Can governments save banana industry?

“Just think for a moment and ask yourself how would this Government or any other Government benefit from destroying an industry which has contributed so much to the overall development of our country. Why would any Government want increased unemployment and a loss of export revenue? None of these are desirable nor do they serve the interest of our long-term development.”

The above is an excerpt from the transcript of one of the sessions of the Prime Minister’s weekly radio address (Conversations with the Nation) entitled “Yesterday Bananas, Today Sugar: What’s Next?” This session was aired in August 2005. While it may be true that no government will knowingly destroy the livelihood of its citizen, a failure to act, a miscalculated intervention and the reluctance to accept blame and make amends, will inevitably lead to this end.  There has been a drastic decline in the number of banana farmers over the years, with about 9600 farmers in 1993 to an estimated 1500 in 2011.                  There has also been a significant decline in banana production and earnings, with what result? A poverty assessment report in 2005/ 2006 indicated that the fall in banana earnings was a main cause and sustaining factor of poverty in St. Lucia. The report went on to say that the falling banana earnings have hurt the farming sector and smaller farmers in particular. Furthermore, given the relationship of the industry to other sectors, the decline has had a ripple effect on other areas of the economy, inducing poverty beyond the agricultural sector. Regrettably, the number of farmers and earnings may continue to decline. There is therefore urgent need for government intervention either in halting this process or by putting systems in place to deal with the problems that will surface with the further destruction of the banana industry. To this end, a review of past decisions and interventions in the banana industry will prove beneficial as it will assist the government in avoiding pitfalls and building on successes. Let’s review the most recent interventions and proposals.
In the wake of hurricane Tomas in 2010, the government invested heavily towards the resuscitation of the banana industry. As a first step towards recovery, farmers were encouraged to chop affected plants for which they were compensated.  Over one million dollars was further invested in providing fertilizers to banana farmers to facilitate plant growth and fruit development. The government and the banana companies also entered into some arrangements for the treatment of leafspot (black and yellow Sigatoka) disease (the details of which are yet to be clarified) which brought about remarkable disease control. This satisfactory disease control coupled with the plant vigour obtained from the government financed fertilizer programme were visible signs of an optimistic future for the banana industry. However, some contractors employed to apply the recommended treatments refused to apply further treatment since there were delays in payment for already rendered services; a consequence of the poor arrangements.  This action by the contractors as well as the subsequent shortage of spray materials eroded much of the progress of the previous months. This loose arrangement for disease control meant that the funds invested by the government in both the fertilizer and spray programmes did not bring about a commensurable outcome since many farmers could not sell bananas which were now affected by the disease. This was further compounded by a quota\allocation system being managed by the National Fairtrade Organization (NFTO) which seemingly had no correlation with actual production. In fact, farmers were given allocations that were way below their production levels. Regrettably there seems to have been no sound arrangement between Winfresh (of which the Government is a shareholder) and the NFTO to purchase and market the bananas that would become available as a result of the assistance given by the government. Sadly, many farmers and their dependents have to suffer much longer as the bumper harvest that seemed so close at hand was snatched away overnight.
Since most farmers have not received any meaningful income since the passage of hurricane Tomas, they are currently not financially able to procure the materials needed for leafspot disease control. The government has once again financed a treatment programme providing each producer (including plantain farmers) with materials for two (2) treatment applications. To date, discussions with banana farmers indicate that members of the NFTO are being given priority and while some have already received the second application, many farmers have not received the first. Further, many are concerned that there may be a shortage of spray materials since more farmers than anticipated have come forward. Of greater concern however, is the fact that these two (2) treatment applications will not keep the disease under control in order to produce marketable fruits, hence the situation will remain more or less the same, with many farmers still not being able to treat their farms beyond the government financed applications. How then can the Government ensure that its support to the industry yields satisfactory results? Firstly, the government needs to be realistic and therefore support realistic and practical interventions. Secondly, each player should be given clear, specific and measurable tasks for which they must be held accountable. Thirdly, there must be effective monitoring in order to provide feedback for making timely adjustments when and where necessary.
Another recent or re-invented programme also worthy of consideration is the Banana Industry Productivity Enhancement Action Plan, soon to be implemented. As part of its efforts to assist African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP), the European Union (EU) is offering further assistance under what it terms “the Banana Accompanying Measures”.  The banana industry stakeholders have met to discuss how best to use this possible last lump of EU funds to assist the industry. The supposed plan is to select about 500 farmers deemed to be more productive from the estimated 1,500 to produce bananas to supply the United Kingdom (UK) market.  These are to be provided with the requisite financial and technical assistance to improve their productivity to what is deemed necessary for survival on the international market. The NFTO and Winfresh are the major players in the delivery of services to these farmers. The remaining farmers will be dealt with by the government which will develop a programme to assist them to improve their operations in producing bananas for the local and regional markets. It was further highlighted that these farmers will have the opportunity to graduate to the selected group once they begin to meet the standards. Interestingly, while there is a plan detailing how the 500 farmers will be given assistance, there is nothing to indicate how the others will be assisted though the two proprammes should be running in tandem for optimal results.
In fact, this approach was suggested some years ago. WIBDECO, now Winfresh, had developed a blueprint and in an apparent move to force it upon farmers, there seemed to have been a consensus among the stakeholders to withhold all forms of assistance to banana farmers. In so doing, while many of those farmers deemed unfit were indeed flushed-out, many of the favoured or large producers were however not willing to invest their savings in their farms thus they also exited the industry. This may have contributed to the sharp decline in the number of farmers over the years. However, several small farmers stayed the course as there was no other available or viable option. Having said this, a strategic action plan was developed by WIDBECO\Winfresh in 2006 and had certain components of this plan been implemented, the industry without a doubt, would have been in a better position today. Is it possible that the re-introduction of this approach could have the same results? Well, WIBDECO\Winfresh has an outstanding record of reneging on its promises and the NFTO has a stark legacy of chronic mismanagement. If this programme fails, the farmers and the government will be the ones most affected. So then how can the government ensure that this programme, if it does support it, succeeds? In addition to the aforementioned suggestions, since there appears to be a consensus on the need to provide the more productive farmers with financial and technical support, then it is only logical that the government will ensure that the smaller producers who are worse-off will receive similar support under its patronage. Given the anticipated risks associated with Winfresh and the NFTO, the role of these players should be revisited and all measures must be put in place to mitigate these and other foreseeable risks. So, can the government improve on the effectiveness of its support to the banana industry? Yes, but it requires proper planning and the involvement of the beneficiaries throughout. Additionally, it would require unwavering courage as it might mean going against popular, illogical and entrenched opinions as well as egotistic and stern characters.  The success of the government in this regard should be of interest to all as it would avoid an increase in unemployment and more importantly, poverty, which affects us all in one way or another.

—SIPÒ. Advocacy and Support Group/ Email:

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