1st June marks the official start of the hurricane season in St Vincent, and almost like clockwork the rain is hammering on the roof of the reception centre at Langley Park, where the farmers are bringing their fruit for weighing, checking and shipment. Nearby, grey and copper coloured waves crash to the shores, and the coconut palms bend in the wind that gives these islands their name.
Nioka Abbott was up early working through the downpour to cut and pack the twenty 18 kilogram boxes of bananas she’s promised for this week’s Asda and Sainsbury shipment. As she says, ‘here in St Vincent we love carnival. No rain ever stop our carnival. So rain can’t stop our farmers. Shipment ain’t gonna wait for no rain to stop.” Nioka was one of the very first farmers to embrace Fairtrade almost ten years ago - today she seems remarkably unchanged from the 2001 Fairtrade poster hanging in the offices of the St Vincent Fair Trade Organisation. Yet life for banana growers has changed dramatically in that time - including the fact that every single farmer wishing to sell bananas to European supermarkets must now be certified against the strict supermarket health and
safety standard Globalgap. And whilst some of the requirements are welcomed by farmers, others are difficult to achieve. Here in St Vincent, very small farmers are struggling to find the necessary resources to meet these standards, threatening not just their Fairtrade sales but their entire livelihoods. “The standards have been developed for big plantations,” says Nioka, “not for small farmers with half or one or two acres.” For example on harvest day, she does almost everything herself on her small farm, just getting a bit of family help carrying the bananas from the field to the packing shed and then onto the trucks. Yet Globalgap says she needs to have a lunch room for workers on her farm. With just a small farm, Nioka and her family are usually finished harvesting by lunchtime anyway “Why do I need a lunch room? I just come back to my home for lunch. But no, the Globalgap says there must be a lunching space on the farm itself.” So farmers are faced with the choice of losing their market or reluctantly diverting their precious few resources to the construction of something for which they have little or no need.
Nioka is not just a farmer, she’s also the secretary of the National Fair Trade organisation and tells us she was in Brussels last year to discuss how the Windward farmers could be represented in discussions about Globalgap, in particular to press the case for adapting the rules so they are more appropriate to the situation of smaller farmers.
This opportunity would hardly have arisen a few years ago. For Fairtrade organisations, it’s so much simpler to depict the new school bus, or the health clinic that has been improved with the Fairtrade premium. But equally important to these farmers as a benefit of Fairtrade has been the ability to become more organised, claiming their right to a place at the table where important decisions over the future of the banana industry are being made. Having that voice may not always be able to win, but they’re fighting their case all the way.
My mobile phone vibrates. A friend from London has emailed to say they’re basking in 27 degree heat and tropical sunshine. Here, the rain has stopped but more thunderous looking dark clouds stud the sky above the banana trees. In the far distance, I think I can see a glimmer of something brighter to follow and hope it’s not just my imagination.
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