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Gary Younge
Green gold loses out to 'dollar bananas'

But soon they may also become a unit of misery. For there are dollar bananas, grown in Latin America for less money by American multinationals. If the United States has its way, countries such as St Lucia will no longer have its products protected by the European Union, leaving small banana growers here to compete with giants like Chiquita.

'I don't know what we will do if America is successful,' says Leonard Leonce, who owns 7 hectares (17 acres) of banana trees in the valley of Cul de Sac. 'There's nothing here that can bring in a regular dollar like banana. There's tourism, but tourism brings in the top dollar. It stays at the top and doesn't come down to us. Banana money comes from the ground and goes up.'

In other banana growing islands - Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines - farmers are expressing the same concern. The dispute between the US and Europe over EU preferential treatment to banana growers in the former colonies has been raging for years. People have learned to live with it, albeit with foreboding.

St Vincent's agricultural minister, Jerry Scott, warns that removing preferential status could leave islands 'vulnerable to annihilation'. He says: 'We can look forward to sudden inflationary spirals, currency instability, wage devaluations and public service restructuring.'

They also feel it is out of their hands. Rupert Gajadar, the former chairman of the St Lucia Banana Growers' Association, says so long as supermarkets in the developed world get their bananas, they will not care where they are from.

He says: 'Who will care if, as a result of this policy, we lose our houses, our children are dying from disease or are going to be uneducated? I think we have a strong moral case; I just don't wonder who is going to listen to it.'

Standing under the shade of his banana leaves in three-quarter-length trousers, Mr Leonce admits banana growers in the region have to make changes themselves. 'Of course we have to become more efficient, and we are doing so,' he says. 'But I employ eight people. How am I ever supposed to compete with Chiquita?'

In the meantime, there is the harvest to bring in. With a small carved knife, Mr Leonce slices the bark at shoulder height, pulls the top half down and props it up with a bamboo stick. Unwrapping the blue plastic bag that protects the bunch from birds and insects, he carves diagonals in the stalk. He takes just three or four bananas off at a time, leaving the sap to drip. Small or scratched bananas he throws to one side. He lays the other fruit down carefully on a huge banana leaf.

Balancing the bananas on a large round tray on his head, Edward walks carefully through the plantation until he lays down his load in a shed for women to put in boxes. By that time Mr Leonce will be on to another tree; slicing, carving and bending from 7.30am until 4pm on banana days, and 1.30pm on others.

'It gets you here,' he says, pointing to the small of his back. 'And sometimes in your arms.'

Banana pickers earn about 35 eastern Caribbean dollars (£8) a day - not enough to get rich but enough to survive. Low prices - currently 35 cents a pound -mean growers often barely break even.

Felix Joseph is struggling. 'I made EC$3,000 last month, but when I had finished paying for the boxes, fertiliser, labour and transportation I had paid $6,000. I had to borrow from the bank.'

Then there is the weather. One hurricane, and an entire crop can be destroyed. Many are moving out of the industry. Almost half St Lucia's banana farmers quit in 1992-97; the number is expected to fall by more than a third again by 2001.

Albert Leo abandoned the work he describes as 'legalised slavery' to become a policeman. 'The Americans complain about drugs being circulated throughout the Caribbean, yet when people are trying to make an honest living, they are making life hard for them,' he says.

Most believe the end of EU protection will signal the end of their industry. But St Lucia without bananas would be like Switzerland without cheese. It is not only the largest export but, along with saltfish, part of the national dish. And even while they bemoan the tough work, St Lucians proudly say the island's volcanic soil makes them sweeter than dollar bananas.

St Lucians lived seven times under British rule and seven under French, before independence just over 20 years ago. The influences lend a rich cultural mix.

Most plantations are small family businesses, employing from five to 20 people. In 1997 they represented 7% of gross domestic product.

St Lucians, who until recently considered the US a strong ally, feel caught in the crossfire between two trading blocs.

'After independence we looked to the US to protect us,' says James Fletcher, a senior agricultural ministry official. 'We saw a need to distance ourselves from our former colonial power. But now we realise that they [the US] are shafting us.'

The Windward islands produce only a tiny percentage of the world's bananas and do not compete at all in the US market. Few of Chiquita's jobs are in the US.

'To the Americans we are just dots in the ocean,' says Mr Fletcher. 'The Americans wanted to get at Europe. As we say here in patois, they jumped where the fence was lowest - in the Caribbean.'

Mr Gajadar believes green bananas are a red herring. 'It won't stop here. If they win this, they have a psychological advantage in trade disputes to come. I do think the English and the French have a strong moral commitment to standing by us. But it is in their interests, too.'

So they carry on, slicing and carving, while the global powers - allies in war but enemies in trade - decide their fate.

Mr Gajadar says: 'So long as the banana boat keeps coming in, we still have our livelihoods. Only when it stops coming will we know we have come to the end.'

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