CASTRIES, St. Lucia (AP) -- It's the start of the rainy season in the
mountainous, fertile island of St. Lucia -- a time when Ellis Rupert Gajadhar
and fellow banana farmers should be happily looking forward to peak
harvesting and profit.
But it's a season of uncertainty now on Caribbean islands heavily dependent
on their bananas -- and a time of deep bitterness toward the United States,
which won a key battle last week in its war against trade preferences that
keep Europe buying the yellow fruit from Caribbean countries.
For America, the issue is U.S. firms' stake in the global economy. For
Europe, it's partly a moral debt to people they enslaved. And for islanders,
it's a humbling quest for a place in the sun.
On a farm just south of Castries, Gajadhar's eyes sparkle and his voice
softens as he speaks of bananas, his rough hands tenderly examining a leafy
tree. "Bananas are my life, and bananas are the region's lifeblood," says the
silver-bearded owner of 16 acres (6 1/2 hectares).
Gajadhar, 52, believes Caribbean bananas are the best -- "a sweeter, better
tasting fruit" than those grown by U.S. giants like Chiquita Brands and Dole
Food in Latin America.
But he admits some problems. Substandard storage and transport make
quality inconsistent. Absence of irrigation suppresses yield much of the year.
And crop-obliterating hurricanes make supply forecasts unreliable.
Bananas were introduced by British colonizers and developed after
independence because they grow year-round and boast the high
yield-to-land ratio important to tiny territories.
Bananas -- and more recently, tourism -- are credited for somewhat
improved living standards. But the per capita income on many islands
remains low -- about $3,000 a year in St. Lucia -- and their economies are
dangerously dependent on one crop.
In the Windward Islands, the southern half of the eastern Caribbean chain,
about a third of the labor force works in bananas, providing 35 percent of
export earnings. Bananas are also key to larger Caribbean countries like
The vast majority of the region's crop -- a mere 1 percent of the world's
production -- goes to Europe. There, it's long been protected and now
accounts for almost a tenth of the EU's banana imports.
A scheme established in 1993 gives preference in licensing to those who
import bananas from former colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and the
Pacific, and imposes tariffs on bananas from elsewhere.
This is seen by many in the Caribbean as an obligation to former colonies
populated by descendants of Africans the Europeans enslaved.
"The Europeans recognize their moral obligation. They have a conscience,"
said Gajadhar. "The Americans don't."
In what's being called the "banana war," American officials have charged
the preferences are unfair to U.S. companies that grow bananas in Central
America, cost consumers billions, and are illegal and inefficient.
"It's an ideal world (the Caribbean) had over many years, and everybody
would want to live in that kind of thing," said D. Brent Hardt, chief of the
political and economic section at the U.S. Embassy in Barbados. "But it has
stymied growth in what had been a rapidly growing market."
Hardt insisted the United States was not opposed to the idea of preferences
but to the way they are implemented, and that there are ways to "both
provide protection and meet (World Trade Organization) rules."
Such fine points seem lost in the Caribbean.
The WTO decision Tuesday to support the U.S. claims and authorize $191
million of punitive U.S. tariffs on EU goods sparked gloom and fears of
imminent European capitulation.
"If anything or anyone has to be sacrificed as a result of this ruling,
banana producing islands ... in the Caribbean will," The Voice newspaper
said in an editorial. The ruling "ought to send shivers down the spine of
People on the street heartily agreed.
"Everyone is cursing the United States," said Moses Eugene, 32. "We need
the banana money. When someone from down the street wants to buy your
stuff and your neighbor interferes, it's not right."
For many, it confirms that the United States has lost interest in the region
because of its diminished strategic value in the post-Cold War world. U.S.
aid levels to the English-speaking Caribbean are at a fraction of the former
$200 million a year, they note.
"These are friendly little countries to the U.S., and that the U.S. would
to jeopardize their economic backbone is unbelievable!" said Bernard
Cornibert, head of the Windward Islands Banana Development and
"If we do not have a regime that maintains access for our bananas in the
our banana industry would collapse," he said. "That means increasing
unemployment, falling income, and all the social and political problems."
He said some growers might turn to marijuana, or help the northbound
transit of South American drugs. "We're being pushed to retaliate in this kind
of disgusting manner."
Some government leaders agree. At a summit in Suriname last month,
leaders angered by the U.S. banana challenge discussed suspending a 1997
treaty for Caribbean nations to cooperate in the U.S. war on drugs.
Gajadhar, meanwhile, is trying to come up with more constructive ideas,
he's less apocalyptic.
When his father started growing bananas, he remembers, "they would walk
3 miles (5 kilometers) to Castries with bunches on their heads." He's since
seen the advent of truck delivery, protective foam packing for the bushels
What the industry needs now is reliability -- and that means finding the
money for expensive containers to protect bananas on their voyage to
Europe, and for irrigation to eliminate over-dependence on the
April-to-October rainy season.
"The farmers have the ability to adjust because of the fact that there
alternative to bananas here. We're going to produce bananas!" he said. "It's
a question of survival."
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.