Provisions on the ground at the CARICOM Jetty on Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain. (Image: RHONDOR DOWLAT-ROSTANT)

No need to panic, St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) will be able to make its next export of root crops to T&T.

Next week Monday is an important day for SVG as it is the day they are scheduled to ship goods to their main trading partner T&T.

But with the recent eruptions of the La Soufrière volcano and the resultant layers of ash blanketing the country, there are growing concerns about whether or not they will be able to make that shipment to T&T.

However, Saboto Caesar, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, Rural Transformation, Industry and Labour in St Vincent and the Grenadines, believes that the country will be able to make its shipment even in the face of the ongoing situation taking place.

“I want the people of T&T to know that we in St Vincent and the Grenadines, we have a long-standing relationship with your people and your people have supported us over the years in terms of supplying a ready market and we are going to do whatever it takes to get our operations up and running so that we can continue the export trade to T&T,” he said.

And Caesar believes his optimism is not misplaced because St Vincent and the Grenadines and its people are “resilient.”

Caesar told the Business Guardian that the fact that goods were shipped to Barbados on Monday amid the volcanic activity is evidence of that resilience.

“In fact when I tell you I was moved to tears when I saw that in spite of all that is going on persons still went and packaged goods and took it to the port. If that is not resilience then nothing else is,” he said.

Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries Clarence Rambharat said that even if the imports from St Vincent and the Grenadines are disrupted, he believes that local production will be able to fill the gap.

“We have seen increased local production in a number of produce categories. Some customers prefer the Caricom imports. We will lose supplies from St Vincent and the Grenadines but I believe local production will fill the gap,” Rambharat said.

“We are still working with other Caricom suppliers to see the extent of their disruptions. There is however an abundance of produce in the local market,” he said.

Exports to T&T from St Vincent and the Grenadines are valued at around $50 million.

“Now our biggest trading partner is T&T and there is a cadre of traffickers who have been trading with T&T for the last 60 something years,” Caesar said.

The items that are shipped to T&T are root crops including dasheen, tannia, yam, as well as ginger.

As a result of the activity taking place at La Soufrière, St Vincent and the Grenadines was zoned into four colour-coded areas based on the threat from the volcano.

The north of the island where the La Soufrière volcano is located was labelled the red zone, while the south of the island, including the capital Kingstown was labelled the green zone.

“Most of the goods we export to T&T doesn’t come from the red zone but the thing about it is, at the end of the day, food production has a quantitative figure to it and there is food that has to be consumed locally and there will be competing markets,” he said.

“But one thing I can tell you is the network of traders to T&T is very well established in St Vincent and the Grenadines and we are going to rebuild quickly with the support that we have been receiving, we are a very resilient set of people and (Monday) we exported to Barbados so that is an indication that we are not closed to export because we have exported this week to Barbados,” Caesar said.

Agriculture is at the “core of the Vincentian identity”, the minister of finance of St Vincent and the Grenadines Camillo Gonsalves stated in this year’s budget presentation on February 1.

Gonsalves said the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the importance of agriculture to the St Vincent and the Grenadines economy.

“Last year, the agriculture sector was an important reason that the Vincentian economy did not contract in the same manner as some of our neighbours. Even in the face of a devastating drought and drastically reduced export markets brought about by regional lockdowns, agriculture proved to be a mainstay in sustaining employment and economic activity” he said.

St Vincent and Grenadines’ agricultural production withstood two body blows last year.

Firstly, the country suffered its worst drought conditions in 72 years, with some months experiencing 80 per cent reductions in rainfall.

Secondly, the pandemic-induced collapse in tourism reduced hotels’ and restaurants’ need for food, while lockdowns and border restrictions in crucial regional markets limited market access.

Data gathered over the first three quarters of 2020 indicate that crop yields decreased by 14.4 per cent relative to 2019 production.

Declines were experienced in major crops such as dasheen (-14 per cent), eddoe (-10 per cent), sweet potato (-8 per cent), yam (-11 per cent), plantain (- 11 per cent) and banana (-46 per cent).

The few instances of increased production were concentrated among permanent crops like avocado (16 per cent), breadfruit (4 per cent), cocoa (4 per cent), coconut (14 per cent) and mango (9 per cent), which are the fruits of hardier trees.

Despite the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, St Vincent and the Grenadines could have counted on T&T, Caesar said.

“Even though we have had the impact of COVID-19 we were always able to ship to Trinidad with the assistance of the Minister Rambharat where we put in place the programme where our workers would not come off the vessel and our traffickers would not come down to Trinidad but they would send down the goods off load it, so COVID-19 they were able to basically be 98 per cent in terms of our trade with Trinidad was maintained,” Caesar said.

Before COVID-19 St Vincent and the Grenadines made a weekly shipment to T&T, but now it is done fortnightly.

In July 2017 a EC$20,000 a week trade agreement has been signed to export produce from St Vincent and the Grenadines to T&T as part of the growing OECS Agri-Export Initiative.

Caesar said Rassarco and Export Co-operative in the small rural Village of Greiggs concluded the sale and purchase agreement with Bunny imports and exports in T&T.

Greiggs is located in the green zone.

Caesar said with this third blow caused by the volcanic activity the impact on agriculture and fisheries has been “catastrophic” and that now the country would have to restart its food production sectors.

An assessment is scheduled to take place later this week to ensure that Monday’s shipment can be completed, Caesar said.

“However all of this is said in the context that the eruption is ongoing, so this is a preliminary conversation,” he said.

“Next Monday is the next scheduled shipment which gives the people a bit more time to aggregate the stuff but it is dependent on Mother Nature and how she reacts,” Caesar said.