In 2013, Spring Garden farmer Byron Henry, of Henry Farms and Associates, reviewed the trajectory of the banana industry and put 22 acres into banana and plantain cultivation. The last time banana grew on that land was in the 1970s, but the actions under the Banana Board Grant Contract to provide technical service to banana farmers through the Jamaica Banana Accompanying Measures (JBAMs) project of the Government of Jamaica and the European Union (EU) gave Henry the confidence to return the land to bananas, the crop that was known as green gold. He explained how the move paid off.
“There are measures in place that make banana less risky than other crops and we have done forward integration and have a ripening room which is additional employment in addition to our eight permanent employees. Our farm now supplies high end local supermarkets, and we are a part of the rebirth of banana and plantain in Portland now exporting to Trinidad,” Mr Henry said.
At the height of banana production for the country, Portland was one of six banana producing parishes. Exports of banana in 1966 topped 180,000 tonnes, a record for independent Jamaica.
The optimism and well-being that banana production gave to the Jamaican society in the first half of the 20th century is celebrated in the country’s literature. Writer Claude McKay named his 1938 novel, Banana Bottom, highlighting the importance of the crop in Clarendon, while poet Olive Senior recalls 1950s Trelawny in the poem My Father’s Blue Plantation with the lines, “In his prime, his banana plantation came right to our doorstep….Every bunch was earmarked to pay for something.”
As viable as banana was, the plants are highly susceptible to tropical storms and diseases. Over time these harsh circumstances, which occurred repeatedly, devastated the economies of rural communities. Export dropped to 10,000 tonnes in 1984, 1/5th of what was achieved 20 years before. The growers struggled to recover, but additionally, these conditions were exacerbated in the 1990s when African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries lost preferential trading status with the European Union, forcing farmers out of the crop, seemingly for good.
The Ministry of Agriculture, along with the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade pursued negotiations for assistance from the EU within the ACP group which led to three phases of support for the industry. The first two were: Special System of Assistance (SSA) 1995–1997; and the Special Framework of Assistance (SFAs) 1999–2008 which together funded the European Union Banana Support Programme (EUBSP). The third phase was the JBAM, which was signed in 2013.
The PIOJ provides strategic guidance and policy advice on the implementation and monitoring of each programme contract, and also provision for independent external auditors.
The objective of the framework of assistance was to improve the yield of banana cultivations and increase exports and support rural diversification into other livelihoods. The six parishes targeted for support were the traditional banana growing parishes of Portland, Clarendon, St Thomas, St Mary, St Catherine and St James.
The export of bananas grew, earning US$18 million in 2001, but changes in the international marketing of bananas that eventually led to the loss of markets, storms, droughts and new diseases set back the efforts made to make the industry sustainable. The support from the EU continued, including technical support that led to the establishment of a germ plasma project at the Ministry of Agriculture Bodles Research Station, providing disease resistant strains of banana and plantain; the development of ripening rooms; and the technology transfer for the vacuum packaging of peeled green bananas.
Farmers also benefitted from certification of their operations as they could now provide traceability of their products showing the standards of safety and hygiene. In 2003, the Banana Board reported that 39 000 tonnes were exported to the EU, 45% of these bananas were grown by small and medium-sized growers. This trade boosted optimism as it earned the country just over US$25 million, but the real success was at home. The farmers produced 100 000 tonnes of banana and plantain to supply the demand for green, ripe and chip products for the domestic market. This made stakeholders confident that self-sufficiency in bananas was achievable.
In 2007, the effects of Hurricane Dean propelled the Ministry of Agriculture, in consultation with the All Island Banana Growers Association (AIBGA) and with funding from the EUBSP, to restructure the Banana Industry Catastrophe Fund, a contributory insurance product. This came just in time, as by 2008, having suffered from five major storms in four years, Jamaica had all but ceased export of banana entirely. The agriculture ministry led consultations throughout the industry which resulted in a draft 2009 National Policy for the Banana Industry. The objectives of the policy were to: expand production with global standards; ensure that the strong local demand for bananas will be satisfied by the output of local producers; expand standardization and GLOBALGAP certification of the Banana Board and growers so that the industry will have access to viable export markets.
Again, the industry suffered from Tropical Storm Nicole in 2010, a drought in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
In 2011, the industry celebrated its first exports to the Cayman Islands and, guided by the draft policy, had firm sights on decreasing chips imports and reopening dormant ripening facilities.
In 2013, a successor programme to the EUBSP commenced with the goal of revitalising the industry through increased local demand, and the development of value-added products. This programme called the Jamaica Banana Accompanying Measures (JBAMs) had a value of €4.73 million. The goals of this programme included developing diversified value-added production; and also strong marketing systems for domestic and export markets (including regional markets). The implementing agencies were the Rural Agriculture Development Authority (RADA); the Banana Board and the All Island Banana Growers Association (AIBGA). One of the support packages was a grant contract with the Banana Board to provide technical services, which specifically targeted productivity and resilience of small farmers, and their connectivity to markets.
The JBAMs also supported the Banana Export Expansion Programme (BEEP), which assists farmers to be certified for the export market. Support for the farmers included access to designated storage facilities, concessionary terms for inputs such as pesticides, insecticides, and fertiliser. In turn, farmers are also required to erect packing areas and build resilience through the installation of irrigation networks.
With this additional support, stakeholders in the industry kept their focus on increasing profitability and production. The banana production trajectory has moved from 41,000 tonnes in 2001 to 58,000 tonnes in 2016. The multiplier effect in employment, as extrapolated by the Banana Board from PIOJ October 2016 figures, states that 28,000 persons were employed directly and indirectly in the industry, representing 13.7 per cent of agricultural labour and 2.46 per cent of the employed labour force in the Jamaican economy.
In December 2017, the first shipment of banana left Kingston Harbour for Port of Spain, Trinidad. Visiting the loading facility, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Karl Samuda said, “Right now we are at the cusp of exporting banana again. It is a different market but this is the first step within CARICOM, we have to start by working within our communities and CARICOM is an extended local market.”
Market conditions and environmental factors will continue to present challenges for banana and plantain planters, but the investment gained from successive EU banana programmes has allowed the industry to be strengthened through updated agronomic practices, the availability of a valuable gene bank, the use of spatial and production databases, product diversification and the establishment of regional markets.
Jamaica’s Banana Industry has made it firmly into the 21st century, and new creative works prove this, as with the 2011 lyrics to Street Hustle by Specialist:
“Hustle man a hustle fi mek two ends meet;
When, di yute dem hungry dem naw skin no teet;
An mi no wah dem rob nobody outta street;
Me step out and say,
Banana, banana, banana chips...”