Ariel Bramble, part of Fairtrade America’s Business Development team, traveled to the West Indies and had the opportunity to visit Fairtrade farmers in the Windward Islands.
The people of the island nations of the Caribbean breathe resiliency. Hurricanes, volcanoes, encroaching waters, and yet they persevere, striving to improve their future.
On the second leg of our journey, my husband and I boarded a ferry to the small volcanic island of Montserrat. With sights of the clear coastline and sounds of steel drums, you would never know that half of the island had been destroyed by a devastating volcanic eruption nearly 20 years ago. Plymouth, the capital city – along with businesses, homes, and much of the lush countryside – were covered in boulders, rubble and overgrown vegetation. However, in the intervening years, new homes, schools, and hospital facilities have been built within the designated safe zone.
From Montserrat, we made our way to St. Lucia, home to the towering Piton mountains and a busy banana industry that provides sweet, Fairtrade bananas to the UK market. St. Lucia is part of the Windward Islands, an island chain in the Lesser Antilles in a historically prime location for shipping routes. In 2010, the banana industry of St. Lucia – which represents over 26% of the total exports for the country – was devastated by Hurricane Tomas, Hurricane Ernesto in 2012 and damaging flooding in 2013. And this only seems to be the beginning as a changing climate is making extreme weather more common. The farmers of St. Lucia are working together to implement resilient farming practices, like those promoted by Fairtrade, and are creating greater opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, regardless of the fluctuating environment around them.
The Fairtrade Team
I sought out some of these hard-working individuals who work every day to supply thousands of Fairtrade bananas to hungry shoppers. The farmers of St. Lucia recently became independently certified by Fairtrade and are working to expand their capacity in the banana sector. Their team is talented and skilled and they were kind enough to show me where things begin—on the farm.
It takes organized effort to get a banana harvested and trimmed, cleaned and inspected, packaged and shipped before it arrives at its final destination — your hands. Each step require human hands to help them along their journey across the fields and oceans.
The banana fields are lined with wide-leafed 10-foot tall plants chock-full of banana bunches marked and ready for harvest. Each bunch can weigh over 100 pounds. Workers skillfully trimmed bunch after bunch into little “hands” of bananas, counting and sorting as they worked, resting the selected hands on a clean bed of banana leaves.
Crop diversification is one of the ways that farmers are confronting an unpredictable climate (and marketplace). On one of the two farms I toured, the small-holder farmer had crops of tomatoes, sweet potatoes, papayas and peppers among his bananas. However, he explained that while bananas are an important crop, the other crops are what help the community thrive.
Once harvested, the bananas are washed, sorted and packaged in boxes, ready to be taken to taken to the warehouse and eventually sold. Farmer after farmer pulled up to the entrance in their pick-up trucks overflowing with boxes of bananas.
The bananas and boxes were counted and checked for quality and handed off to WINFRESH, a banana exporter and trader invested in the local banana industry. The next stop for those bananas was the shipyard where they were loaded onto a boat for the UK marking the end of my journey with those bananas.
Before leaving the island, Dr. Marilyn St. Rose, the Standards and Certification Unit Manager of the association took us to a meeting room of the Mabouya Valley Farmers’ Association. This is where farmers of that region share best practices, work issues they are facing, collect Fairtrade supplies, and democratically decide on how their Fairtrade Premium will be invested. (The Fairtrade Premium is an additional fund paid to producers on top of the purchase price that they elect to invest in social, environmental and/or economic development projects for their communities and businesses as they see fit.)
One example of how local groups used their Premium was painted bright green with a wooden playground out front. This school and development center for children with special needs fulfilled an important need for the community and was what the farmers chose to spend their Fairtrade premium dollars on.
While the Fairtrade farmers of St. Lucia face many challenges and the number of unpredictable variables affecting them continues to grow, their dedication to their industry, their families, and the entire nation is strong and will carry them through. As farmers grow older and conventional banana market prices go down, the St. Lucian banana industry looks to consumers who understand and support a more ethical and sustainable way of doing business.
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