Bananas are their only fruit: The trade which sustains the Windward Islands, both economically and politically, is under threat from Latin American competition and from German opposition to restrictions protecting it. A report from the Caribbean Islands

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'Mwe pake fuye mwe pas mwe se banan mem wegim'

(I am not interfering as I am a banana from the same bunch)

(St Lucian proverb)

THERE was a five-month drought in St Vincent earlier this year and the banana crop suffered badly. Production is right down, to less than half the yield at the beginning of the year, and farmers should have replanted in the spring to save production for next year. But they weren't sure that it was worthwhile. Nobody wants West Indian bananas any more. Latin American or 'dollar' bananas are flavour of the month, the year, probably the decade, and the West Indian banana industry, like the once-great sugar cane industry, will soon be a thing of the past.

People seem to have forgotten that the term 'banana republic', which has come to be identified with the kind of chaotic and corrupt government typical of the small Caribbean islands, had its origins in the banana industry that was - and still is - the islands' life-blood. But the way things are going, there is a real danger that the banana republics of the Windward Islands of Dominica, St Lucia, Grenada and St Vincent will not be banana republics much longer.

THE PROBLEM is, in part, one of aesthetics. The sort of fruit you can buy in the markets in St Lucia or Dominica bears almost no relation either in taste or appearance to that on display in British supermarkets. And though the bananas of the Windward Islands are generally thought to be sweeter, they are not cheaper, and tend to be smaller, thinner-skinned, more mottled and to bruise more easily, and are therefore less likely to find favour with the legendarily scrupulous British housewife. An information sheet on bananas put out by the Grenada Tourist Office reads: 'Since the British housewife buys bananas by appearance, one of the most important factors in the production of bananas is what might be called the beauty of the fruit . . .' As the astounding success of Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's demonstrates - on my last visit, they were stocking Costa Rican bananas - appearance is all.

The real problem, however, is that, although banana-growing is what they do best, the Windward Islands are not really suited to agriculture of any kind. The geography of the islands, which are mainly volcanic in origin, has created a rich soil but also a land that is difficult to negotiate - all hills and valleys, to say nothing of the risks from hurricanes, droughts and floods. 'The entire industry can be flattened overnight,' said a St Lucian government official recently. 'But bananas are the only crop we know of which can be replanted immediately and produce for export in a few months.'

AFTER Britain abolished slavery in 1834 and the discovery in the 19th century that sugar beet could be grown and produced in Europe far more cheaply than sugar cane in the West Indies, the sugar industry began to decline. The Windward Islands needed a new export crop. Bananas were chosen because they could be grown both on large estates and on tiny hillside plots. And because they can yield a harvest as often as every week, they are the best possible cash crop. An initial attempt to establish a banana industry in the Thirties failed owing to Panama disease but a second attempt, in 1953, was successful. That year, Geest (a British company set up by three Dutch brothers in the 1930s which has had the monopoly on the export and marketing of bananas from the Windward Islands since the 1950s) took over the marketing of bananas from the islands. The so-called 'green gold' was good for Britain and a godsend for the islands; it became their main agricultural crop and eventually accounted for as much as 60 per cent of their export earnings. Bananas have outlasted sugar, cotton and arrowroot. But Latin America now presents a major threat.

Countries such as Honduras and Costa Rica, which don't need the industry nearly as desperately as the Windward Islands, are ideally suited to banana-growing. Their vast plains can produce masses of fruit without problems and at a much lower labour cost. A single plantation in Latin America can grow as many bananas as 20,000 farmers in the islands. The big three multinationals, Chiquita, Delmonte and Dole (Dole recently bought a 35 per cent share of Jamaica Fruit Distributors, thereby putting a major spanner in the works of Caribbean solidarity), dominate the Latin American and the world banana scene. As John Compton, Prime Minister of St Lucia, says: 'The playing field is not level.' In Martinique I was told that what a banana farmer there expects to earn in a day, a man in Honduras makes in a month.

