Martin Henry, Contributor
"Five fi hundred!" You see them at the stop lights in their branded company bibs peddling clean, beautiful, just-ripe bananas in attractive packaging containing five fingers for $100, $20 apiece.
But in the news story, 'Ripe banana feud rages: Small farmers say they are hurting as cheap fruits flood the market', carried by The Sunday Gleaner on August 25, 2013, chairman of the All-Island Banana Growers' Association (AIBGA), Grethel Sessing, was reported as complaining that "it seems as though there is a deliberate effort by Jamaica Producers (JP) to drive all small banana farmers out of the market place". The AIBGA chairman says, "This is done through the process of price reduction and dumping."
Not so, says JP's Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Hall. JP's pricing policy is driven by two considerations, he says. One is to ensure an economic and sustainable return on investment and fair wages for employees. And the other is to make banana economical nutrition for every Jamaican.
JP, which now controls about 50 per cent of the domestic banana market, has taken to deploying stop light vendors of its attractively packaged product.
The fight between small farmers in the AIBGA and the biggest producer of bananas in the country, Jamaica Producers, which ironically, is also a member of the association, stirs up some forgotten history.
Ironically, the company now at the receiving end of complaints from smaller farmers, has its origins in similar complaints against the big expatriate companies which dominated the banana export market in the early 20th century. How the wheels turn!
The brilliant young advocate, Norman Manley, was hired to do the legal drafting for a cooperative of small farmers which could compete with the giants as an alternative marketing organisation for Jamaican bananas in the export market.
Manley tells the story in his unfinished autobiography. And, thanks to Rex Nettleford, we have access to the autobio fragment in Manley & the New Jamaica, Selected Speeches & Writings, 1938-1968.
In the 1920s, Jamaica, where the banana export industry had started some 50 years earlier, was the largest exporter of bananas in the world, something which is difficult to believe today. But "the United Fruit Company and Elders & Fyffes controlled the position in Jamaica," Manley wrote. "And the small Jamaica grower paid for it. His prices varied with United Fruit Company interests, and there was no guarantee that he could sell at all when his fruit was ready."
"It was in these circumstances that a few brave men began to believe that it was possible to plan for a cooperative big enough to own their own ships, and strong enough to force the United Fruit Company to bargain with them."
These few brave men formed the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association, which Norman Manley described as the first large cooperative in Jamaica.
Among the 'few brave men' behind the formation of the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association, were C.E. Johnston, the grandfather of Charles Johnston, now the chairman of the successor organisation, Jamaica Producers; Sir John Pringle, a poor Scottish doctor from the Outer Hebrides who, under advice, had migrated to Jamaica in search of his fortune and who, with 5,000 acres, was then the largest 'small' banana producer in Jamaica; and Sir Arthur Farquharson, founder of the Farquharson Institute of Public Affairs.
"The co-op got off to a fine start," Manley recalled, "and in a few years its contracts covered about a quarter of the production in Jamaica. It had a few thousands of members. It owned ships and it marketed bananas in England and on the continent - but it was soon to run into difficulties."
A key difficulty was when banana was scarce, the United Fruit Company and Elders & Fyffes would bid up the price to obtain the quantities they needed from suppliers other than their own growers in order to fill their contract obligations in the export market. Many co-op members could not resist the higher prices and broke ranks with their cooperative to sell to the United Fruit Company and Elders & Fyffes.
But when bananas were plentiful, the big companies slashed the price and didn't need to buy all the bananas small farmers could put on the market. Fruit rejection rates were high then.
And, of course, there was the reverse difficulty: When the co-op could not satisfy its contractual obligations and its share of the export market because fruit was scarce either because of naturaldisasters or the big companies had bought up supplies, what was it to do? Manley ruefully noted that "neither problem was ever solved". Lawyer Manley, on many occasions, "prosecuted on behalf of the co-op and secured convictions for penal breaches of contract".
