourism provide St Lucia’s wealth. But to look for any mutually enriching link between these two pivotal activities is to search in vain. Perhaps the only time the tourist will see bananas (except possibly on the way to and from the airport) is in a hotel fruit bowl. I was once told by a tour operator who specialises in the Caribbean that he could not recommend his clients go walking in the St Lucian countryside in case they came across “farmers with machetes”. So the ghettoised tourist has to be “protected” from the banana farmers, from members of the host community going about their daily tasks. And when I learned that cruise ships calling at St Lucia are sometimes supplied with bananas out of containers from Venezuela, the gap between producers and consumers seemed even more offensive and absurd.

One of the reasons why Shelley Sacks* project is important is precisely because it demands that consumers make some connections with producers, albeit at a distance of three thousand miles. It pulls people together - it makes links where international forces have done their best to make sure that those logical and human encounters are never made. Of course, there have always been financial links between the Caribbean banana industry and tourism, much as there have always been gaps between producer and consumer. And, as today, that gap is an expression of the shape of international trade. When North American tourists first went to the Caribbean in the last decades of the 19th century, they went on the banana boats of the United Fruit Company (which became one of the largest companies in the world). Bananas went one way and tourists the other, both boosting the fortunes of the United Fruit Company, a prototype, stream-lined, vertically integrated multinational.

These days there are no tourists on the banana boat (“Every banana is a guest, every passenger a pest,” was one slogan), there are just giant cruise ships that can hold two thousand or more passengers. When the Miami-based cruise ships tie up in Castries, St Lucia, they look bloated and vulgar making the white banana boat tied up alongside look small and fragile. One could make similar connection (or comparisons) between the large, plastic-looking “dollar” banana from Latin America and the smaller, more low-tech and vulnerable Windward Island banana.

The banana’s appearance makes for jokes in Europe and North America: of the Euro-specified shape, of banana skins, banana splits and banana republics. Yet in the real Caribbean, banana is just not a joking matter, it is part of the collective imagination. “I look at pig, sometimes I think of goat, sometimes rabbit. But I always see banana,” said one Dominican farmer. He was, in fact, musing on his limited options in the face of low banana prices, but he was also somehow describing a cultural attachment. Evan Jones’ famous poem, Song of the Banana Man, is a hymn of praise to the Caribbean labourer, in response to the sneer of a tourist, it is an anthem of defiance. “Praise God and m’big right han, I will live an die a banana man.”

The image stretches further in another Jones’ poem, called “Lament of the Banana Man”, in which he describes the life of a Caribbean immigrant worker in England without even mentioning a banana.

The colonial links are threaded through the history of the banana industry in the Caribbean. It was, after all, the British who, in the 1930s and 1940s, encouraged the Windward Islands to go into bananas in order to forestall possible social and political unrest in their impoverished colonies. It was a tactically good choice, the accommodating banana could be grown by peasant farmers on small-holdings while, at the same time, exported as raw material to Europe by the British marketing company Geest.

Bananas put a weekly wage into the pockets of the Caribbean farmer, bringing at least in the better years, some spending power to the poorest communities. But that in itself was never able to transform the nature of the Caribbean economy. As in the days of sugar, the Caribbean produced, while the real wealth was made elsewhere. These distortions are a function of the global trading system. But Shelley Sacks “social sculptures” bring us into contact with alternatives, ways in which the gaps can be narrowed and the encounters between consumer and producer be made something more of an equal partnership.

by Renwick Rose, Co-ordinator, Windward Islands Farmers’ Association

Small banana producers in the Caribbean are facing a very uncertain future as threats to their livelihood mount up in the form of international trade disputes and difficulties in the market place. Much of this is related to the nature of banana production in the Caribbean, the structure of international trading arrangements and to the marketing strategies of the giants who control the banana trade at both the wholesale and retail level.

Caribbean banana production, particularly in the Eastern Caribbean (the Windward Islands of Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent) is fundamentally small farmer production. In the Windward Islands about 25,000 farmers cultivate scattered plots, most of them less than 5 acres in size, on steep, hilly terrain. This has great bearing on productivity and quality. By contrast the major competitors of the islands are based in Latin America where production on extensive acreage is highly mechanised, intensive and integrated. Yields from the Latin American plantations, the so-called ‘dollar’ bananas, are, not surprisingly, twice those from the Windward Islands.

Another inherent problem facing the islands concerns their relatively protected status. Banana export from this region, primarily to the United Kingdom, was born, encouraged and developed under preferential circumstances. However, the establishment of the Single European Market in 1993 required harmonisation of European import regulations. After much bickering, trade-offs and lobbying, the Common Organisation of the Marketing of Bananas (COMB) was arrived at, both respecting the EU’s commitment to the Caribbean (under the provisions of the Lome IV Convention), as well as taking initial steps towards the eventual liberalisation of the market.

This arrangement has never been accepted by the giant US banana multi-nationals which control Latin America’s exports. It became the subject of successful challenge before the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Currently a similar action is now before a Disputes Panel of the World Trade Organisation. Should it succeed as well, it would have the effect of prising the market open almost overnight leaving the small producers in the islands prey to market flooding by the giants.

Uncertainty over the future of the industry has already begun to have a negative impact on production in the islands. The number of farmers now producing bananas for export is declining on all the islands. In St Vincent for instance, the 1995 Report of the Banana Association reveals that in that year, only 5,591 of some 13,216 registered growers actually sold bananas for export.

