What happens when Green Gold loses its luster?
The answer lies in Saint Lucia’s current experiences of trying to stop its once-thriving banana industry from heading for the graveyard.
For decades, banana exports have been the island’s main source of export and an industry that has touched and positively changed the lives of nearly every Saint Lucian. The banana industry was then called “green gold”.
But not anymore – not after the Bill Clinton administration (in the mid-1990s) successfully petitioned the World Trade Organization (WTO) to rule against European preferential treatment of Caribbean bananas, on behalf of multinational corporations. American bananas in Central America.
Trade with the UK has seen an unending fall in the first two decades of the 21st century, with UK supermarkets naturally opting for cheaper Central American fruit and Caribbean bananas being out of the market while officials of trade on both sides of the Atlantic offered more excuses than efforts to find solutions, ultimately opting for the gradual elimination of the Windward Islands from the market.
Saint Lucia has always been by far the leading windward producer and even after the complete withdrawal of the other three islands, previous governments have kept the industry alive, with the island being the only export to the UK, until in 2016.
The new administration in 2016 promised early solutions, including immediate access to the French market via Martinique, but that never happened, with the industry instead continuing the earlier descent that had previously erased the most splinters. sparkles of green gold.
The next new administration in 2021 has promised to try again to revive exports to the UK, but also to seek and find new ways to solve old banana problems.
The current administration – now just 15 months old – inherited a collapsed banana industry after trade with the UK was halted for two years.
According to the latest report from the Ministry of Agriculture: The essential infrastructure necessary for the efficient operation of the industry has been dismantled; the main banana exporting company WIBDECO/Winfresh Ltd. was placed under guardianship; key assets such as the Stanstead ripening plant (UK); and Winfresh’s stake in shipping company Geest was sold to third parties to meet debt payment.
The local producer-based farmers’ organization, NFTO, faced with financial losses and technical challenges, forcibly assumed responsibility for the commercial arm of the trade, without the necessary resources and expertise.
The new administration established a loan facility to inject $3.8m into the NFTO and the minister led a delegation to the UK to meet with supermarket representatives on how best to resume trade and finalize the relationship contracts with local farmers.
In early May, a technical delegation from the United Kingdom traveled to Saint Lucia to determine the island’s readiness and trade resumed on 15 May.
The government continued to subsidize inputs such as oils and fertilizers to farmers and pursued other regional markets, but the long-term impact of COVID on the supply chain and the ongoing war in Ukraine presented major challenges that still threaten the industry, such as high shipping costs (US $8,200 per container – and rising), plus fuel costs.
The rising cost and long journey time of local bananas to reach the UK proved uncompetitive with other suppliers, particularly from Central America.
Stakeholders eventually reviewed the state of the banana trade to assess the business case and the Minister announced this week:
“The contracting parties, NFTO and the UK supermarket chain, have now informed the Government that they have mutually agreed to suspend trade as they monitor the current situations affecting trade in both the Caribbean and the UK ” – and “As soon as both parties are convinced that it is profitable to continue, then the trade will be activated.
And there was the last flash on Green Gold…
Fortunately, as the minister acknowledges, “newly developed regional markets are showing signs of progress and growth and bananas originally destined for the UK market will now be diverted to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) market and weekly trade will be maintained. “.
The decision to tap into the regional market is positive and progressive, but sad that it took the loss of the UK market to lead to what should have been natural.
From the pre-independence era, Calixte George and Cyril Matthews (permanent secretaries in the Ministry of Agriculture), David Demacque and others in the direction of execution), concerned above all with the interests of farmers, went -out of their way to warn against overreliance on single shipment to Europe and push for local and regional diversification, using every other nutritional, manufacturing and other aspect added value of banana.
The Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), since its inception, has also offered all the scientific elements and practical means to increase the production and income capacity of the banana industry, to then be largely ignored.
But it’s only now, at the start of the second quarter of the 21st century, that industry players have realized that Caribbean citizens love ripe bananas even more than Europeans – and that supplying them is more faster and better.
Bananas have lost their green gold shine, but the new inter-Caribbean trade being developed between Saint Lucia and Antigua & Barbuda must be supported, while more is done to remind local and regional citizens that this is not for nothing that Olympic athletes are required to eat at least two bananas a day – and Caribbean bananas have earned a reputation for having the highest nutritional value in the European market, which can certainly add healthier value to the region’s quest towards food security and food security by 2025.
The shine may have been erased, but in this case the new gold may be ripe yellow bananas – and the dozens of value-added banana foods and products showcased at the Banana Festival held here l year – have a golden capacity to restore the shine to Caribbean bananas – and end the daily nightmare of too many farmers who continue to prefer bananas to bananas!