Caught In The Crossfire
issue 317 - October 1999
PHILIP WOLMUTH / PANOS PICTURES
Across the Caribbean to the Windward Islands, where
small-scale banana growers are deserting the battle front.
'We don’t want to be in a market competing with producers like Chiquita,’ says Gregory Shillingford emphatically, ‘with a fruit that doesn’t taste good, uses a lot of chemicals and employs slave labour. We do not want to endanger our environment. We want to promote reasonable wages for all working people and a good relationship with consumers.’
Well, if any one person in Dominica can make this happen, then I guess it has to be Gregory Shillingford. As General Manager of the Dominica Banana Marketing Corporation (DBMC) he’s a key figure in the island’s banana trade and carries a big responsibility on his broad shoulders. Dominicans rely very heavily on bananas, which for the past decade or so have provided some 20 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, 60 per cent of exports of goods, and the jobs of maybe 10,000 people. That’s a very large chunk of the working population. Dominica, as one of the Windward Islands (the others are St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada), has more to lose from the Banana War than almost anywhere else. So what alternatives to bananas are there? As yet there is no easy answer.
Here you do not find the kind of grinding poverty and repression so characteristic of Guatemala. Among the younger generations at least, illiteracy is virtually unknown. The banana industry began with sales to Britain in the 1950s and was developed by small farmers, providing them for the first time with a reliable weekly cash income. The industry gave birth to a generation of ‘banana children’ whose education was paid for by their parents’ banana earnings – and who now run the country. The Prime Minister, Edison James, used to do Gregory Shillingford’s job.
But bananas also delivered this tiny island’s people into a fatal reliance on a single export crop that has now, inevitably, betrayed them. Production is in headlong decline. In the peak year of 1988, Gregory Shillingford tells me, 72,000 tons of bananas were exported from 15,000 acres of cultivation by 7,000 growers. But then falling prices, a spate of hurricanes and a more ‘liberalized’ single market in the European Union after 1992 all took their toll. Last year, just 28,000 tons were exported from 7,000 acres by 2,800 growers – a reduction by more than a half. In villages around the island, stores that sold basic necessities, most of them imported with banana money, have shut.
Even so, preferential access to the European Union market continues. Between them, the Windward Islands still have an annual, duty-free quota of around 287,000 tons of bananas. Yet in some years they have used less than half of it. Growers must be either unwilling or unable to produce more bananas. They are, as it were, deserting the battlefront. If the European banana regime is such a good deal, why should this be so?
Looking for players
Gregory Shillingford quotes a telling statistic: more than 80 per cent of the total crop in Dominica now comes from just 1,200 growers. The remaining 1,600 rely on the DBMC’s obligation to buy their bananas. ‘We don’t really mind,’ he says, a little half-heartedly. ‘But what we need are growers who are business people, not peasants.’
Dennis Labassiere is very much a man of business. He is also an appointed Senator and Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly. He has a degree in business administration and spent some time in St Lucia running one of the Windward Islands’ largest suppliers of boxes for cut bananas. Now he owns a large farm in the northeast of Dominica which hires labourers and has 25 irrigated acres of bananas. He is very confident, particularly that ‘loyal’ West Indian consumers in Europe and North America will buy his bananas. He wants to see the industry restructured, and to put an end to what he reckons is the cross-subsidizing of the worst growers by the best.
‘Either you are a player or you are not,’ he says. ‘If you are a player, you must play by the rules of the game. That game is played on global markets, by the rules of competition. A lot of small growers can’t compete.’
‘What can they do, then?’ I ask him.
‘Get out,’ he says. ‘They must diversify, like me.’
He has diversified into cut flowers, which for the time being he sells on the regional market, though he would like to supply Marks and Spencer in Britain. ‘When I saw the prices they fetch there, I wondered what I was doing in bananas!’ he says. He has also started a pig farm, which devours reject bananas.
Small farmers who own their own land are not, however, going to ‘diversify’ into crops that bring a bad return, just for the hell of it. Nor are they merely a quaint feature of Dominican society. They are an expression of its history, shaping it almost entirely, giving it an idiosyncratic, stubborn, unpretentious, egalitarian, periodically febrile nature. No-one with any sense assumes that their interests can be taken lightly.
The island has the largest land area but the smallest population of all the Windward Islands. Fearsome mountain peaks, still clothed in dense rainforest, shoot straight out of the Caribbean between Martinique and Guadeloupe. There is very little flat land, so Dominica never had the large sugar plantations that fed off slavery and made fortunes for European colonists elsewhere in the region. The island gave refuge not just to the Carib peoples, who resisted European colonization for longer here than anywhere else, but to fugitive slaves (‘Maroons’) and indeed to fugitives of all kinds, including loyalists fleeing the American War of Independence. After abolition, former slaves simply walked off such estates as existed to clear the largest area that could be cultivated by a single family – four or five acres, perhaps – and start subsistence farming on the fertile mountain slopes.1
‘Lots of small growers, particularly the older ones, are giving up their banana plots because it’s all getting far too difficult, far too regimented,’ says Irvince Auguiste, as we pass a bedraggled collection of abandoned plants on a steep hillside. For ten years Irvince was the elected Chief – ‘rather like being Mayor’ he says – of the Carib Territory, through which we are now driving. In 1902 some 3,000 acres on the east coast of the island were handed back by the British to the few remaining descendants of the pre-Columbian Carib peoples. Today, 3,700 of their heirs hold the same land in common, from which some 200 growers still produce bananas. They are a reminder, if one were needed, that this is a special place.
