KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent — Vincentians, especially banana farmers, are being called upon to make their voices heard on the government’s management of banana industry as exports of the fruit to the United Kingdom dwindled to 180 cartons in eight weeks.
Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar told Parliament last month that between the weeks ending Jan. 27 and March 16, this country exported 10,474 cartons of bananas, only 180 of which were shipped to the United Kingdom, the main export market, while the others were sold within the Caribbean.
He said the reduced production was anticipated in the wake of natural disasters and diseases that have affected the banana sector over the past year.
“Just think about that,” Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace said at a press conference on Tuesday of the 180 boxes of the fruit shipped to the United Kingdom.
“That is the state of our banana industry today. And we all know what that has arisen from. We all know of the failure of the Ministry of Agriculture to deal with the question of black sigatoka in any meaningful manner. And today, we are paying that price,” Eustace said of the disease that ran amok amid government inaction last year.
He said that the sub-region’s contract with buyers in the United Kingdom could be in jeopardy as bananas were being bought from the Dominican Republic to meet contractual arrangements.
“And it is high time that the public and the farmers in particular of this country make their voices heard on this issue,” Eustace said, adding that his information suggests that this country exported bananas to the United Kingdom three or four times this year.
“And we recall the discussion and argument we had over the suspension of Vincentian bananas and the Prime Minister said they were not suspended. But he has since suspended them because no bananas are in fact going to the United Kingdom,” Eustace said.
The Dr. Ralph Gonsalves-led Unity Labour Party administration went on the defensive last November after Eustace Communications Consultant in the Office of the Prime Minister Elson Crick announced that banana exports from this country had been suspended.
Gonsalves and a Winfarm executive later said that was not the case and export of the fruit continued uninterrupted the following week.
“We need in this country to deal with the issue of agriculture and particularly bananas in a more serious way,” Eustace said, asking if any government officials had gone to England “to try and meet with those who buy our bananas to give them some assurance for the future of the industry”.
“You don’t think it is wise for us to meet with the supermarkets and explain our present circumstances? Has anybody done that?” he further said, adding that ministerial delegations, including heads of government, have in the past gone to England and to meet with supermarket owners and reassure them of government’s commitment to the industry.
“Can we afford to lose the U.K. market? Do we think that the regional market could suffice us in the future?” Eustace said, adding that bananas from Suriname were being sold in Trinidad and Barbados at lower cost than Vincentian fruit.
“I understand recently they have asked us to drop our price by another five cents per pound,” he said and asked how farmers were going to survive on the reduced income.
“So what you are going to do? Bankrupt the NIS (National Insurance Service) to give farmers a pension who have not contributed to the NIS?
“You are doing that because people cannot earn income from it (banana farming) now in any meaningful way. And I am calling on this government to take this industry more seriously than it does,” Eustace further said.
He said the government has taken over all the assets and liabilities of the banana association but no audit has been done.
“Nobody knows whether in fact the assets are more than the liabilities. … It could very well be. The farmers no longer own those assets. They’re not getting money from the joint venture. So what’s going to happen? Do we seriously believe that agriculture and bananas can continue at the rate it is going now today?”
Eustace said that responsibility for the spraying of bananas plants against disease must be returned from the Cabinet to the farmers.
He said that the market protection that Windward island farmers enjoy is being eroded by the low production, adding that the quantities of the fruit exported from Dominica and St. Lucia have also fallen because of black sigatoka.
“So a comprehensive look needs to be taken about the industry with a view to putting it on a forward path,” Eustace said.
He said that tourism was “not doing so well either” and he believes that the country has the capacity to deal more effectively with the banana industry.