Denise Hall: Bananas show why fair trade saves lives

Q&A: Stephen Best
Denise Hall: Bananas show why fair trade saves lives

Bananas are the most popular fruit in the world. Not a tree at all, but a high herb, the banana grows up to 15 metres tall.

There are an estimated 1,000 varieties of banana in the world, but the most commonly known is the Cavendish variety, which is produced for the export market.

Bananas are grown in more than 150 countries, and desert bananas, which account for 43 million tonnes a year are of huge economic importance for many countries.

They are the most traded fruit globally and the fifth most traded farm product. The global value of the banana trade was estimated at US$7bn in 2013, with a retail value between €20bn and €25bn.

They are a source of nutrition and food security for more than 400 million people in producer countries.

The monoculture production methods used can be harmful, as can agrochemicals used.

So small-scale production in regions like the Caribbean is more sustainable, but low prices forced many farmers out of the market.

A race to the bottom in the banana industry has been fuelled by the low prices paid by supermarkets and the cost-cutting tactics taken by some fruit companies as they search for cheaper labour.

In an attempt to limit their responsibility for working conditions, some employers use sub-contracted labour.

Plantation conditions can be harsh with many workers on temporary contracts or hired on a daily basis. They work 10 to 12 hours a day in extreme heat and even then may fail to earn a living wage — one that would cover their basic needs such as housing, clothing and an education for their children.

Since its inception, the Fairtrade Organisation has made a significant difference in the lives of many banana farmers.

It was 1985 when Dutch economist Nico Roozen and missionary Frans van der Hoff came up with the idea that if ethical trade was to have any real global impact, goods had to be readily available in mainstream shops.

Peter Gaynor, executive director of Fairtrade Ireland, comments on the organisation’s current campaign and the drive to convince all Irish retailers to commit to selling 100% Fairtrade bananas.

“Fairtrade Ireland posed an important question to the Irish retailers this week and we were pleased to receive an answer from Marks and Spencer, Lidl, Aldi and Tesco Ireland, who collectively account for about 41% of Irish grocery market share — but who are responsible apparently for the sale of 87% of Fairtrade bananas.

“We are still waiting for an answer from SuperValu and Dunne’s Stores,” Gaynor says. “Despite dominating the Irish grocery market with virtually a combined 50% market share, they only account for a mere 13% of Fairtrade bananas sold in Ireland.

“These figures don’t add up to much for Dunne’s Stores and SuperValu in particular.”

Now Fairtrade are calling on all Irish retailers to rise to the challenge presented to them by the UK and their EU counterparts who have already converted to stocking 100% Fairtrade bananas.

Stephen Best is a banana farmer from the Windward Islands, chairperson of the Windward Islands farmers’ Association (WINFA) who has travelled to Ireland as part of the Fairtrade Fortnight.

He told me about life as a small farmer on the island of St Lucia, and the vital importance of support from retailers in Ireland.

How many acres are you farming?

I have seven acres, five in bananas and on the rest I grow vegetables. It’s flat land and good, loamy soil, so it’s very productive.

We employ five people. I’ve been very touched with the reception I have got since arriving in Ireland. Meeting people from towns and villages across the country has really bought home to me the compassion of the Irish people. It’s really something.

But that makes it even harder to understand how it is that only 8% of bananas sold in Ireland are Fairtrade.

What would you like to see?

I’m appealing directly to Irish supermarkets to examine where they source their bananas from. I’m sure if they took just five minutes to do this they would realise that Fairtrade bananas are the only type of bananas they should consider selling.

I’m willing to meet with any shopkeeper or retailer to explain exactly what Fairtrade has done for framers, workers and entire communities in the Windward Islands.

What sort of a cropping rotation do you have with bananas?

Well, bananas grow continuously. We remove the shoots at the base and leave just one. But before we became a Fairtrade farm in the ’90s, we ended up in trouble.

There was an end to the preferential treatment we were given by the UK because we were a former colony and the Americans lowered their tariffs for other suppliers.

Things were very bad for everyone on the island. It just wasn’t financially viable to produce bananas any more. We were on a downward spiral. Then WINFA began a relationship with Fairtrade, and everything began to improve. Now we can afford to produce our crops sustainably and employ five other people.

That means that’s five more families who are being supported and more children who can afford to go to school.

What are the problems you might get with your crops?

Well, of course hurricanes are a big problem here. The stem of the banana is actually very soft and when you’ve got winds of 90 miles an hour, you can loose the whole crop overnight. And we are noticing the effects of climate change too.

The weather tends to be more extreme, with more dry spells. It makes planning farm activities difficult. Apart from that, a black fungus can affect the banana, which can be very destructive. And workers have to be very careful because the fruit can be damaged very easily. We hope retailers in Ireland understand how important their support is.

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