BANANA BUST

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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