Saturday, July 12, 2008

Agriculture in Saint Lucia

My Buddy Donni a fellow Hoosier Peace Corps Volunteer gave me some straight talk info on Agriculture in Saint Lucia to help me prepare for my interview with the Gates Foundation. I hope you find it as interesting, open and frank as I did.


Sorry, I've been a bit unmindful of my offer to send you some briefing notes for your interview with the Gates Foundation. If I remember correctly, you flew out today, so hopefully this doesn't come entirely too late.

Recent history for St. Lucian agriculture has been the WTO ruling against preferential trading with the UK that occurred in 1997. Many livelihood were destroyed in St. Lucia as farmers were unfamiliar with planting other marketable crops (seeing as dasheen, breadfruit, and green figs don't sell at a high price). Many farmers moved to Martinique to work on banana farms their, which had maintain preferential trading with France, as it is a French territory. It also means that people can get paid in Euros. If I understand correctly, basically people can go and work for two weeks at a time and that's it, so it prevents massive migration, but it still common even now for people to go to Martinique to work.

In 2000, the National Fair Trade Organization started and has slowly incorporated almost all banana farmers into its auspices around the island. They export bananas to the UK (I believe exclusively, though that's not a requirement) as a fair trade brand. The premium that is paid by customers for the fair trade bananas from St. Lucia is then put into a fund for social projects, which in Dennery has included a computer lab for a primary school, support for the community centre I've worked on, an autoclave for the Dennery hospital to sterilize their medical tools, etc. Farmers are involved in making the decisions as to which projects to support. Additionally, farmers have to comply with some environmental restrictions like the reduction and limited use of pesticides, not planting next to rivers to prevent chemical runoff. And some health requirements, all farms now have pit toilets.

It's difficult to diversify crops in St. Lucia for two main reasons: first, it's expensive. To grow other crops profitably, farmers need the significant capital to pay for the sowing, harvesting, and distribution, while also daily living expenses before being able to recoup their money with successful sales (which is obviously no guarantee). Bananas provide regular income, every two weeks, while all other crops basically require waiting for several months for a payday. Also, because of the rainy and dry seasons having a greenhouse is a significant advantage in terms of avoiding some natural gluts and gaps in the market caused by weather. Setting up a greenhouse is relatively cheap, since it is pvc and plastic sheets, though the sheets ware out because of the intense sunshine and need to be replaced every few years and must be imported from Miami or somewhere else. Most farmers don't have enough saving to invest in a greenhouse. Which leads to the second reason: people are resistant to change. Much of this is clearly linked to a lack of education, whether it is in regard to farmer techniques, financial management, or understanding the market. If one farmer is successful in trying something new, others will follow. But their is significant personal financial requirements to going it alone and some social pressure to avoid any sort of public failure in small, rural communities. All of this contributes to slow changes.

Markets are available. Large luxury hotels continue to import many crops that could be grown locally, if a stable supply chain could be established. But the pushing and tugging and investment in teaching and explanation involved upfront is usually more than any one individual in the Ministry of Agriculture seems can accomplishing. As an example of group think, no risk mentality, is the regular glut of tomatoes on the market in St. Lucia. Everyone seems plant at the same time, driving down the prices of tomatoes, which is provided in a constant supply, would provide a better price to all sellers. But the coordination is extremely challenging. Even Fair Trade is often just tolerated by farmers because it's the only game in town. I've heard several farmers complain about the reduction in the use of chemicals and how that affects their yields, plus the sentiment that the leaders of fair trade are just their for themselves. It's rather astonishing.

I think you should also talk about the youth and how adverse they are to farm work, because it's seen as backwards and poor, even though if they worked wisely, one could make a very comfortable living farming.

Also, probably good to know, is that all of the major banana producing areas produced sugar cane into the 50s and 60s, when it shifted entirely to bananas. Land redistribution programs away from the large sugar estates has meant that most people have access to land, often around 3 acres. Few have more than that. In the 80s, bananas were sold very profitably and were referred to as green gold. This period is responsible for much of the deforestation that has dried up the east side of the island. People began squatting, buying, and farming on the hillsides, slashing much needed forest. The forest reserve in the center of St. Lucia was established in the 1940s, I believe, when the population of the island was only 50,000, less than one-third of what it is now. So, with the boom in population, the current forest reserve is insufficient for all of the various water needs, especially better irrigation to permit the growth of the agricultural sector.

alright bro, hope that can be of service. I'm traveling back to Goshen tomorrow, so I won't have email.

good luck!


"The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been kindness, beauty, and truth." ~Albert Einstein

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