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Caribbean: Another dagger in the back

Renwick Rose on EPAs and the plight of banana farmers

2010-04-23, Issue 478

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Former regional diplomat Sir Ronald Sanders and British trade expert and journalist David Jessop regularly take their time to write in the press on matters pertaining to relations between the Caribbean and the European Union, particularly in the field of trade. I am not sure how many of us who do read really consider the implications of what they have to say.

Former regional diplomat Sir Ronald Sanders and British trade expert and journalist David Jessop regularly take their time to write in the press on matters pertaining to relations between the Caribbean and the European Union, particularly in the field of trade. I am not sure how many of us who do read really consider the implications of what they have to say. Our decision-makers, (or, most of them, at least) and regional trade officials, certainly do not seem to believe what they say, judging by their lack of actions to correct obvious weaknesses in regional strategies and tactics.

Last week, Sir Ronald wrote (in SEARCHLIGHT, that is) of the shafting of our rum producers by the European Commission (EC), the executor (what an appropriate term!) of the policies of the European Union (EU). It make interesting reading and the lessons of how the EU treats the rum producers of the region should be one we should absorb deeply. These are not the poor banana farmers of the region, not the single-parent female heads of households and banana farms in Dominica, St. Lucia or St. Vincent. These are not the impoverished workers and farmers in the paddy fields or sugar-cane plantations in Guyana. These are the members of the powerful WIRSPA (West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers Association), some of whom have long historical and even ethnic connections with Europe.

WIRSPA is a serious group of business people, held up by both the EC and regional governments and trade negotiators, as a model of how the rest of us should prepare to do business with Europe. It is true to say that WIRSPA took its task seriously, doing its own lobbying and negotiation to a point where one got the impression that they felt satisfied with the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) which the Caribbean signed with Europe in late 2008. Now it appears that gladness is turning to sadness.

For as Sanders points out in his column, the Commission, that erst while “friend” of the rum producers is reneging on its undertaking. Apparently the WIRSPA producers had spent large sums modernizing their industry, and improving their marketing techniques, expecting to be reimbursed by the Commission. But as in every major act since the first colonialists and slave traders set foot on Africa, India and the Caribbean, the hand of treachery was hidden only to be revealed with a tightly-held dagger at a later stage. Using the old method of “shifting goalposts”, the Commission is using rules of the European Development Fund to close off the period for reimbursement, leaving the rum producers holding your-know-what-end of the stick. WIRSPA is bawling “blue murder”, and by right at that.

The experience of rum, however WIRSPA may view it, is no different to the treatment of sugar, rice and bananas. Yet when some of us in civil society organizations in the region, warned of this in the five years leading up to the EPA signing, our negotiators and governments would have none of it. They even repeated the Commission’s talk of the EPA being a “saviour” for our banana industry and all the more reason why we should sign. So sign we did, at least our governments did, only for the Commission to quickly unfasten the wheels from the EPA banana vehicle. There was the “banana deal”, the tariff reduction, the BAM (banana adjustment measures) thrown in as a sop, and now out comes the dagger – agreements with Colombia and Peru with one with Central America to follow. Both the banana industry and the rum industry, pillars of economic development in the region are suffering.

Mind you, it is not just the Commission at fault. Our own governments, throughout the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries must also share the blame. While they signed the Contonou Agreement in 2002, providing participation of civil society and the private sector as one of the Fundamental Principles of the ACP-EU partnership (Article 2), very few ACP governments have, in practice, respected this principle, even fewer in CARICOM. There are exceptions of cause, the government of SVG being one, but even here there are too many inconsistencies in implementation. The result is that whereas Caribbean civil society and governments should have been standing shoulder to shoulder, refusing to sign a bad trade agreement, and holding out until we achieved our just ends, they capitulated.

Our banana farmers – from Spring Village, Langley Park, Micoud, Castle Bruce, Richland Park, Dennery, Grand Bay, etc—were left abandoned under the leadership of WINFA and with support of regional civil society organizations, academics and European civil society support. We were scoffed at as we marched in Castries, rallied in St. Joseph, Dominica and Lauders St. Vincent, and picketed outside the Grand Barbados Hotel in Barbados. Our people, banana farmers among them, were more interested in the cheap politics of division in the islands, then in the impending havoc. Yet, even at this late stage, we must still fight. Sir Ronald Sanders has made that quite clear:
“Letter writing is not enough. It’s time for Caribbean governments to do more; and to do more militantly and robustly than in the past. A high-level tam should be dispatched to Europe now, not only to talk to governments but to take the case beyond governments to the media, non-governmental organizations, and, ultimately, the people of Europe ……”
When I read that, it was as though I was writing. Let’s hope that our people can see beyond the narrow confines of day-to-day problems to call on our governments to ACT. I am holding up my hand volunteering to back them up fully. What of you?

* This article appeared in Searchlight, St. Vincent, on April 9, 2010

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