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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 August 2005, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
St Lucia's declining banana trade
By Guy Ellis
BBC News, St Lucia

St Lucian banana plantation
Changing trade rules have created social problems for St Lucia
In the drawing room of her modest home in rural St Lucia, Clarissa Dwarkasingh proudly displays a trophy from the island's Department of Gender Affairs "for determination to succeed against all odds".

But on this Emancipation Day, celebrating the end of slavery on Caribbean estates nearly 170 years ago, this 68-year-old grandmother is sad and broken as she laments the rapid decline of the island's once booming banana industry, thanks to something called "globalisation" that she hardly understands.

A banana farmer from the inception of the industry in the 1950s, Mrs Dwarkasingh says bluntly: "We farmers are killing ourselves as though we are slaves. We're working harder today but for less money."

It is a cry that is heard all over the island, once acclaimed as the biggest banana producer in the entire English-speaking Caribbean.

Globalisation and changes in the European market since 1993 have left St Lucia's banana industry in tatters.

We farmers are killing ourselves as though we are slaves. We're working harder today but for less money
Clarissa Dwarkasingh
Monday's ruling by the World Trade Organization that declared a new European Union tariff on bananas illegal.

It favours Latin American producers at the expense of small Caribbean exporters and is bound to hurt St Lucia if it is allowed to stand.

Before the ruling, Agriculture Minister Ignatius Jean had expressed optimism that Caribbean and Latin American producers could pull off a compromise which would delay implementation of a tariff-only system by the EU.

St Lucia's banana exports have declined from 132,000 tons in 1992 to just 42,000 tonnes last year.

The number of banana farmers has also fallen from 10,000 to 1,800 today, as the industry is forced to produce the quality fruit the market demands while facing stronger competition and lower prices.

Market changes

Historically, bananas from St Lucia were exported to Britain under preferential arrangements with former colonies.

Woman cleaning bananas in St Lucia
Bananas used to be known as 'green gold'
This arrangement was formalised with the first Lome Convention in 1975. But in 1993, the EU began restricting such privileged access and harmonising tariffs and quotas - placing new demands on St Lucian growers and reducing their market share.

Then the US banana company Chiquita challenged the European regime and took its case to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Peter Serieux, general manager of Top Quality Fruit, one of the main banana trading companies here, said all this created a cloud of uncertainty in small banana-producing countries like St Lucia and undermined the confidence of growers in the future of the industry.

Business devastated

"All of a sudden, the prices that farmers were used to earning were drastically reduced, "Mr Serieux added.

"Farmers did not accept that the decline in their economic fortunes was the result of any global behaviour."

In 1993, banana farmers in St Lucia began a series of strikes demanding higher returns. They blocked roads and clashed with police, resulting in two farmers being shot dead.

Before, we earned more money. Now we get nothing. We can't even pay our workers and most times when we pay them we get nothing for ourselves
Clarissa Dwarkasingh
From that time, conditions in the industry have never been the same.

Farmers left the banana business in hordes.

In its heyday, the banana trade put about $750,000 directly into the St Lucian economy every week.

The fruit was widely known as "green gold", as it narrowed the social gap between rural and city folks.

Dealing narcotics

It was bananas that brought prosperity and an improved way of life to Mrs Dwarkasingh and her husband, paying for the education of their eight children.

"Before, we earned more money", she says. "Now we get nothing. We can't even pay our workers and most times when we pay them we get nothing for ourselves."

All the new standards the market has imposed, we have met them, although at greater cost to farmers
Peter Serieux, general manager of Top Quality Fruit Company
Another effect of the decline of bananas has been the hundreds of young men who previously worked the farms but are now unemployed.

Some have turned to dealing in drugs, the only other "commodity" that is able to bring in quick cash the way bananas once did.

But according to Mr Serieux, there have been some positive effects of globalisation.

Those farmers who have stayed in the business, he describes as "hard core and genuine". It is they, he said, who are now producing the quality of bananas that the market is demanding.

"All the new standards the market has imposed, we have met them, although at greater cost to farmers", Serieux said, adding that the future of the industry now seems to lie in exporting under the "fair trade" label.

Despite its negative implications, globalisation is serving to create more efficient banana farmers in countries like St Lucia, enabling them to meet the high standards that the market demands.

But it has also left the island with a trail of social problems to cope with including unemployment, crime, and declining revenue.

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