Banana farmers doing it for themselves


At the modest offices of the St Vincent National Fair Trade Organisation, there is a busy flow of farmers coming in to collect the bags they will need for the next harvest. Some of them are collecting Asda branded bags, some plain ones, as their bananas are also sold loose and as Caribbean smalls into Sainsbury’s. The Fair Trade Organisation is running a tight operation, everything is receipted, signed and stamped in duplicate, along with a constant friendly banter between the farmers as they come and grow. However today, the farmers and the Fair Trade Organisation have got a lot on their minds. If you’re a farmer in St Vincent, Friday is not just the day that you collect whatever bags or boxes you need for your next harvest, but it’s also the day you get paid (by the separate state owned banana company) for the previous delivery. And today, it seems, the banana company isn’t paying out. For some of the farmers, this is a disaster. “No money, no money,” wails one woman in a heavy Vincentian patois. She tells me that she has two daughters in secondary school and needs the money for the bus, for their food and uniforms. She worries that if she can’t provide for them herself, they’ll take to begging or even selling their bodies in Kingstown. This sounds extreme, but later I’m told that prostitution is rising steadily on the island.

The Fairtrade staff are tearing their hair out, wondering what to do. The problem is, the farmers’ organisations don’t yet have control the buying and selling process - it is a state-owned banana company that manages all of this at present. But, as one farmer telephones to say, if they don’t get paid for their crop, then how can they afford to pay their workers in order to harvest in this week’s crop? Then another farmer calls to say not only is the banana company not paying out this week, they haven’t delivered any boxes to his local depot, so that the farmers can pack the next one.

The irony is that after years of lobbying and negotiation, the three National Fair Trade Organisations of St Vincent, St Lucia and Dominica (working together in WINFA) last year won the right to sell their Fairtrade bananas directly to WIBDECO, the exporting company, instead of via separately run banana companies. The vision is that this will be more efficient, help to reduce unnecessary overheads, and most crucially provide greater transparency and more control for farmers over their own destiny. In Dominica and St Lucia this process is already underway, but in St Vincent, it’s been held back whilst the Government passed a parliamentary bill to legalise the new arrangement and wind down the old state banana company, effectively cutting that link out of the chain. This bill passed in February 2009, but the actual transition has continued to drag out. So whilst Dominica celebrates its first year of more direct trading, the Vincentian farmers are frustrated. Compounding matters, and causing today’s payment problems, it appears that, instead of the workers were suddenly informed two days ago that their jobs finish in less than a week. Furthermore the redundancy package being offered to workers does not reflect what is in their collective bargaining agreement. So today the workers have gone on strike, and there’s no-one to pay the farmers. “We had all hoped for a smooth and clear transition,” says Ellisia sadly, “but it’s looking like that. I have a lot of sympathy for the workers, they should get what is their right, but when their actions also threaten the very livelihoods of the farmers, then I can’t agree with that.”

Supply chains are incredibly fragile. If one link in the chain breaks, the whole chain is broken. The farmers have painstakingly nurtured and delivered their fruit, and they should be paid what they’re owed. The Vincentian Ministry of Agriculture has confirmed that the Fair Trade Organisation will technically take over the work of the old banana company on 1 June - next Tuesday - including the trucking, the agricultural extension work and, crucially the payments to the farmers. Back in their offices, the staff of WINFA and the Fair Trade Organisation are frustrated but resolute - from next week onwards, they say, things will start to be different. As their counterparts in Dominica have already shown, farmers CAN do it for themselves.


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