Sandra Joseph is a banana farmer from the island of St Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean.
Sandra is a member of her local Dennery Fairtrade group, part of the Windward Islands Farmers Association (WINFA) which also includes banana farmers from St Vincent & the Grenadines, Dominica and Grenada. WINFA was Fairtrade certified in 2000 and has a membership of around 3,500 banana farmers.
More than 85 per cent of bananas grown in the Windward Islands are Fairtrade certified and it is access to the UK Fairtrade market that has enabled the banana industry to survive in the increasingly hostile global commercial environment.
Fairtrade Standards ensure farmers receive a price per box of bananas that covers their costs of production. In addition WINFA receives the Fairtrade Premium of $1.00 per box to fund community improvements and business development, including diversification into other agricultural products and income generation schemes.
Without the intervention of Fairtrade we would be fighting a losing battle. Fairtrade is our last best chance, our choice, our future. Fig fini san Fairtrade – bananas are finished without Fairtrade.
Why Fairtrade Is Needed
Liberalisation of the global banana trade has put the Windwards banana industry under increasing competition from lower-cost bananas grown on vast plantations in Latin American and West Africa. These bananas are on the frontline of a 10-year supermarket price war in the UK which has resulted in loose bananas today selling for almost 50 per cent less than in 2002, devaluing them in the eyes of shoppers. This continuous downward pressure on prices makes it hard to see how anyone could be making a profit, or where investment in a more sustainable and fair banana industry for the future can come from.
Low retail prices mean farmers like Sandra struggle to cover the costs of running small family farms that use more socially and environmentally friendly methods with fewer agrichemicals but have higher overall costs because of the hilly terrain, lower yields and higher transport, quality control, and labour costs.
For plantation workers, low retail prices mean long hours, low wages, trade union repression, poor health and safety standards and intensive use of agrichemicals which are harmful to both workers and the environment.
How Farmers Have Invested the Fairtrade Premium
- Farm improvements to meet GLOBALGAP health and safety standards (required by UK retailers): upgrading packing stations, installing pit toilets and lunch rooms for workers.
- Agro-tourism: an inter-island income diversification project to refurbish a processing plant to process members’ passion fruit, guava, other fruit into jams, juices and chutneys for sale locally.
- Health: medical equipment for rural clinics, construction of a medical store, wheelchairs for elderly, annual health checks for workers on members’ farms.
- Education: pre-school construction and equipment, computers for schools, scholarships for secondary school students, new school bus and bus shelter.
- Community development: refurbishment of community centres, installing street lighting.
- Infrastructure: improvement of farm access roads and bridges.
- Social security: supplementary contributions to farmers’ pension funds.
- Reduced use of agrichemicals has led to an increase in wildlife (worms, birds, snakes, and crayfish) and allowed animals to be grazed nearby and food crops to be grown.
- Regular campaigns to remove waste – e.g. the insecticide-impregnated plastic bags used to protect bananas on the trees – have resulted in a cleaner, healthier local environment.
- Buffer zones between banana plots and rivers/roads have reduced soil erosion, protected fruit from traffic pollution and provided space to plant fruit trees for domestic consumption.
Decline of Windward Islands Banana Industry
Bananas have been crucial to the economic and social development of the Windward Islands for more than 50 years – at one time employing 50 per cent of the workforce and contributing 50 per cent of export earnings. As recently as the 1990s the Windward Islands supplied 60 per cent of the UK’s bananas but liberalization of the global banana trade has almost wiped out the industry.
The EU Banana Regime has traditionally given preferential treatment to imports from the Windward Islands and other former European colonies in recognition of the importance of the trade to their economic development. But in 1996 Latin American banana exporting countries and the US lodged the first of a series of legal challenges at the World Trade Organization complaining that the EU regime discriminated against Latin American producers. A new agreement signed in December 2009 resolved the long-running dispute and cemented the process of opening up the EU market to increased imports from Latin America by reducing the duty paid on them.
Erosion of the trade preferences given to the Islands’ banana exports has led to a dramatic decline in the banana trade. Coupled with the effects of hurricanes and disease, production has fallen from 274,000 tonnes in 1992 to around 15,000 tonnes in 2012 and the Windwards’ share of the UK banana market has plummeted to 9 per cent. The number of farmers has fallen from 27,000 to 3,500, with a consequent reduction in revenues and an increase in unemployment and related social problems among the islands.
Natural Disasters Also Threaten the Industry
Uncertainties about the impact of EU reforms have been compounded by natural disasters. Following Hurricane Dean in 2007, farmers have faced the spread of Black Sigatoka fungal disease and the worst drought in living memory. In 2010 Hurricane Tomas devastated homes and infrastructure, wiped out 50 per cent of bananas in Dominica, and totally destroyed banana production throughout St Vincent and St Lucia. With help from donor agencies, WINFA deployed the small disaster fund put aside from Fairtrade Premiums to get on with replanting and rehabilitation. Production is recovering but the spread of Black Sigatoka continues to ravage crops. Fewer than 1,000 farmers are currently exporting and a co-ordinated effort from all stakeholders is needed to save the industry. But there remains a glimmer of hope for the livelihoods of farmers and their families as Fairtrade Windwards bananas are back on the shelves in Asda, The Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Ocado.
Read more about WINFA’s struggle for survival and the work of the World Banana Forum towards a sustainable global banana industry on the Banana Link web site (www.bananalink.org.uk).