It may be a sweet little banana, but now it's come it's coming out fighting

Almost crushed by the power of globalisation and Latin American rivals, some Caribbean growers have forged a link with a British firm that may be their salvation, writes Hester Lacey

In the humid depths of his banana farm, Ben Emmanuel is deflowering his young fruit. This is less alarming than it sounds. It simply means pinching off the withered flower heads from the tips of the baby bananas. If they're allowed to remain in place, they turn black and spoil the look of the fruit. Ben's farm is at Cul de Sac, near Castries, on the island of St Lucia. Now 40, Ben graduated in business administration from Monroe College in the US, before rejoining the family business, and has farmed his eight acres for 16 years.

Bananas are unique in that they have no season; they flower and fruit all year round. They are a constant source of cash, which is how they earned their nickname "green gold". But this also means hard labour throughout the year. A banana plant takes nine months to flower and fruit; then it is cut down and one of its daughter plants, which grow on suckers from its roots, takes its place. The plants have to be propped with guy ropes, to stop the wind toppling them, and the young bananas are covered in plastic bags to protect them from birds and insects. Harvesting takes place once a week. Green bananas are surprisingly delicate; Ben insists that his workers keep their nails well-trimmed. The slightest blemish means the fruit cannot be sold.

Although the work is tough, the atmosphere is good-humoured. Go to peel a banana from the stem end and there is a good-natured murmur of disapproval. "You're doing it from the wrong end," says Ben, deftly stripping the banana from the tip. He's right; his way is easier. Meanwhile, two tractors are ploughing up a plot for fresh planting. They are followed by a cloud of white egrets, just as seagulls follow the plough in this country. One of Ben's labourers is slicing the tops off fresh coconuts - straight from the palm trees that are dotted among the bananas - for a refreshing drink.

It's a charming scene. But many small-scale Caribbean farmers like Ben are struggling to survive. It's not because we aren't buying bananas; we get through around £750m worth of them every year. After lottery tickets and petrol, bananas are the most valuable individual product sold by British supermarkets. But those profits aren't often passed back down the chain.

The bananas we buy in the UK come from two main sources; Latin America, and the islands of the West Indies, where Ben farms. The Caribbean banana is altogether superior. It tastes better, being smaller and sweeter than the hulking Latinos. The plantations of Latin America are infested with the black sigatoka fungus, a rapidly mutating banana-spoiler.

A huge fuss surrounds black sigatoka; it supposedly sounds the death-knell of the cultivated banana. But reports of the banana's demise are greatly exaggerated: there is no black sigatoka in the Caribbean. While the huge banana fields of Latin America are sprayed with chemicals, Caribbean bananas are produced with minimal use of herbicides and pesticides. And the Latin American plantation workers struggle under harsh conditions, while Caribbean bananas are grown on small family-run farms.

Traditionally, the UK has been the most important market for Caribbean bananas. However, UK banana imports from the Caribbean have fallen from 65 per cent to around a quarter. Why do we eat so many Latin American bananas? Surprise! It comes down to cost. Recent supermarket price wars have seen banana prices slashed. The costs of this price war fall squarely on the grower. Caribbean islands such as St Lucia and St Vincent are hilly, volcanic peaks, which mean labour-intensive, traditional methods are still used. Latin American bananas are farmed on plains, which allow for mechanisation, and lower costs.

Until recently, the playing field was levelled by special EU import tariffs for the Caribbean banana. But these were ruled illegal by the World Trade Organisation in the late 1990s. Since then, Caribbean growers have had a hard time. Some have gone out of business, or started sidelines to make ends meet. Sadly, some farmers have found that drugs are more profitable than bananas. Meanwhile, the continued success of the tourist industry relies on the stability of the local economy. So the renaissance of the Caribbean banana has a lot riding on it.

However, progress may be being made. The Waitrose supermarket chain, working with the Windward Islands Banana Development Corporation, has adopted a fresh approach that aims to put Caribbean bananas back on the shelves. The 104 growers in the scheme, who farm an average of five acres on St Lucia or St Vincent, receive a guaranteed market at a favourable price. In return, the farmers deliver top-quality produce grown to strict guidelines, using a minimum of chemicals (phasing out organophosphates, for example). Most of the costs are absorbed by the supermarket; the premium on Caribbean bananas is 10p per kilo to the consumer.

The emphasis is on forging an individual relationship with the growers; this takes legwork on the part of the Waitrose team, which visits regularly. However, this personal touch is the key to the scheme's success. "It means a lot to me and my workers to know who we're dealing with," says Ben. "We can work together in our mutual interests." The growers also receive technical support and advice. When tropical storm Lili passed through St Lucia and devastated 80 per cent of her plants, the first thing Hyacinth Dwarkasingh did was get in contact with Waitrose for help. Hyacinth, 30, has been a banana farmer since she was 16. "I love my farm; I wouldn't want to do anything else," she says.

Although the Waitrose group is relatively small, it is influential, says Gilbert Popo, a veteran grower. "The other farmers are watching us closely. Some only want to work at their own convenience, but our fields must at all times be up to standard." It can, he says, be difficult to change the practices you've used for decades; but the rewards make it worthwhile.

This scheme is a good start; but St Lucia alone has around 5,000 banana farmers. Those that can find a guaranteed, fairly priced market remain in the minority. They are limited by the number of British consumers that choose to buy Caribbean.

Jacintha Gilbert is an unlikely looking banana farmer. Her nails are immaculately manicured and her hair is perfectly coiffed. She runs the Gorgeous Hair Design beauty salon in Castries. But she also farms 10 acres of bananas. "I've always loved the soil; my father was a farming man. Our children today are turning their backs on the soil." The revenue from her farm barely covers the costs of fertiliser and wages, but she intends to keep on her seven workers.

"Things are getting tough all over the world. But as long as God gives me the strength I've got no plans to shut my doors. Because if there are no bananas in St Lucia, St Lucia herself will shut down."

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