KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – WINFARM Manager Henry Keizer last Monday received from Winfresh chief executive officer Bernard Cornibert an email proposing that banana exports from this country to the United Kingdom be suspended.
The email was a following up to a conversation Keizer had with Cornibert and Winfresh operations director Dr. Errol Reid on the heels of a shipment of bananas from this country is which 66 per cent of fruits “were not good”.
Cornibert, wanting to take action on the issue, contacted Keizer. But Keizer, knowing that “when Bernard Cornibert is hot, he behaves like that … allowed the issue to basically drop,” Agriculture Minister Montgomery Daniel last night quoted Keizer as saying in a meeting after a proposal to suspend the export of Vincentian bananas became public on Thursday.
Based on Daniel’s statement at the Unity Labour Party (ULP) rally last night, Cornibert allowed the issue to “just drop” although an Oct. 30 meeting of the consultative committee on bananas heard that while fruit from St. Lucia and Dominica also had quality problems, the situation was at its worst here.
The 13 per cent of ripe and turning fruits — a consequence of black sigatoka — was not the only problem affecting Vincentian bananas, according to Daniel.
Some 20 per cent of fruit were over grade, chip accounted for 8 per cent, while a further 5 per cent was affected by crown rot, a condition that is “not acceptable at all in banana production,” Daniel said.
The Vincentian committee “made certain decisions” and mandated Daniel to discuss at a Winfresh directors meeting last Tuesday, the issue of Sunday as the shipment day in Kingstown, which was changed from Monday and Tuesday ten years ago.
At the Winfresh meeting, Dr. Reid was designated to work with the Windward Island farmers to ensure quality is improved.
“I want to say to you that no time at all did the matter of suspension of bananas from St. Vincent cam to be discussed at the meeting,” Daniel said.
Therefore, when the minister was first informed around midday Thursday of radio reports that banana exports from St. Vincent were suspended, he dismissed it as “a political game”.
But, after receiving a second call, Daniel met with Keizer, along with head of the Banana Unit Sylvester Vanloo, and Chief Agricultural Officer Reuben Robertson.
It was then that Keizer informed Daniel that Reid and Cornibert had called after 66 per cent of bananas were “not good”.
Daniel said Cornibert told him that the suspension idea was just a proposal and that he would have informed the minister, had a decision been taken.
“Now, my concern is this: It is unfortunate that a letter is on the airwaves indicating that there is a suspension of bananas, when that is not so. It is a proposal; it is a discussion that was going on. … Why in heaven would people take things out of context for their own political mischief?” Daniel said.
“Comrades, that is what happened,” Daniel said, adding that neither Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace, who first spoke of the suspension, nor the media, contacted him to clarify on the issue.
“I find such actions very irresponsible for a leader and for someone who wants prime minister of this country,” he further stated.
“I want to think that such a situation having arisen, that you would want to have your fact straight before you go to the public,” he said.
But Daniel, like all of the speakers at the rally, ignored the contribution of Elson Crick, communications consultant in the Office of the Prime Minister, to the national scare.
Eustace and Crick both said, moments apart on separate radio stations, that exports had been ‘suspended’.
“There is an issue. Banana quality has gone down. Exports have been suspended – I don’t know for how long – but the matter is being addressed behind the scenes. I suspect that at some time the Ministry of Agriculture will make a release … Until it is sorted out, I don’t know what is the hue and cry,” Crick said on the pro-ULP “Shake-up” on WE FM.
Eustace had told listeners of the New Democratic Party sponsored “New Times” programme on NICE Radio that he understood that sometime in the New Year “an assessment would be made of our situation here on the ground and a decision would be then taken as to when we will be able to ship again”.
Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves later appeared on “Shake-up” and refuted the reports of the suspension. He read an email from Cornibert, which said that on banana exports would continue as usual.
Daniel last night read the Nov. 8 letter, made public by Eustace on Friday, but did not read the email Cornibert sent Keizer on Nov. 7.
Cornibert on Friday told I-Witness News that the letter was a proposal.
But many Vincentians have pointed to the phrasing of the letter, which seems peculiar for a proposal.
“I write to confirm our proposal that WINFARM temporarily suspends the delivery of bananas to Winfresh effective Load Week 46, while it implements corrective actions aimed [at] resolving the ongoing quality problems,” Cornibert wrote.
He ended the letter by saying: “In the circumstances, Winfresh will require that WINFARM demonstrate that bananas meet market requirements, particularly in respect of productive quality, before resumption of exports.”
Cornibert also told I-Witness News of the many problems that Winfresh face marketing bananas from SVG.
In the short term, we (Winfresh) are going to do what we said we will do but in the longer term, we can’t continue like this. We can’t continue indefinitely to buy a product and throw it away,” he said.
Following is the full text of Cornibert’s Nov. 8 letter to Keizer:
SUSPENSION OF BANANA DELIVERIES TO WINFRESH – EFFECTIVE LOAD WEEK 45
Following our discussion last week on the serious and extensive quality problems affecting bananas supplied by WINFARM over the past several weeks, “I write to confirm our proposal that WINFARM temporarily suspends the delivery of bananas to Winfresh effective Load Week 46, while it implements corrective actions aimed are [at] resolving the ongoing quality problems.
Marketing of bananas delivered by WINFARM has been severely hindered by very severe quality problems since exports resumed earlier this year. Despite the serious nature of the problem and the enormous losses resulting from it, the situation continued to deteriorate to the point were it is now virtually impossible to sell the bananas. The quality problems have undoubtedly affected the shipment volume, which has now fallen to a level where it is no longer viable. The inability of Winfresh to recover the ex-works cost of the bananas, let alone other direct cost, such as shipping, ripening and distribution costs, has resulted in the Company incurring significant and unsustainable financial losses.
In the circumstances, Winfresh will require that WINFARM demonstrate that the bananas meet market requirements, particularly in respect of productive quality, before resumption of exports.
We look forward to your continued cooperation.
Following is the email sent to Prime Minister Gonsalves by Cornibert on Thursday, Nov. 11
Dear Prime Minister
Further to our discussion today, this is to confirm that:
a) Winfresh will continue to receive bananas next week in St Vincent as normal;
b) Payment for the bananas will be on firm contractual basis, i.e. not on consignment; and
c) The Government of St Vincent & the Grenadines undertakes to work with the local banana industry to do everything possible to resolve the fruit quality problems as swiftly as possible.
d) The situation will be reviewed in the next few weeks
determine if and what further actions are necessary.