some might have wondered, why the european community opposes
the wto and the "dollar bananas", as we call them here. some
Secret life of a banana
Politicians want free trade, but small producers need fair trade.
Are the two incompatible? In the first of a series before the WTO
talks, John Vidal visits the Caribbean
Wednesday November 10, 1999 - London Guardian
If you want to see the face of unfair trade, go to rundown,
rotting Georgetown on the volcanic West Indian island of St
Vincent. Start on the high street, where 82-year-old
wheelchair-bound "Mamma Sun" sits as ever outside her half-stocked
oddments shop. Skirt the narrow beach of the small decaying town,
whose economy crashed when the sugar industry collapsed. Then head
for the forest, stolen from the indigenous Caribs and felled by
British colonists. There, on a sloping clearing, you'll likely find
Kelvin Bristol, a small-scale banana farmer.
Bristol has nine acres of bananas and, like almost everyone else
on the island, most of what he grows goes to Britain. Bananas
provide for his simple home, and school and health for his
children. They give him weekly cash like no other crop can, save
him from absolute poverty and allow him credit. Bananas are a way
of life, his only imaginable future.
Bristol is stopping work for the day. The fruit - very few these
past months because he must replant much of his land after a
violent rainstorm - have been picked and packed, and sent off to
catch the weekly Geest boat in Kingstown. They will arrive in
Southampton in two weeks and will be ripened, then sent to the
But bananas don't stop growing and Bristol doesn't stop working.
The land must be cleared, old plants grubbed up, new tubers planted
and he's been digging holes, weeding, tending, de-flowering the
young fruit, tying back the foliage to stop bruising and covering
them in insecticide- drenched bags. And then he's had to pay people
to wrap the cut fruit in more polythene, and arrange them in boxes
as if they were bone china.
Times move on. Just 10 years ago, he could simply cut the bananas,
pack them loosely and send them off. Today, supermarkets will
reject the tiniest bruises. No misshapen ones are accepted, none
must be too long or too short, too ripe or misshapen, cut too
carelessly or be too spotty.
Bristol is a master of the understatement. "It real difficult
now," he says. "Me work real hard. They want quality - no
blemishes. Everything must be pretty, with no black marks. In the
old days we could throw the bananas in the truck. Me just cut them
in small clusters. Inputs used to be less. Now them sky high."
There's a bunch of five bananas in Bristol's simple open sorting
shed. They're small, sweet, thin-skinned and naturally spotty - not
the flawless thicker-skinned giants we mostly get. But they would
never meet the export standards so he was going to take them home.
He offers them and we chat and chew. There's a hurricane 70 miles
offshore reportedly heading towards St Vincent. If it comes, it
will wreck years of work in just a few seconds. Like other
islanders, he talks of his bananas in human terms. They come in
"hands", have "backs" and "shoulders". They are "pretty" with
"skins" and should be handled "like babies". He's upset with the
cosy, complex, infernal politics of the banana trade and the
international bodies who never consult people like him but leave
him in ignorance and near destitution. And he's worried about the
future. "If banana go, what can I do?" he says. "Plenty go in
drugs. Into marijuana, especially in the mountains."
We say that the small bunch might cost ú1 to buy in Britain. It's
a mistake to tell him. The information barely registers on his face
of considerate stone. Then Bristol looks askance. His brow furrows
and he starts to say something, but he stops, looks slowly to his
banana field, where he's just spent hours of backbreaking toil to
earn at most ú3 today.
"We wouldn't pay 50 cents (about 10p) for dem," he says quietly
and painfully. Had we rushed out of the forest and mugged him, it
probably couldn't have shocked him more.
The banana trade is desperately unfair. Windward islands bananas
are grown almost exclusively by peasant farmers like him. They get
10p a pound for top quality exports and just over half that for
lesser quality. Even the top price barely covers the cost of
insecticides, fungicides, fertilisers and the labour needed to
produce the fruit that the supermarkets demand.
Every 40lb box of prime fruit earns a farmer about ú2 and costs
another ú3.50 to ship to Britain. By the time they get to the
shelves - ripened to a shiny, uniform yellow, pretty as sweets,
each a regulation size, shape, taste, weight and price - the
contents of that box may sell for nearly ú50.
What begins in grind and deep uncertainty on a West Indian
hillside ends with thumping great profits for everyone but the
grower. In the past few years, says Renwick Rose, who runs the
Windward Islands national farmers association (Winfa), one in three
banana farmers have given up, realising that there is nothing but
toil and sweat to be earned from growing them for export. Labour is
increasingly expensive, he says. He con firms that some farmers are
moving into the hills to grow marijuana.
