KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – As this country prepares to celebrate its 32nd anniversary of Independence on Oct. 27, two lines of the National Anthem may be of especial inspiration to banana farmers: “What e’er the future brings, Our faith will see us through.”
The industry, which has been seriously affected by loss of preferential access to the European market and competition from Central America, has in the past year had to recover from a hurricane that destroyed 98 per cent of crops and black sigatoka, which ran amok because of the inaction of agriculture officials.
And Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves last week heard first-hand some of the challenges confronting agriculture here, where banana, once the “green gold” of the sector, now contributes just 2 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP).
Senior staff of the Ministry of Agriculture, during a meeting broadcast live to the nation, told the Prime Minister of the impediments to their own work, even as they say some farmers have become “impoverished”, “frustrated” and “disillusioned”.
Gonsalves heard that while farmers welcome the EC$2.5 million in assistance he announced on Thursday, many financial institutions were waiting for the money to arrive in farmers’ accounts to settle arrears resulting from loss of income because of black sigatoka.
The disease has triggered premature ripening in fruit exported to the United Kingdom, resulting in as much and 90 per cent of some shipments being rejected in a year when government revenue is down 9 per cent.
Further, the nation learnt last week that 18 per cent of all banana trees here, some 405 acres, had to be cut down, wasting, in some instance, 14-hand bunches of the fruit that generated EC$20 million last year.
According to Sylvester Vanloo, team leader for Banana Extension, if the disease had been controlled, banana exports could have already reached 10,000 boxes per week, less than one year after the devastation of Hurricane Tomas.
He emphasised the importance of irrigation to the banana sector but said, “The state of the Irrigation Unit and Department now is one that we have to seriously address …”
Vanloo explained that irrigation lines need replacing and the 1990s technology should be revamped.
“Some farmers have become disillusioned, especially in terms of using this technology,” he said and asserted that the Ministry needed to “go back to the drawing board” as far as irrigation is concerned.
But while Vanloo spoke of the technical aspects of the sector, Henry Keizer, general manager of WINFAM Investments Ltd. and the Inputs Warehouse, highlighted “the economic aspect of things”.
“… at the moment farmers are frustrated. They are at the crossroads. We have to go out there … and, with the income support and other forms of assistance, restore confidence in the farmers,” he said.
He further noted, “food cultivation and agriculture is the beginning of all human processes” adding, “And once we bear that in mind, we can really chart the way for us.”
But while Keizer said that farmers were “raring to go as soon as this compensation package is released,” he also mentioned that financial institutions were also awaiting the deposits.
“All of the farmers are owing. They have drained all their resources and while the income support is for the purpose of … replanting banana fields, if it goes into the bank account … it will not serve the purpose for which it was intended,” he explained.
Keizer asked Gonsalves to ask financial institutions to give farmers some leeway. “The banks are not charitable institutions,” the Prime Minister responded. “Farmers who take their monies, the banks expect them to put something toward it,” he continued.
“But I would think that the banks would be sensitive and if we approach them,” added Gonsalves even as the audience chorused “Sensitive?”
Gonsalves, however, said he would try to arrange a meeting with bankers this week.
The challenges presented by Hurricane Tomas were further compounded this year when agriculture officials, between March and July, failed to order oil for the spraying of diseased banana trees.
Agriculture Minister Montgomery Daniel suggested in Parliament recently that the oil was not ordered as a result of a plot to undermine his Ministry and bring down the Unity Labour Party government, which has a one-seat majority.
But a well-placed source, speaking on condition of anonymity, described a Ministry of Agriculture were senior technical staff “fight for hours on trivial matters”.
The source said “everyone thought everything was under control” and the “fault” for black sigatoka episode “rest firmly on the shoulders of the Permanent Secretary and his assistant”.
“… The Chief Agricultural Officer and the Team Leader for Banana Extension had everything in place: the source for the oil, contact was made, the invoice was sent. It was just for the money to be paid,” the source said.
According to the source, the Permanent Secretary informed Ministry staff that the arrangements had been made to pay for the oil.
“It was later that he realised that the order to pay was still on the desk of his assistant,” the source said.
“It was gross negligence on the part of the administrators. … I think the ministry’s staff is a little too comfortable. And I would say, if it were any place else someone, would lose their jobs,” the source added.
Meanwhile, Senior Extension Officer Seithroy Edwards told the meeting last week that while agriculture officials are “often bombarded with innuendos that they are lazy”, the non-banana sector is contributing more and more to the GDP.
In fact, the non-banana sector, in recent times, has been contributing more to GDP than the 2 per cent of banana.
“We, in the Extension Department, have a commitment to see this upward trend continue,” Edwards said but added that he was concerned about the infrastructure at the agricultural stations.
“It is an issue I believe we really need to address if we are going to continue that upward momentum in terms of the non-banana sector,” Edwards observed.
He was especially concerned about the propagation and office facilities in Dumbarton but spared the meeting the embarrassment of the specifics.
“I don’t think this is a meeting for the specifics,” he offered.
Gonsalves, responding to this concern, said he hopes that the Ministry of Agriculture, in its budget submissions this year, “rather than throwing the whole kitchen sink and go with a hit and miss” will identify areas that need special and immediate attention.
Other speakers at the meeting were concerned that legitimate farmers were removed from the income support list.
One speaker said that the two sacks of fertilizer per acre, announced as part of the assistance programme, would not be enough for high-density farms.
He further noted that the assistance package, which includes money, fertilizer, seedlings and livestock, did not include pesticides and that some agriculture officials have been working for two years without job descriptions.
A member of the Banana Unit told Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance, of the problems they were having receiving their travel allowance.
“Prime Minister, we’d like to get these things addressed because it is very tight. … We need to get that money. Since June we haven’t received a cent for travelling. … I mean it is time,” he pleaded.
And while Gonsalves, said he will try to resolve the situation, he added, somewhat light-heartedly: “What I want you to do for me, not in this forum, nationally, I want you to say, ‘De Comrade working very hard; De Comrade deserves an increase.”
Marcus Richards, a research scientist at the Plant Protection and Quarantine Unit inquired about replacement vehicles for the Ministry.
He said that while Gonsalves had observed that the Ministry of Agriculture has the most vehicles per square meter, consideration should be given to the age of some of these vehicles.
“It impacts on efficiency, especially given the frequency of breakdown and the cost of maintenance,” Richards said.
According to Richards, the work of the Ministry is hampered by one of the “small issue”, which Gonsalves have repeated said, public service should get right.
The “small issue” at the Plant Protection and Quarantine Unit was a leak problem that that puts EC$1 million in equipment at risk, according to Richards.
Gonsalves told the agriculture officials that things were not “easy”, economically.
“… when you turn up on the 29th or 30th of any month, you know your money [is] inside of your account. … I know many countries in the Caribbean, you turn up at the bank at the end of the month and the money ain’t there,” he said.
“But we have been able to hold it and that is why we got to really work harder,” he added even as he said reliability of the market and the tradition of the skills are some of the issues affecting the banana industry.
He, however, said “… bananas excite passion in a way that tomatoes do not”.
But Keizer, the WINFAM executive, noted that farmer have been “a very resilient bunch”.
“They are quick to respond to things and as bad as things are now, there are some farmers who are even looking for tissue culture plants,” he told the meeting.
“Farmers realise that there’s not just guaranteed income that you get from bananas but, unlike dasheen and other agricultural produce, bananas is on-going. Almost every fortnight there is an income that you can get from bananas,” he further said.