‘It used to be a much simpler thing,’ continues Irvince. The contrast with Guatemala could scarcely be more stark. Everywhere, banana plants are set among coconut, cocoa, coffee and the ubiquitous forest. ‘People would grow bananas and do other things as well. Now you have to keep diaries and charts and add up columns of figures and do exactly what you’re told if you want to be a certified grower and get a decent price for your bananas. There’s no time for anything else.
‘Then you’ve got to be able to “bounce back” from hurricanes, which keep destroying your crop. Remember, small farmers have very little security. They can never be quite sure how good their crop will be, or when the next hurricane will strike and if there’ll be a crop at all. It’s not like having a regular wage and it’s very easy to get into debt, because you have to invest in the crop before it is harvested. Sometimes they abandon bananas and then, when they find they can’t earn a living from anything else, go back to them again. My father grew bananas, and I carried them on my head as a boy. But I don’t grow them myself. Just recently, though, I’ve been having second thoughts...’
A big, red, battered pickup hurtles towards us round a hairpin bend. Irvince signals to the driver, only just visible above the steering wheel, who screeches to a halt and winds down the window. She’s slightly breathless. They chat.
‘Balene Fredrick,’ says Irvince as she takes off again. ‘Just having a breather from the softball cricket match, to check on her kids. You know, she’s one of our best banana growers. We’ll go back and talk to her.’ He turns his van, and we set off in pursuit. She’s already disappeared round the next bend. ‘What a woman!’ says Irvince, unable to catch her up. ‘And she’s only just learned to drive!’
Balene and three of her kids are waiting for us in a roadside tin shed. Every small grower has a ‘field’ packing shed like hers. Handsome bunches of freshly cut bananas are laid out on tiered shelves, graded by size and labelled ‘Geest’. To one side is a half-packed Geest box. In front of the bench is a large plastic bowl containing a washing solution – chemicals are used here too, but much more sparingly than in Guatemala. Pinned to the back of the shed are complicated charts showing how the colour-coded production cycle must be followed. You can tell how she cares for her bananas from the way she handles them.
I ask her how much she earns from her bananas each week. ‘Just about enough to keep the children,’ she says. ‘What with their clothes and food and schooling, they cost a lot of money, you know. In a way, I wish I didn’t have to grow bananas,’ she continues. ‘It never stops, and you have to do everything just right. It seems to get harder and harder, and we seem to earn less and less. But there’s nothing for it...’
I can see that talking like this is upsetting her a bit. It’s Sunday afternoon, after all, and she must be itching to get back to the cricket match, though she’s too polite to say so.
‘Well, they suggested I “diversify”, try to grow something else as well. I reckoned they meant there wasn’t going to be much of a future in bananas. So I planted two acres of ginger. But when harvest time came I couldn’t sell it. That was a disaster for us. So I’ll have to keep on with bananas.’
‘Now, David,’ says Irvince as the sun begins to set over this enchanting place, ‘you mustn’t go away with the impression that we Caribs are messed up. We have problems. Sure we have problems. But who hasn’t? No, no. We are forging ahead. I am forging ahead. I mean to make some money, and that’s not something we Caribs are supposed to do.’
He has a stream of projects in his head: affordable cricket bats made from the stems of coconut-palm leaves; basic shelters with hammocks and kerosene lamps for wandering hikers; deluxe cottages for well-heeled tourists ‘who’d like to come down to earth, but gently’. He is sceptical about official proposals for a ‘model’ Carib village, in which his community will be expected to perform. No, he and his associates can give the more discerning visitor a much stronger taste of passion fruit.
And that, almost everywhere, is what it seems to come down to – tourism. It is true that the island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It is also true that Dominica attracts few tourists. I fear, however, that the two are related. There’s no airport for wide-bodied jets, and therefore there are no golf courses, casinos or ‘resort’ chain hotels. White sandy beaches and blue lagoons are few and far between. Tentative steps are being taken towards eco-tourism, to complement Dominica’s chosen image as ‘The Nature Island’. A ‘rainforest tramway’ is being constructed ‘for the less-athletic eco-tourist’.
There are firm plans, too, for an international airport. This will destroy dozens of homes, a school and large areas of relatively flat agricultural land. It will plunge the people of Dominica deeply into debt, as well as the quagmire of graft and discord that engulfs all such projects. Short of selling their land to hotels and golf courses, changing into flunky clothes and training to be servile, it’s hard to see how mass tourism will benefit many Dominicans – or suit their disposition.
One possibility that has been discussed, says Gregory Shillingford, is organic and fairly traded bananas. Some 15,000 acres of banana land have lain fallow for at least five years (and are therefore free of chemicals), and the growers own their own land, so the potential is there. So far, however, no-one has taken the plunge. Perhaps, just perhaps, there’s another future for this extraordinary place that has yet to be disentangled from its history.
The alternative really is just too awful to contemplate.
1 Lennox Honychurch, The Dominica Story – A History of the Island, Macmillan Education, London, 1995.