The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Lopao’o Natanielu Mua, has defended the decision to prioritise commercial farmers in the distribution of the Israel banana variety.
The Minister was asked for a comment following concerns by small-scale farmers, who say they are finding it hard to obtain some of the banana suckers because the priority is given to “the rich and bigger commercial farmers.”
Among them are prominent businessmen, Taimalie Charlie Westerlund and Ututa’aloga Charlie Ulia.
“We’ve given 2,000 to Ah Liki, 2,000 to Ulia and 2,000 to the village of Magiagi because they were the main suppliers of bananas to the market and they were affected by Cyclone Gita,” Lopao’o said.
“We gave 1,800 to the Ministry for our tissue culture lab so that we can produce more bananas.”
The Minister said he accepts that some farmers will “think that I am being unfair.”
“The reality is that I cannot please everyone. Like that saying, you can please some people some of the time but you can’t please everybody all the time.
“I want everybody to succeed but I must also make sure that the objectives of the export drive are met and I trust my views and the only way to achieve it is to do what we are doing right now.”
The Minister added that “without those farmers” who are “prepared to put a major investment into our banana exports, this whole thing will collapse.”
“I see the commitment of the big players and I always say the “tide raises all ships.” When the big guys are able to start the exports and the market grows and that’s when the small holder farmers can bring in their bananas as well.”
During an interview with the Sunday Samoan, Minister Lopao’o pointed to an earlier shipment of Israel bananas where he said small-holder farmers were unable to keep up with the expense of maintaining and sustaining banana export plantations.
The first export shipment to New Zealand is scheduled for September –October and the Minister emphasized his objective to see our export drive succeed which includes pushing and prioritizing the large holder banana farmers to lead in the first phase
“My objective is to push the exports and I want to the exports to be sustainable,” he said. “But the bananas we have is not enough to sustain a continual supply for export which is why we are actually trying to push certain farmers with abilities to get the banana base going expanding quickly.
“This is my belief and my objective which may provide conflict but I am going to push my agenda so it will work but everyone will get bananas – it’s going to be a slow process. These Israel bananas are for export and we are trying to develop our exports to a level that will be sustainable.
“The high standards expected from New Zealand quarantine are an added expense for banana export farmers. If we give out 100 bananas here and there, it’s not going to work and no one is going to make any money on 100 bananas because you have to have all the equipment, you need workers, you need to inject the tree, you need fertilizer, you need the machine to spray the crops – it’s very expensive. “
The Minister attended the Banana Growers Association meeting held earlier in the week and addressed the members concerns around the distribution of the current shipment of export bananas.
“To export a container we need no less than 15,000 bunches of bananas and even the some of the bunches of bananas we don’t use all of it because they cannot be exported so we actually need more than 15,000,” he said.
“I would like to see three farmers have 15,000 bunches of banana each to be able to sustain the supply of exporting bananas and the other farmers are slowly being developed -Everybody will get there but I want to get this thing started before I finish this term hence why I need to push it so far.”
“The banana association may think the way we are distributing is very unfair but some of the members of the banana association have never had a banana plantation before and that’s a fact. “
“It’s a good thing that they are interested in it but I just want to make sure that we have enough bananas for exporting and we are able to maintain and sustain that. If we want a part of that banana market in New Zealand we need a consistent supply and they will not relinquish their present supply for an exporter that hasn’t got enough supply.”
According to the Minister the most recent shipment of Israel bananas is being prioritized to those banana farmers who suffered damages during Cyclone Gita.
The banana suckers have not been distributed yet as they are currently going through a nursing period at M.A.F nurseries. He added that the Banana Association will receive around 8 thousand banana suckers to distribute amongst themselves.
Attempts to get comments from Taimalie and Ututaaloga were unsuccessful.
But the concerns have apparently created frictions between the Banana Growers Association and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
The President of the Banana Growers Association and former Cabinet Minister, Tuisugaletaua Sofara Aveau, downplayed the frictions.
“The Association is going well and I am trying to hold it together,” Tuisugaletaua told the Sunday Samoan.
“The Minister is also helping us by taking our issues to Cabinet if need be so we rely on him. We invite Lopao’o to all our meetings and when he attends, it’s like any normal meeting and I don’t see any difficulties. The Minister can shout and all the members are free to shout too because everyone is entitled to their opinion – there’s nothing unusual about that and if someone translates it into something else I don’t understand.
“The Minister has his own opinion about things and our association has ours on how things should be done. So obviously we can’t be all on the same page on every issue.”
Tuisuga says that current shipment has not been distributed yet and they are still trying to organize memberships before they confirm distribution but that the association is aware that they have to meet certain conditions before they receive the suckers.
The President explained that the cost in maintaining a banana plantation for export cannot be less than $8000 tala per one acre.
“A lot people do wish to have bananas but not all can prepare them properly on their lands that’s the thing we have to be careful about because the bananas are very expensive,” he said.
“The government is providing the funds to pay for the shipment so we have to be very careful with the distribution otherwise the government might not give us anymore help in organizing the shipment of Israeli bananas from South Africa, that’s why we have to do inspections and we go with the ministry officers to check. If the farmer is not up to standard they won’t get the bananas because it’s a waste of resources.
“Together with the Ministry, we distributed the first shipment this year in April to all the members of the Banana Association according to the provisions that had already been made and that’s the basis and the only viable basis to distribute the bananas is when your land is ready and you do all the requirements that are in the booklets, the guide which we already distributed to our members which they follow to the book.”
Asked whether it was fair to the small farmers that the larger commercial farmers were receiving a significant amount of the banana consignment and Tuisuga replied: “The first shipment was by Ah Liki himself, he bought and paid for it all.”
“When the first shipment of our bananas came in February, the ones distributed in April he gladly offered not to be given any bananas and allowed the members to have some so that we can have bigger numbers so he opted out of receiving any in the last shipment.
“He was very kind to do that because he already has huge numbers of bananas that he bought himself from South Africa so that’s why he didn’t take anything from the Association.
“This time, this shipment that arrived in June which has not been distributed yet because they have to go through an incubation period. We are still working on how we are going to distribute it and Ah Liki will receive a share of it because its only fair that he receives some this time.”
Tuisuga said most of the farmers who received that shipment are doing very well with the exception of some who are “a little bit behind” because of challenges with management.
“For export standards you’ve got to raise it much higher, the quality of the bananas and what you do with them and if the farmer doesn’t sustain that management requirement then the growth of the bananas will fall back so that’s basically what we are trying to do.”
The Banana Association has been around for less than a year.
Tuisuga also clarified the confusion around the membership fees and what members can expect.
“The $100 tala fee is being confused - it’s for member registration fees not necessarily for any bananas to be received so they are confusing the two issues.
“The distribution of bananas has nothing to do with that. With the membership fees we have collected we have bought some equipment, which will be available to the members to use on their banana farms.”
Tuisuga acknowledges that it would be ideal if there was equal distribution but suggests that members be patient as they all work to push a sustainable export drive of bananas.
“Be patient, because when other receive the bananas we have it in our Constitution that we share the suckers to our members giving them the priority to obtain some before they can distribute to others outside the association.
“If you don’t get enough now, just be patient and wait for the others to have the suckers be distributed to them so then the resource becomes more available in significant numbers.”