The British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s will announce today that, from now on all the bananas it sells, will be ‘fairly traded’. This comes as good news for the West Indian Windward Islands such as St Lucia and Dominica, Sainsbury’s having pledged to buy a large percentage of their export crop.
The islands will use the profits to renovate school buildings, repair banana sheds and invest in other social facilities and services. Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of Dominica (and at 35, the youngest in the world) commented that, ‘As a result of Fair Trade, our farmers are now able to invest in their community in the form of school equipment, farm roads and community facilities’.
At the start of the1990s, the small-scale family-run farms of the Windward Islands were supplying around two-thirds of the UK’s bananas, but then the figure dropped dramatically because of imports of cheaper Latin American and West African bananas grown on industrialized plantations.
In the meantime, the US, representing the interests of transnational companies such as Dole and Del Monte, argued that the trade protection enjoyed by British ex-colonies was discriminatory, forcing the European Union to progressively open its market to imports of intensively-produced bananas from countries where operating costs are low because workers’ conditions are poor and environmental standards slack.
Banana production is very labour-intensive on the Windward Islands. Due to the hilly terrain, mechanization is impractical, and irrigation is rarely an option. Transport costs are also necessarily high and the area is frequently at the mercy of volcanoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. In 2004, the island of Grenada lost its entire banana production in one day when Hurricane Ivan hit.
Now the Windwards banana industry is enjoying a surprise turn in fortune thanks to the British buying public’s love affair ethical trading and supermarkets’ desire to polish their global image. Fair Trade has helped them to distinguish their product and many consumers are prepared to pay the premium price for a more delicious, more ethically-produced banana. 70 per cent of the Windward Islands’ bananas exports are now Fair Trade.
Nine years ago Co-op was the only British supermarket to stock Fair Trade products, but since then the market has boomed, with sales rising by 46% in 2006. Fair Trade labeling started in The Netherlands at the end of the 1980s and the Fair Trade Mark was launched in the UK in March 1994. The number of Fair Trade products available has increased from 150 in 2003 to more than 2,500 today.
Over the next two weeks, ‘Fairtrade Fortnight’, an initiative backed by supported by aid agencies, unions, church and other faith groups, a number of special events will be staged across Great Britain.
For more information on the banana trade in the Windward Islands:
Joanna Blythman, ‘Banana Drama’, in Slow 55