September 25, 2007

AT THE AGE OF 56, MRS.JOHN STILL STRUGGLES in Dominica's rugged mountains to raise bananas for export to England. Each banana tree requires constant, skilled care for nine months or more until a single stem of fruit matures; a new tree must then be planted. When the radio announces that the banana boat will arrive, Mrs. John spends a day of backbreaking labor, often in the rain, cutting and packing bananas, carrying loaded boxes along steep, slippery paths to the road, and searching for transportation to the buying depot. There she must wait, sometimes through the night, never certain whether the price she will receive for her harvest will cover the expense of producing it. From week to week, she has no way of knowing whether her fruit will be bought at all. The shipping company may reject any blemished fruit, or it may have already filled its quota before it reaches Dominica. To save the equivalent of 17 cents in bus fare, Mrs. John makes the long journey home on foot, carrying empty boxes on her head for the next week's harvest. Powers within and outside Dominica have conspired to give Mrs. John few other options. Among those powers is the U.S. Agency for International Development, which spent $1.75 million from 1972 to 1987 to "privatize" Dominica's banana industry. AID-sponsored restructuring transferred control of the industry from the Dominica Banana Growers Association, to which Mrs. John and most banana farmers belonged, to the Dominica Banana Marketing Corporation, dominated by larger growers, merchants, and bankers. The Marketing Corporation now buys and re-sells Dominica's bananas to Geest Industries, the British-based firm that continues to monopolize the Windward Island banana trade. As a consequence, the small-scale growers who comprise the majority of banana farmers have less say than ever on how prices are set, how fruit is graded, how much is purchased, and how profits are used and distributed. By insisting on the "privatization" of boxing plants, AID helped put hundreds of women out of work with no compensation. The plants, formerly owned by the Dominica Banana Growers Association, were closed or turned into buying depots for boxed fruit. In AID's words, "the boxing plant function is being divested back to the individual grower," who box bananas in the field. The field packing method, which AID endorsed but did not initiate, greatly increased the workload of banana farmers. Farmers literally carry more of the costs and risks of production, while Geest operates virtually risk-free, its profits guaranteed. Related changes fostered or applauded by AID, such as the increased use of imported chemicals and packaging materials, have raised the cost of producing bananas, speeded environmental decline, and steered profits to Texaco, via AID-funded subsidies for fertilizer. Mrs. John can get credit to buy fertilizer and packaging for bananas, but not for staple food crops. She can, usually, get a market for her bananas, but not for other export crops. She cannot turn to local banks since, like many women farmers in the Caribbean, she does not hold the title to the land she cultivates, and thus, lacks collateral. As another Dominican farm woman said, "I can't take my five healthy children into the bank and say, "Here: this is where I've invested my earnings from growing bananas all these years-give me credit." Even the chance to sell bananas may soon be gone. When tariff barriers among member countries of the European Economic Community are eliminated in 1992, bananas from the English-speaking Caribbean are likely to be priced out of the market by fruit grown more cheaply in Central America, Ecuador, Colombia, and the French Windward Island colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Geest Industries has called for the elimination of' 'inefficient" growers, by which it means small-scale producers such as Mrs. John, who comprise the majority of Windward Island banana producers.

Tags: Dominica, bananas, Privatization

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