Over the last five or so years, fierce competition from Latin America, which now has 70 per cent of the world's banana market, has forced the banana producers of the Windward Islands into an increasingly tight corner. They can only hope to survive if their traditional markets continue to be assured, and, since the advent of the Single European Market, this looks increasingly unlikely. The bananas of Spain, Portugal and Greece are secure, thanks to those countries' membership of the EC; so are the bananas produced in the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

In 1993, the introduction of a common market regime by the European Union meant that the Germans, the biggest consumers of bananas in Europe, lost their old privilege of a totally unrestricted market for bananas. Each German eats on average 18kg of bananas a year - double the amount consumed by the French or the British - and feelings for bananas in Germany run high. Otto Schily, founder of the Greens, has been quoted as saying: 'East Germans did not vote for democracy but for the banana,' and in the backstreets of Berlin, they say that the one true symbol of German unification should be the banana. German cars carry bumper stickers and decals saying 'Eat German BANANAS.' There is a German Banana Museum (lest this seem too ridiculous, I should point out that there is also an Asparagus Museum in Regensburg in Bavaria). The German artist Thomas Baumgaertel has said that ' . . . bananas are almost a holy object in Germany' and that he wanted to make Cologne 'the big banana'.

Last year, in response to the loss of their privilege, and supported by Belgium and Holland, Germany brought a case in the European Court of Justice to challenge the legality of the EU banana regime. On 8 June this year, the Advocate-General recommended that the judges reject the entire German case. But it won't be until early next month, when the court delivers its judgment, that the matter will finally be closed.

Difficulties with Germans and bananas are not new. In the 1957 Treaty of Rome which created the EEC, the issue of bananas was the last thing to be settled, with the Germans arguing for and getting an exemption from import duty - covertly, if not openly, on the grounds that they had no colonies.

At that time three of the six founding member states had traditional links with banana-producing countries: Belgium with the Belgian Congo; France with its overseas departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe and its colonies of Cte d'Ivoire and Cameroon; and Italy with Somalia. By the beginning of 1993 the Single European Market, talks about which had begun in 1986, had to be finalised. Once again bananas were the last thing to be agreed. Provided the court follows the Advocate-General's recommendations next month, and rejects the German case, the Community, including Germany, will have to continue to fulfil its obligations under the Banana Protocols of the December 1989 Fourth Lome Convention. This in effect guarantees that the status of the traditional banana-exporting ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) states should not change for the worse. But Clare Wenner, director of external affairs at Geest and an expert on the problems of the ACP producers, says, 'The European Commission's ability and even willingness to fight back on behalf of the Windward Islands is dwindling in the face of such fierce attacks from Germany and the Latin American interest.'

EARLIER this year I took a banana boat down through the Windward Islands from Antigua to St Vincent. It was a Geest boat, one of four that deliver cargo to and collect bananas from the islands every week.

We would get into port early, usually around dawn, and the unloading and loading would begin. There would be queues of men looking to be taken on for a day's work as stevedores. Unemployment is high in all the Windward Islands (as high as 60 per cent in St Vincent, according to Vincent Beache, the Leader of the Opposition and himself a banana farmer) and people have to take work where they can find it. The three-quarters-mature bananas would have been packed into boxes by the growers on the plantations or in packing stations round the island, trucked down from collection points to the 'weighbridge', where they would be checked and then loaded into temperature-controlled containers deep in the hull of the boat and sent off to the ripening plants back in Britain.

Of the four Anglophone Windward Islands, St Vincent, the poorest Caribbean island after Haiti, has perhaps the most to lose on the banana front. Grenada, with its spice trade, is the least dependent on the industry, which accounts for only 30 per cent of its revenue. St Lucia is the biggest banana producer of the Windwards but has made a concerted and extremely successful pitch for tourism and is now the most popular British destination in the Caribbean. Dominica, though very poor, has the redoubtable Dame Eugenia Charles to manage its affairs and, as a result, is the only Caribbean island to be free of the taint of corruption. But St Vincent, despite gradual attempts to develop its tourism, lacks the necessary infrastructure and is heavily dependent on its bananas. Seventy per cent of the land under permanent crops is devoted to banana cultivation and practically all the bananas produced used to be exported to Britain. As the calypsonian sings, 'My banana is it.'

Down by the quay in Kingstown where the bananas are loaded on to the Geest boats, banners proclaimed a 'Banana Week'. 'Join the MARCH for BANANAS] Rally in Support of the Banana Industry . . . BANANA IS EVERYBODY'S BUSINESS'. That week's edition of Unity (the organ of the Movement for National Unity - motto 'Behold, How Good and How Pleasant It Is For Brethren To Dwell Together In Unity') had a poem called Jumbie Leh Go - a jumbie is the spirit of a dead family member or close friend, a sort of zombie without the horrific connotations. This was how the second verse went.

