Raymond Austrie: banana could still be king
Call it the cry of a banana man.
Raymond Austrie, agricultural entrepreneur, researcher, passionate farmer.
The former permanent secretary in the ministry of agriculture has pleaded for more investment in banana production and agriculture on a whole.
In a recent interview with The Sun, Austrie lamented what he suggested was a dismissive attitude toward the crop that was once referred to here as "green gold".
"The consensus of opinion seems to be that we should abandon it, but all around the world banana consumption is going up and everyone loves bananas. Little children like it, school children like it, the executive likes it," he said. "So what are you talking about when you say banana is out of the window?"
In his 2013/14 budget address to Parliament, the prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, revealed that while there was "an overall increase in the sector of 7.5 per cent" in agricultural production, banana production recorded a precipitous 23.5 per cent decline. However, he anticipated a 3.1 per cent rise in 2013.
This projection may appear to critics as a decorated grand folly and artful embellishment of the situation, particularly following comments by the St. Lucia public service and sustainable development minister, Dr. James Fletcher, last September, suggesting that Dominica's banana sector was nothing to shout about.
"It does not give me satisfaction to inform you that so far this year, for weeks one to 32, St. Lucia has exported 7,623 tonnes of bananas - three per cent more than it exported for the same period last year- while Dominica has exported only 974 tonnes -which is its lowest level for the past six years and 41 per cent less than the same time last year," Fletcher said at the annual conference of the St. Lucia Labour Party.
"There was a time when these countries (Dominica & St Vincent & the Grenadines) combined produced the same volume of bananas as Saint Lucia. Now Saint Lucia produces over six times what they produce. While we are sorry that our sister islands have had to suffer the almost complete collapse of their banana industry, we are pleased that the steps we took to introduce commercial discipline in the banana industry in the late 1990s is probably what saved us and has resulted in St. Lucia being the only island in the Windward Islands that still has a banana industry to speak about," he added.
While these figures could not be independently confirmed, the government has admitted that banana production here is far from what it was in the past. At a meeting last May of interest groups involved in the banana industry, the then permanent secretary in the ministry of agriculture, Dr. Eisenhower Douglas, bemoaned the rapid decline in production of, and earnings from, the crop.
"Our peak year of banana exports was 1988, where we earned over a hundred million dollars in bananas. Now here we are in 2013, several years later, our banana exports is less than 10% of what it was at the peak" he said.
Still, according to Raymond Austrie, there's evidence that banana can still be king of only it's allowed its rightful place in the economy.
"If you talk to farmers on the field they will tell you the money they make from banana they use to diversify. The data shows that banana still continues to be the largest export…it's still a very strong …and there needs to be a policy for bananas. Then there are other critical sectors like agro processing," he explained.
In his 2013/14 budget, the prime minister allocated just under EC$19.5 million – approximately 12 per cent of the overall budget -to the ministry of agriculture and forestry. It has not been evident how much of that amount went into the banana industry.