KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Minister of Agriculture Montgomery Daniel said yesterday that he accepts “responsibility” but not “blame” for the late order of oil needed to treat bananas affected by the black sigatoka disease, which has further ravaged the nation’s ailing banana industry.
“As Ministry of Agriculture … I have to accept the responsibility but I am not going to accept the blame. I will not take the blame. The ministry has its officials. They have their work to do. They must do their work,” Daniel said.
The Member of Parliament for North Windward detailed at a Unity Labour Party rally in Sandy Bay the developments that led to the oil being ordered four months later than expected.
During that period, black sigatoka, commonly called “leaf spot disease” locally, further curtailed banana cultivation even as the sector struggles to recover from last November’s Hurricane Tomas.
In June, this country exported bananas to the United Kingdom for the first time since the storm destroyed 98 per cent of the nation’s banana plants.
And even then, farmers struggled with quality issues as black sigatoka triggered premature ripening of fruits shipped to Europe even as Windward Islands farmers try to stave off competition from Ecuador.
Daniel said that Ecuador, which is expected to produce 160 million boxes of banana this year, six million more than last year, is advocating an OPEC-type banana cartel.
“I want to say to you, it is a challenge within the agricultural sector today. Right in the ministry, there are serious challenges. On the international front … since 2001, we have lost the preferential market that we had. So we have to be competitive and … in order to be competitive, we have to produce a quality banana that can be sold,” he said.
Daniel, a banana farmer, said that the Ministry of Finance in April approved the funds for the aerial spraying of banana plants affected by black sigatoka.
He said that he was informed that his staff prepared the documents and sent them to the Ministry of Finance, headed by Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves. At the end of May, Daniel asked for an update on the funds and his staff told him that the documents were filed with the Ministry of Finance but were yet to be processed.
He inquired again one month later and was given “almost the same answer”. In June, Daniel went to the Ministry of Finance and the Budget Director told the minister he would see what could be done.
However, in July, the Director of Finance told the Agriculture Minister that he was still awaiting the documents from the agriculture officials.
Even then, Daniel’s permanent secretary told him that the documents had been sent to the Finance Ministry. But two days later, the permanent secretary apologized to the minister and informed him that the documents were found on the desk of a staff member, two months after they should have been sent to the Ministry of Finance.
Daniel said that he asked his staff for a report on the delay and had the situation rectified by the end of July and the oils were ordered in August.
However, the situation was further compounded when the oil, which should have arrived in St. Vincent on Sept. 20 from Miami, was further delayed by storms in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil is expected to arrive today, with spraying to commence on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Gonsalves told Vincentians in New York on Saturday that agriculture officials “dropped the ball on the issue of black sigatoka”.
On Friday, several farmers picketed the Ministry of Agriculture and demanded compensation for their crops. But, according to Daniel, many of the demonstrators were not serious about the survival of the banana industry.
“For the stakeholders who came … some of them have no interest because they did not see themselves with the recommendations coming forward. All they ware interested in is their own political view as relates to their political party,” he said.
Daniel further said that the meeting had agreed to wait for eight recommendations to be approved by the Prime Minister, who was out of state.
“And yet the major agitators found themselves at the Ministry of Agriculture on Friday, indicating that they are demonstrating …” Daniel said, adding that one placard said he should demit office.
Banana industry stakeholders are to meet with the Prime Minister next week as the Ministry of Finance prepares the national budget for next year.
Daniel said that the banana industry would continue to be important to St. Vincent and the Grenadines even as his government diversifies the agricultural sector around the crop.