Manley said of his involvement with the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association: "In this way I got drawn into the real life of the country and began to learn and prepare myself for the future that began in 1938." The PNP and the country have some debt to bananas!
Another Manley-led organisation, Jamaica Welfare, a little older than the PNP, came out of bananas. Jamaica Welfare has morphed into what is now the Social Development Commission.
The Ministry of Agriculture has declined to intervene in the AIBGA/JP quarrel, saying it has no basis to do so. The agency the AIBGA really needs to deal with concerning its dumping charge against Jamaica Producers is the Fair Trading Commission.In the early 1930s, the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association, with Manley aboard, sent a delegation to the governor seeking similar protection. "The governor was almost hostile," Manley reported. "He vigorously counter-attacked in defence of Elders & Fyffes [a British transnational corporation]. He argued and nothing could really shift him that the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association was not really a co-op at all except in name." The governor "took refuge in a very familiar tactic" and set up a commission of enquiry!
The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture has advised that the AIBGA initiate dialogue with JP to resolve the issue. Well, the commission of enquiry back then essentially agreed with the governor that the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association was not really a co-op and that the problems that faced the organisation as a competitor with Fyffes "were insoluble and that some special arrangement would have to be worked out"!
The Jamaica Banana Producers Association chose instead to talk to the United Fruit Company (UFC), a US-based transnational which has been a big part of the 20th-century history of this country and of the Latin American region, where it was sometimes more powerful than governments. The old UFC is now embedded in Chiquita.
The rags-to-riches president of the UFC, Samuel Zemurray, a Jewish-Russian immigrant to the United States, on a visit to Jamaica, listened for four hours to the sales pitch led by Manley, but was adamant that the UFC would make no deal with a co-op. Manley then created "a strange form of company" to satisfy the UFC demand, a company which has become Jamaica Producers, and a team went off to New York to negotiate market share in the English market. A deal was struck after "eight days of hard, tough bargaining".
But then President Zemurray took Manley's breath away with a proposal derived from their talk in Jamaica months before when Manley had laid out the history, the prevailing social conditions, and the needs of the country. The UFC would put one US cent from each stem of banana from Jamaica, then some 25 million stems, into a fund to be administered by an organisation to be created and managed by Manley himself and nobody else, "for the good and welfare of the people of Jamaica with emphasis on the rural people". The organisation, Jamaica Welfare, came into being in 1937, a year before the PNP.
INABILITY TO COMPETE
Some 20 years after the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association had been formed as a cooperative, which had since become a company with shareholders, the All-Island Banana Growers' Association was established in 1946 to represent the interests of small and micro-growers across the island.
Tropical Storm Gustav in 2008, one more in the series of recent hurricanes and storms, forced the cessation of banana exports and pushed Jamaica Producers fully into the smaller domestic market. The smaller players and their growers' association, from which the glory has long departed and which is now just a shadow of its former self, will not be able to compete with the muscle of Jamaica Producers. Consumers are enjoying lower-priced, high-quality fruit delivered to their cars and neighbourhood supermarkets in attractive packaging.
Unless export markets can be tapped again for the volume and quality of fruit that JP can produce, smaller banana farmers have no real future in the domestic market. Unless a special arrangement can be worked out as subcontractors! And this would be for those who can commercially produce export-grade fruit for the local market at JP-level costs.
The hoe and machete 'gardener' has no real future in bananas against large commercial producers in a modernised agricultural production system. Or in producing any other crop, for that matter, that can readily be produced on a commercial scale by large farms, whether here or imported from abroad. But you won't hear the Government telling this truth anytime soon. Pretending that the past will be the future is politically important.
With some 20,000 of the 40,000 better-educated graduates this year of secondary and post-secondary institutions predicted to be unable to find jobs anytime soon, what do you do with around 230,000 poorly educated mostly old small farmers, half of whom produce bananas for a domestic market from which they will be progressively displaced by a single dominant commercial player?
Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.