Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves says that any person or entity promising to return the banana industry to the dominance it enjoyed three decades ago is talking “foolishness”.
“People who are telling you that they will take St. Vincent and the Grenadines back to the heyday of bananas, as it was in the 1990s, the farming community know they’re taking foolishness, they know they are talking foolishness. But what happened is this: John Compton won with that against Kenny Anthony in 2006-2007…” he told a press conference in Kingstown on Thursday.
“Can John Compton reverse World Trade Organisation? Can he reverse trade liberalisation? It is just a lot of foolishness,” Gonsalves said, referring to the late St. Lucian prime minister.
The prime minister said the preferences that Windward Islands’ bananas enjoyed in the 1990s have all been eliminated.
“A banana, a finger of banana in the market here is more expensive than a finger of banana in Sainsbury or Asda supermarket in London,” he said.
Bananas cheaper in England than SVG
A person buying a finger of banana in Kingstown can pay as much as EC$0.50 for it.
“So you have to subsidise the bananas if you want to grow them. You have to subsidise there in England, but that ain’t happening, because the subsidies are cut out or you have to subsidise them here.”
Gonsalves said his government is subsidising banana cultivation because it is putting in cheaper inputs and dealing with the spraying of black sigatoka disease.
“But I tell you, if you have to subsidise it to the extent that is required to compete in the British market, you will bankrupt the place. And it’s not sustainable.”
He said that Jamaica, Belize, Dominica and Grenada had found this out and St. Lucia is coming to that realisation.
“and you get a lot of foolishness talk to you about what is happening in St. Lucia,” Gonsalves said.
He was speaking two weeks after Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday used the 40th convention of his New Democratic Party to promise farmers that help is on the way.
Friday said that in 2000, before Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party came to power, the banana industry was operated and managed by Vincentian farmers and banana exports contributed EC$28 million dollars to the nation’s GDP.
He said the industry’s contribution has declined to less than EC$1 million annually.
“It did not have to be that way. Look at St. Lucia, where the management of the banana industry remained in the hands of farmers and the industry is growing and doing well,” Friday said.
A role for bananas in SVG
Gonsalves admitted that there is a role for bananas in the Vincentian economy.
“… but we have to make sure to have bananas for ourselves and for the tourists who come and for the regional market. And even there, we have competition,” he told the media.
“Of course, we can get it for special arrangement to the United Kingdom. So be it. But a generalised market, you’re not going to have that that.
“Therefore, if you are going to manage the transition and develop your country economically, what do you do in the case of the absence of preferences?”
The prime minister said that after the effective dismantling of preferences, the difficulty Dominica and SVG face are that neither country “had at the time of the end of the banana preferences a realistic end.
“None of us had the tourism infrastructure. We didn’t have, for instance, international airports,” Gonsalves said.
He said his government had to build quickly a jet airport in Canouan and then an international airport in St. Vincent.
“You have to build them before you get the requisite hotel stock. And while you are doing that, I have to prepare people for the developmental journey, which means you have to educate them, thus the education revolution.
“You see, when fellas were dealing with banana preferences and feeling comfortable with that, they could have had 60 per cent of the 12-year-olds not attending secondary school because they could shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Well, yeah. They ha’ banana hole to dig.”
However, later in the same press conference, Gonsalves said it is important to stay with the banana industry.
“And there are some farmers at the moment who have some fantastic banana fields. Up in the [Marriaqua] Valley, for instance, but not only there, and we have to continue.
“But, please, let us — the opposition must stop this nonsense about bananas coming back to the heyday or near to the heyday. Every week you have a banana boat coming here and tekking (taking) [fruit] and on an annual basis, they can do 30,000 tonnes. Come on. You know what I mean,” the prime minister said as he kissed his teeth.
“Let’s cut the nonsense and be serious,” the prime minister said.