Banana Activists Speak Out

Interviews from EUROBAN

Renwick Rose

Iris Munguia

Alistair Smith

31 March 2011

We took the opportunity during the EUROBAN meeting to interview three of the participants. A Caribbean banana producer, a Honduran trade unionist and a British banana activist share their views of the banana trade. Read more about the meeting here.

Interview with Renwick Rose, Coordinator and CEO of the Windward Islands Farmers Association (WINFA)

What problems are you facing in banana farming in the Windward Islands?

Ever since the European Commission started adjustments in preferential treatment in 1993, it has been difficult. Back then we had 25 000 banana producers.  Last year we had only 3300. We also have increasing competition from Latin American and conventional bananas. There have been a number of natural disasters like Hurricane Tomas and several storms, droughts and floods. For the first time we have had Black Sigatoka disease which really affected production.

If it had not been for Fairtrade we would not be exporting bananas extra-regionally. Fairtrade has enabled us to stay in the European market because of the guaranteed price, Fairtrade Premium and so on.  I think it is important for people to know what Fairtrade has done to help rescue the market in the Windward Islands and provide a livelihood for these farmers.

Do you think those problems are connected to climate change or just natural events?

I can’t say exactly, but there is evidence that the climate is not the same. For instance our dry season should have started in January, but instead it is still raining almost every day. It is impacting our production because many farmers know when to plant based on traditional knowledge. I think there is a need for concerted research about these events.

How are farmers coping after the hurricane?

After every storm there is a flurry of external relief, but it quickly goes away. All the relief support has been spent on helping farmers rehabilitate their farmland. Now the danger is that producers won’t get an income from bananas until June. Also WINFA helps farmers meet the standards but we are funded mainly from the Fairtrade Premium, and there has been no Premium since October. We may have to make some staff cuts.

However, all is not lost. Currently Julie (Francoeur, FLO’s Liaison Officer) is helping us to diversify into other Fairtrade products, such as herbs and spices. And we in the Windward Islands are a resilient people.

Interview with Iris Munguia, Deputy Coordinator of COLSIBA, the Coordinating Body of Latin American Banana and Agro-industrial Workers Unions

What challenges is COLSIBA currently facing?

In this last year we have had many problems with Chiquita and the persecution of trade unions. Many trade union members and leaders have been dismissed. We have also noticed that Chiquita is now attempting to extend negotiations for collective bargaining as long as possible. An agreement that should take six months to negotiate is now lasting 18-24 months. If the company delays the agreement then they can save millions of dollars in wages, maternity protection and holidays. We are demanding that negotiations should not last more than six months.

How are you working for the rights of women workers?

We are demanding more employment opportunities for women, because we have noticed that there is very little recruitment of women workers. We wrote a letter to companies on March 8th, International Women’s Day, asking them to review their policies on the recruitment of women, women’s health and sexual harassment. This letter has been sent to Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte and signed by more than eight thousand people. We received responses from Chiquita and Dole. Del Monte did not react to the letter.

How can we work together at FLO to help shape trade unions and collective bargaining?

We are convinced that the only way to improve the situation of workers is through collective bargaining and empowering workers to know their rights. That does not mean that everywhere that there is a trade union the situation is running smoothly, but at least we have a tool that allows for dialogue and negotiation. We are encouraged that FLO has expressed a willingness to work on workers’ rights issues. We see this as a political decision and I think that real progress can happen.

Interview with Alistair Smith, Founder of Banana Link and a founding member of EUROBAN, a group of organizations that work collaboratively to achieve fair working and environmental conditions for farmers and workers in tropical fruit supply chains

Are you proud of what EUROBAN has accomplished?

We can definitely say we have made steps forward. The World Banana Forum that launched in 2009 is a concrete product of our work. Key banana players and global retailers are now engaging with us to try to resolve difficult issues like: living wages, trade union and workers' rights, and the effects of pesticides on human health. All of these things are not just under discussion, but are actually being put into action on the ground. 

Also, EUROBAN is a volunteer network which never had its own funds. So we are living proof that you don’t need a heavyweight structure to be effective and dynamic.

What do you think of the recent banana price wars?

We feel that supermarkets are devaluing Fairtrade by going down to such ridiculously low prices. We have not won the battle yet, but we think supermarkets should be taking a stand in these retail price wars. If we want living wages and fair prices to be paid along the chain, then supermarkets can’t go below a certain level.  It gives the wrong signal to consumers and to the wider market.

What is your opinion of Fairtrade’s strategy of strengthening, broadening and deepening? Do you think we are heading in the right direction?

The last few years there was a slight tendency to grow the market without paying enough attention to the solidity of the Fairtrade model, particularly on ensuring the benefits are really being channelled through to workers. But now that is all under review and we view that as very positive and the increasingly good relationship with the Latin American trade unions can only be positive. I can see that within two or three years FLO will be in a strong position to influence parts of the market it hasn’t yet reached.

Read more about the EUROBAN meeting here.

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