Death not only rides

A Pale White Horse

But in its hand

Is the Power of life and death.

Its dagger of death

Shows no mercy to sugar

Milk will not be spared;

And woe unto the living

When banana is gone.

In the bar of the Cobblestone Hotel, I met a man called 'Bucky' Boyea, a banana farmer and former member of the Banana Board. Boyea, who signs his open letters to the newspapers 'Yours in agriculture', was preparing for a television appearance. His 'briefcase', crammed with facts, figures and reports on the banana crisis, was, he was quick to point out, a cardboard banana box. 'I'm walking with a banana box,' he said, 'but I cannot produce them any longer - it's costing too much. I'm going back to arrowroot.' Bananas, he explained, are a much more labour-intensive crop than sugar cane, and because their cultivation is so hands-on, farmers often have to take their children out of school to provide cheap labour. This creates social problems but not as great as the problems that will be created if St Vincent's 8,000 registered banana-growers can no longer rely on a regular income. Lobbyists for the Caribbean producers warn of a potential complete breakdown of law and order, making all four Windwards, but particularly St Vincent and the Grenadines, with its maze of tiny islands, vulnerable to drug traffickers. Dame Eugenia Charles said recently: 'If we lost the industry, we would lose the country. It would be the beginning of despair.'

As the sign by the docks said, bananas are everybody's business. The currency of all the islands that belong to the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) is the East Caribbean dollar; it is linked to the US dollar, a disadvantage for the banana producers who are paid in the European currency - mainly sterling - of their markets. And if any island or any group of islands suffers economic hardship, all suffer. Even in the non-banana-producing islands, such as Antigua, bananas are part of the way of life. Ask an Antigua Labour Party supporter why he is not prepared to give the opposition more of a chance, and he will answer: 'You plant a banana tree, you goin' to get bananas.'

I asked Bernard Cornibert of Winban (Windward Islands Bananas Growers' Association) what the solution was. 'We should all migrate to countries like the European Union,' he said, 'if you'll accept us.' Though this may sound flippant, he was making a serious point. The islands have managed to remain politically and economically stable on the back of the banana industry. Politicians talk about diversification and secondary products (baby foods and so on) but Cornibert says that they are 'fooling themselves'. Clare Wenner agrees. 'When people talk about diversification, they seem to think that bananas will go, but diversification has got to be with bananas. Nothing else provides the same level of employment and foreign-exchange earnings. And shipping is crucial to the islands. Our banana boats enable the products of diversification to get to a market. You can't have bananas or but you can have bananas and.' Basically the argument comes down to a choice between direct aid, which Germany, Belgium, Holland and Denmark favour and which John Compton says 'is really beneath our dignity', and a continuation of the existing protection provided for by the Banana Protocols.

The only alternative to bananas seems to be tourism, which brings its own problems and demands (the islands have only sun, sea and sand to offer - everything else has to be imported). Already there are problems arising from 'resort' tourists who buy an all-inclusive package from a UK travel agent and spend nothing locally. Such tourists do little or nothing financially to benefit the small local businessman, be he shopkeeper or restaurateur; and the concept - and reality - of the all-inclusive resort, hidden behind guarded gates and monopolising the best beaches, only serves to emphasise the social and material differences between the islander and the tourist.

But all the islands are hustling for tourists. In the local paper in Dominica an editorial proclaimed:

The Time Is Approaching When More Visitors Will Be On Our Shores


A Helpful Hand . . .

A Kind Word . . .

A Thoughtful Act . . .

All Can Ensure That Our Visitors Have

The Vacation of A Lifetime In Our Nature Isle.

Let's All Play Our Part For Tourism.

Take Care And Share:

Tourism Is Everybody's Business.

In 1962, V S Naipaul wrote in The Middle Passage: 'Every poor country accepts tourism as an unavoidable degradation. None has gone as far as some of these West Indian islands, which, in the name of tourism, are selling themselves into a new slavery.' 'Tourism cannot take the place of agriculture,' said John Compton, 'but I can't see the farmers on the hills wanting to go and serve daiquiris in the hotels.' If the cocktail lounge is where the money is, they may have no choice.

(Photographs omitted)

Lucretia Stewart's book on the Caribbean, 'The Weather Prophet', will be published in February next year by Chatto & Windus (pounds 14.99)