This, together with prices, more often falling than rising - destabilised as the big marketers pursue cut-throat competition - has naturally also affected production. To complicate matters, hurricanes and tropical storms have successively battered the islands (Dominica and St Lucia in particular), over the past years. Compensation is not comprehensive and is, in any case, based on a grower’s production averaged over the previous 2-3 years. Any losses or shortfalls in those years, followed by storm damage after heavy replanting, but before reaping, means little compensation for farmers.

But amidst all this gloom and frustration, the farmers have been trying to find their own way out. Dissatisfaction with the management and representation by the official Banana Associations, too much government control over the industry, mismanagement and inefficiency, as well as low prices, high costs of inputs and no genuine democratic farmer participation, have stimulated farmers to organise.

Independent Banana Committees (IBC) have sprung up. These are encouraged and supported by the Windward Islands Farmers Association, the umbrella body of national farmers’ organisations in the Windward Islands. These IBCs have begun to agitate for stronger defence of the industry, better returns to farmers and a bigger role for farmers in the running of the industry.

WINFA has also been active in seeking alternatives. Among these is the Fair Trade concept for a more direct link between producers and consumers (in Europe) which would bring more direct benefits to small farmers. Already useful contact and co-operation has been developed between WINFA and the European Banana Network, EUROBAN. Fair Trade possibilities and opportunities for niche marketing, including organic production, are amongst the main areas being discussed.

But above all the issue of diversification is the critical one for WINFA. Comprehensive discussions with farmers in all the islands have been used as the basis for a five-year agricultural development plan being pioneered by WINFA. In this, the issue of ‘food security’ is of critical importance.

The banana trade, diversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural uses, the promotion of a form of tourism not integrally linked to agriculture and rural development, foreign influences on life styles and consumption practices, have all undermined ‘food security’ in the Caribbean. In the entire English speaking Caribbean, food imports rose from US $559 million in 1988 to US $695.8 million in 1992.

In the Windward Islands the effects of the growth in food imports is worsened by reduced export earnings. Thus, whereas total agricultural export earnings fell by 13% between 1988 and 1991, food imports skyrocketed by almost 50% in the same period. Included among major food imports are not only meat and fish products, but fruits and vegetables!

These are issues that make it imperative that farmers in the islands organise: for food security, a diversified agricultural industry (including agro processing); and sustainable production to preserve the environment as well as ensuring a greater role for farmers and farmers’ organisations in the development process.

by Jeroen Douglas, Solidaridad, Utrecht, The Netherlands

At the foot of the biggest dam in Africa - the Akosombo Dam - is a banana plantation, on both sides of the Volta river. The plantation is owned by Volta River Estates Ltd (VREL). It contains four idyllically situated farms, each with its own packing station, water pumping machinery and cable-ways. The distance between each of the production sites is about two miles.

The distance between each farm on the estate allows for optimal environmental management. A modern, large-scale company can operate a relatively small-scale production process. The result is that the pest and disease infection rate is low and can be much better controlled. The VREL management were easily able to meet the environmental criteria for bananas developed by Max Havelaar and other European organisations. Pesticide use is only about 20% of the average in Central America. Three of the four major groups of pesticides which are commonly used in plantation production are not required. No chemical herbicides are used, because weeds are controlled mechanically and by hand; no nematicides are used, because the VREL soils are not contaminated with nematodes; the blue plastic sleeves impregnated with insecticides are not allowed. The frequency of fungicide applications against the unavoidable Sigatoka leaf fungus is only 12 times per year. This is in marked contrast with estates in Costa Rica, which have an average aerial spraying cycle of 45 times per growth cycle of 9 months.

Seeking a balance

Aerial spraying of fungicides is especially harmful. There is substantial waste when chemicals are applied so heavily and frequently; the plants cannot benefit from the application before much of it is washed away or dissipated. Recent research has shown the following shocking results: of the total aerial spraying, 15% is lost to wind drift and falls outside the plantation; 40% ends up on soil rather than on the plants; and about 35% is washed away by rain. The negative consequences are notorious and multiple, from severe intoxication of human beings to destruction of local and wider ecosystems.

It is clear that a serious reduction in this environmental damage must be achieved. VREL is therefore currently experimenting with a promising organic and non-toxic fungicide called Nicon-PQ, made of pressed grapefruit pips. Together with a sophisticated method of balanced manuring and recycling of waste, there is no doubt the VREL deserves a remarkably high score for environmental management.

Workers’ share ownership

With the help of a fair price offered by the Fair Trade labelling organisations (40% more than the regular price for VREL bananas), the social conditions can also take quite a leap forward. Wages can be improved by about 25%, and transport facilities, housing and medical care will be improved. After a number of years, the necessary money for these investments will become available. VREL has already developed its own design of ‘banana clipper’, which makes carrying the bunches of fruit much more bearable. The buffer zones near the river banks will be made available by the management for rice production, in order to supplement local production of the staple food.

An important innovation in fair trading is the fact that employees will become shareholders in the company within five years’ time. Therefore, not only will there continue to be periodic consultation between the independent trade union, GAWU, and management, but also the employees will have direct influence over VREL.

Finally, VREL plans to offer its employees logistical and technical support in setting up an ‘out-grower scheme’, a model through which employees can start their own and independent farmers’ company. Once the association of these ‘out-grower’ farmers is formed, it will, for its part, become a shareholder in the existing company. This will make the estate a motor for regional development, where it can serve as a model for sustainable development in Africa, and also hopefully soon for the Caribbean.