Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar (File photo).

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – While agriculture officials are “seeing the light” at the end of the tunnel regarding the impact of diseases on local banana cultivation, export of the fruit from this country continues to be low, with an average of 728 boxes exported each of the first seven weeks of this year.

And newly appointed Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar will today go into the field in solidarity with farmers and members of his staff who are engaged in a “massive cutback programme”, his ministry having identified about 350 acres of abandoned fields “which is definitely a significant source of inoculum”.

Caesar told Parliament on Tuesday that the Ministry of Agriculture on Monday began “Operation Cut Back” and will be adopting a “scientific approach” to correcting the situation, as the quality of fruit exported remains “low”.

Caesar, in response to a question from Member of Parliament for North Leeward and shadow minister for agriculture, Roland “Patel” Matthews, said that the situation with the banana sector is one of national importance.

The Unity Labour Party administration, Caesar said, is “working in the best possible way” along with non-governmental organisations and farmers to deal with the issues arising from “the devastating impact” of black signatoka that ran amok last year amid inaction by the Ministry of Agriculture, then headed by Montgomery Daniel.

“I just want farmers to rest assured that we are doing the best that we can with the resources that we have and that the light is at the end of the tunnel. We are seeing the light,” Caesar said.

He said that the quality of fruits exported regionally and extra-regionally during the last quarter of 2011 was “low” and the situation continued into the first seven weeks of 2012.

“The low quality is as a consequence of the moko and black sigatoka diseases and of course the traditional mechanical damage to the fruits during harvesting and transportation,” he said, emphasizing the contribution of mechanical damage.

“There has been no improvement in fruit quality so far in 2012. With respect to the quantity of bananas exported, there has been a steady decline,” he told lawmakers.

For each of the first seven weeks of this year, this country exported 1,393, 527, 1,035, 581, 960, 225, and 379 boxes of bananas each week, respectively, a total of 5,090 boxes.

“The reduction in the volumes, Mr. Speaker, … was foreseen since over 434 acres, or 303,800 … mature and bearing bananas [plants], affected by the disease, were cut back last October and November. … So it is a natural consequence that we will have a fall off in the quantities for export,” Caesar said.

He, however, said that the “general fall off in quantity” is not attributable to disease. “Because I don’t want persons who are attempting to be malicious, who would want to say that is it basically black sigatoka and moko that brought bananas to the situation where it is today,” Caesar said, while acknowledging that disease has had “a significant and devastating impact”.

He, however, noted the contribution of changes in European Union trade policy regarding importation of the fruit from the region in 1993, a ruling of the World Trade Union Dispute Panel, and the impact of Global Good Agricultural Practices protocols, which resulted in 1,200 Vincentians farmers leaving the industry.

“Therefore, the results that we are seeing are a culmination of those factors,” Caesar said as he noted also the impact of the drought and Hurricane Tomas in 2010 and the floods of April last year.

He also noted the presence of black sigatoka in St. Lucia and in Australia. “When the disease intensified in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, when you listened the news, when you followed the newspaper, many persons looked at the opportunity as a political opportunity.

“Instead of looking at the issue in a more scientific way, persons were calling for resignation here, resignations there and the general cut and thrust of politics really, I think, Mr. Speaker, got the better of many persons. But, Mr. Speaker, currently, the banana industry in St. Lucia is under significant threat,” Caesar said.

Farmers and opposition politicians, including Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace called on Daniel to resign as Minister of Agriculture as his ministry failed for four months to conduct aerial spraying against the disease although the Ministry of Finance had approved the funds.

“There is no Unity Labour Party in Australia. … The Honourable Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, he is not the prime minister of St. Lucia. … It is very important and it is very significant that every single banana farmer that we understand and appreciate the importance of the bananas which are sources of the inoculum,” Caesar said.

He added that some citizens have disease plants in their backyard gardens, thereby compounding the situation. “What happens next is that the government would be spending large amounts of money to conduct the spraying but if you do not do your individual parts, then it would definitely be an exercise in futility. Every single farmer, we have to ensure that we assist in the cutting back process and we work hand in hand.”

Caesar said that he has held consultations and meting with WINFRESH, WINFARM, and the National Fairtrade organisation and will soon meet with SVG Agro Producers. “Because this is something we definitely need a national effort if we are to control the spread of the disease,” Caesar further said, noting the importance of “proper farming practices”.

“I am putting the politics out of it and looking at the science of the disease,” Caesar further told lawmakers, as he announced that he had written to the University of the West Indies, Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute

and the Food and Agriculture Organisation for assistance in combating the disease.

“Because I think that the devastating impact that black sigatoka is having on the agricultural sector of the sub-region is sufficient enough for the Ministers of Agriculture in the sub-region to address this issues at the sub-regional level.”

He said that significant work would continue in the next six weeks as cutback and education on the disease continue.

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