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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 October 2005, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
Crunch time for Dominica's banana business

By Susie Emmett
BBC News, Dominica

The Windward Islands' guaranteed fixed share of the European banana market is being abolished. With many livelihoods at risk from Latin America's competitive "dollar banana", thousands of farmers in Dominica are asking the European Union for help.

Bella Joachim
The EU traditionally favoured imports from former colonies

The sofa must date from colonial days. With elegant legs and gently curved arms it might have graced the house of one of the planters who came to make their fortune from coffee, sugar or limes.

Those crops and the people who profited from them are long gone.

But the descendants of the slave labour they used still farm this lush island.

Now the sofa is used as a bed.

It stands hard against the tin and waste-wood walls of Bella Joachim's small and shabby home, high up on the emerald hillsides of the Layou valley.

Rummaging under the sheets and seat cushions, she pulls out carefully sealed plastic envelopes holding meticulously completed charts and tables.

"These are my farm records," she says proudly. "To sell bananas to the UK we have to be as good as the best farmers in the world."

Today is harvesting day. With 75 boxes - that's over 1,000 kilos of bananas - to select, cut, trim, wash, check again, bag, pack and despatch down to the port - Bella, clad in apron, hat, rubber boots and gloves, has to get on.

I teeter down the precipitous slope to where Bella's husband, Jose, is cutting.

Coloured ribbons twist and flutter at the base of the maturing fruits which hang protected from insects and birds in turquoise plastic.

Carefully cut

"All the fruits with yellow ribbons are ready," he tells me and I duck and bend to follow him under the canopy of giant leaves.

So gently, so as not to bruise or blemish the green fruit, he uses a small curved blade to cut bunches from the over-hanging cluster.

Bananas on supermarket shelves
The Windward Islands used to provide most of the UK's bananas

"Mind!" he says, as it's time to move to the next plant.

With a sweep of his shining cutlass the fat stem of the mother plant is sliced and topples noisily to the ground.

A few more stages and finally the fruits are safely tucked into their packaging.

Fairtrade (Tesco kid's) fun size, says the happy logo on the plastic bags.

Truth is, there's not much fun at all in the banana business these days.

For 10 years or more the Windward Islands have clung on to the chance to sell on to our supermarket shelves despite the protestations from the multinational banana companies of Latin America.

They have used World Trade Organisation machinery to bulldoze smaller producers - and their guaranteed place in the European market - out of the way.

And now it's crunch time.

Everyone I meet in the banana chain in Dominica is aware of how serious the island's predicament is - from the farmers like Bella to the swarthy stevedores racing to load this week's harvest into the gleaming white banana boat in the few hours it comes alongside each Wednesday.

At night the rainforests of Dominica are a cacophony of sound.

Tonight there's also the engine of a minibus snaking the switchback roads to collect 25 farmers from all over the island.

We support making poverty history but what we have here is the chance to stop making poverty the future
Renwick Rose

They are to fly to St Lucia where Caribbean negotiators are meeting with EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson in what may be one of the few chances to influence the EU presidency.

The farmers want their voices heard.

And by mid-morning the farmers from Dominica - flags and banners in hand - are joined by chanting colleagues from Martinique, St Vincent and St Lucia.

Their ranks are swelled still more by shopkeepers, tailors and many other trades whose livelihoods will be threatened if banana-growing goes.

Emotional outpouring

Renwick Rose is, ordinarily, a quietly-spoken man whose shoulders seem weary of the burden of trying to bring the plight of Windward Island farmers to the attention of the world.

But when, after a succession of rousing speeches, he takes to the platform, he is transformed.

"We didn't escape slavery to come to this. We support making poverty history but what we have here is the chance to stop making poverty the future.

"Will we have to wait until we hold starving children in our arms and flies round our noses before the world wonders what happened to the bananas we used to sell?"

Applause and emotion erupts.

The rally is over. A downpour begins. The lettering on the placards begins to run. The crowd disperses and the excitement, and even the feeling of strength, ebbs away.

I, too, have to leave. I find Bella. She is sure that the rally will make a difference.

"If you are small you can expect to always be at the bottom as the big one will be on top of you but what's important is you're being heard."

She slips her arm through mine. I know, like all the other farmers that there's much more she wants to say.

But with a sigh, she leaves it unsaid.

"You take care," she tells me. "And don't forget to buy Windward Island bananas."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 October, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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