STANDING deep within the hold of the banana boat MV Elke, you would have no idea you were at sea. Steel walls tower overhead like the sides of a windowless New York skyscraper up to the black square of sky where boxes of bananas are swinging down from the giant crane for packing.
Sometime after midnight, when the last 46lb box has been fork-lifted into position, the doors will be slammed shut. As the sign with the skull and crossbones warns: "On completion of loading, oxygen will be removed from this hatch. Anyone remaining faces death."
In the nitrogen-rich environment of the high-tech hold, the 700 tons of bananas, cut just hours earlier in the plantations of the tiny Caribbean island of St Vincent, will be held in arrested development. When they arrive at Southampton in eight days' time for the perusal of buyers from Tesco and Sainsbury's, they will emerge in the same blemish-free condition in which they were loaded on this warm, breezy, Monday night.
As we walk away from the ship, the economics of the situation are made clear by one of the ship's hands. "When we load 1,000 tons, everyone's really happy, 700 tons is just about all right. When it's 400, people are really worried."
They haven't loaded 1,000 tons in a long time.
St Vincent is an island teetering on the edge of crisis. The banana trade, the staple of the economy, is collapsing and farmers are going out of business. Many ruined growers are killing themselves in despair.
Responsibility for the problems facing islands like St Vincent lies with the Americas. The United States, at the instigation of the multinational fruit companies in Latin America, last year won a ruling from the World Trade Organisation that the preferential trading arrangements which have supported Caribbean banana exports to Europe for decades were illegal. The deals were deemed to be against the interests of free and fair trade.
If the European Union cannot find a compromise arrangement - as it is attempting to do at a crisis meeting of trade ministers and farmers in Brussels this week - the banana business of St Vincent will be destroyed. The EU, which has sent a social development adviser to work in the Caribbean because of the crisis, and anyone on St Vincent, knows what will happen then: young people, no longer able to earn a living from packing fruit, will turn to the deadly drugs trade.
Superintendent Chiefton Noel, who heads the island's 24-man drugs squad, knows. His team seized more marijuana in the first two months of this year than in the whole of last year, and the island is already an acknowledged transit point for exporting cocaine to Britain and the United States. He shows a letter begging for police assistance in checking drug trafficking on board a ship between the islands. The ship owner is desperate and alarmed.
"Once we have the banana plantations out of operation, the acres of marijuana plantation will go higher because these people are farmers," Supt Noel says. Ash from the Soufriere volcano in the north of St Vincent makes a fertile growing ground, and these people have little else. "All these islands - St Vincent, St Lucia, Dominica, Grenada - rely on agriculture for survival. I don't know what the Windward Islands will do if the banana plantations go down. We have a lot of people in St Vincent below the poverty line and they can be easily used by the drug dealers. Sometimes I go home and I cannot sleep."
Renwick Rose knows the banana industry inside out. The head of the Windward Islands Farmers' Association (WINFA), he is in Brussels this week pleading the islanders' case. "We're living with a time-bomb which is ticking away," Renwick says. Bananas are now Britain's favourite fruit and it is clear the market is going to grow. "But whether there is going to be room for our small farmers I just don't know."
Official figures show that 60 per cent of people who work on St Vincent are employed in the banana industry. Seventy per cent of its agricultural exports are bananas. But take a drive around the island and the decline is evident. From 6,500 farmers just a few years ago, there are now between 3,000, and 4,000. The uncertainty is discouraging even those who can still afford to grow, and many farmers have cut back production.
"That used to be banana plantations," says Wilberforce Emanuel, with a sweeping gesture of his arm. "And that."
Wilberforce grows three acres of bananas and is president of the 4,000- strong National Farmers' Union (NFU), dominated by banana growers. His members are people like Matthew Trimmingham, 51, who has abandoned some of his six acres because it just is not worth cultivating them. Disabled since he lost an arm in a car crash at carnival time, he cannot afford to pay the meagre cost of labour -EC$25 (just over pounds 5) a day, down from $30 or more a day in the heyday of production in the 1980s. "My income is less than half of what is was," he says. "I'm not making any profit at all." Asked how long he can go on, he pauses. "I'm asking myself that question," he says eventually. "I don't think I can last long." That day, he was hoping to get EC$210 (pounds 46) for 30 boxes, barely covering his costs.
Another farmer, Elroy Smart, 40, says he could not tell you how much he earns. He used to sell 120 cartons of bananas every other week, now it is down to 12 or 15. "Some years I could have told you my income. Now it's so bad I couldn't. If I really studied my accounts, I might go mad. Yesterday I went to town to pay some bills. I don't think I received EC$200 (pounds 44) for the month but I needed EC$375 (pounds 82) for light bills and so on."
The NFU and WINFA are addressing the question of diversification, but it is difficult. To move from bananas to another crop could take up to five years. To tide you over, you need collateral. Without that, you have to keep on growing bananas, for the sake of the few East Caribbean dollars you can raise at market each week.
Among the alternatives is arrowroot, of which the island is the world's principal supplier, but it can only be dug by hand on the island's hilly slopes. Like the banana growers, arrowroot farmers cannot utilise the heavy machinery which makes central American plantations so cost-effective. Another proposal is tourism, perhaps with visitors getting to stay on a real-life plantation.
In the meantime, Wilberforce is an advocate of a "fair trade banana" scheme, like those run in countries including Germany and Holland, along the lines of the fair trade coffee already available in Britain."The situation can only improve if there is a fair price - if the farmer is paid a fair price to cover the cost of production. It can only improve if the consumer, too, is being sold the bananas at a fair price. The supermarkets have very big mark-ups."
Supermarket profits are not the whole story, though.
Only about one quarter of the money paid by the big stores in Britain reaches the islands' farmers by the time middle men and transporters have taken their cut.
The giant fruit-growers of central America - companies like Del Monte, Chiquita and Dole - have faced criticisms over the way they treat the staff on their vast plantations, but Wilberforce says that in some ways he envies those employees. "If they work and earn $5 they get $5."
Another problem is the standards demanded by both the EU, which in 1993 introduced tougher rules, even down to regulation lengths for fruit, and the supermarkets, which will accept nothing less than the perfect banana.
At the Hopewell "roving assessment centre", farmers have their bananas rigorously checked for blemishes before being sent for loading. Anxious not to lose business with the British supermarkets, which are St Vincent's only market, every box is checked thoroughly. Sometimes a farmer's whole crop might be rejected. As Ashley Cane, the 37-year-old supervisor at Hopewell, says: "The supermarkets are relentless in their pursuit of the perfect banana. The only way we can guarantee perfect fruit is by the greater use of pesticides."
But Wilberforce and Renwick are contemptuous of the need for chemicals. "You look at the skin of a banana and it might look ugly but it's beautiful inside," Wilberforce says. "The more chemicals, the more the bananas come to perfection faster and the size becomes bigger, but it is not grown naturally so the food is not what it should be."