But the economic injustice is far deeper than the trading
relationship between the vulnerable small growers and the powerful
supermarkets. Ever since, in the 1950s, British foreign policy
encouraged the West Indians and other Commonwealth countries to
grow the world's favourite fruit and established a tariff and quota
sytem to insulate small growers from the booming central American
plantations, the islands have depended on us. That old arrangement
is now in tatters because of the World Trade Organisation's ruling
earlier this year that it was "unfair" to deny a market to the
giant US and other agri-business corporations.
Never mind that Bristol or the other West Indian farmers on their
hillside patches will never compete on price in a free market with
10,000- acre industrialised plantations; that cheap "dollar bananas"
may be grown in social squalor and lousy labour conditions; that
union leaders are regularly shot for standing up for the basic
rights of poor growers; that plantation owners make political
contributions. The WTO has ruled, and social, ethical, moral and
long-standing cultural arguments for trade protection are not
In the next few weeks, the EU must respond to the WTO ruling with
proposals or the US may impose trade sanctions. The St Vincentians
firmly believe that Britain and Europe will not "sell them down the
river", but they also know that the ruling must change the special
relationship. At best, change will come gently and the islands will
have time to adapt. At worst, Bristol's world will collapse and the
island economy will be in ruins.
So what's to be done? Wilberforce Emmanuel is another St
Vincentian farmer dependent on his few acres of bananas. But he is
also fighting for a better deal for the farmers. He confirms their
plight: "There's much more work and far less returns than in the
past," he says. "The work is harder and the cost of living is now
higher for everything. Once, you could make money. Now we can't
make ends meet."
If Europe fails to protect the growers, he says, it will be grim.
"You must understand that bananas are not just a way of life, but
they are part of us. Even if we are not protected, we will still
have to grow bananas. We have no choice."
He and many others are fighting for a fairer trading system. The
best option, they believe, is the "fair trade" model that has
evolved between Europe and some developing countries and now offers
British consumers tea, coffee, chocolate, cocoa, honey and other
Fairtrade products, all guaranteed by a mark which is issued after
inspection and certification.
Fairtrade bananas would mean supermarkets fixing an annual,
guaranteed price at or near the price they pay for top quality
fruit. It would include a premium which would go into a fund to be
distributed as the farmers themselves chose. Result: everyone happy
except the middlemen.
But bananas are almost as complex as people, and getting Fairtrade
bananas into Britain is beset with suspicions and fears, which have
so far paralysed their arrival. The supermarkets worry that if they
introduced some, it would imply that the conventionally grown
bananas were judged to be unfair. The farmers, equally, don't want
to divide themselves by favouring one group, or one island, over
another. Fair trade would also mean that the farmers - who have
traditionally worked independently - would have to set up
democratically-constituted groups. And it would mean that the
shippers and distributors, such as Geest, would have to be more
accountable to the farmers.
But everyone's greater fear is what happens when trade truly
globalises in the next few years and the protection barriers tumble
under the WTO. Paradoxically, says Phil Wells, of the Fairtrade
Foundation in London, it could bring fair trade fruit to Britain in
a big way and give the small growers a better deal.
Supermarkets, he says, know that the price of bananas will drop as
they flood in from every tropical country. Margins will erode and
it will make commercial sense, in a much more socially and
ecologically aware society, to offer top quality produce,
guaranteed as ethical, to the more food- aware consumer. "I'm sure
it will happen in 2000," Wells says. "Everyone wants it. It's a
question of matching supermarkets with producers."
But it needs to happen urgently. Finding and developing niche
markets like fair or organic trade, allowing consumers to make real
choices based on ethics, culture, history, ecological or broad
social quality rather than price alone will become vital both for
small island states and small producers everywhere. It is not
far-fetched to see fair trade becoming a natural choice for
consumers, and as important a market as organic is today, when the
inequities of the global trading system intensify under WTO rules.
It is equally possible that the US industrial agriculture lobby
could theoretically challenge "ethical" trade under present WTO
So what could a healthy, fair trade in bananas mean for St
Vincent? Renwick Rose says: "When you buy a cheap banana you are
unwittingly participating in exploitation. People need to
understand what lies behind a banana. There are children, mothers,
fathers and blood, sweat and toil. Fair trade is not simply asking
you to pay more, just what it costs."
He is convinced it could improve environmental practices,
increasing the sustainability of the island and a natural step
towards organic farming. "Farming closer to nature helps society as
a whole. Paying Fairtrade prices will get rid of the uncertainty of
farmers, who are being driven out by high production costs. It
would help in a real way with education and keeping the rural
Back on the hillside, Bristol is packing up. Hurricane Jose is
gathering and there's little he can do. His message to British
consumers is simple: "They must eat more West Indian bananas. It is
good if we can get them to buy more, if we could sell directly to
supermarkets. The middlemen get everything now. If banana go,
everything gone. Then we in trouble. When bananas stop, I die."
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