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Sea clashes hit Philippines banana growers

Kesha West reports on the crisis gripping the Philippines banana industry, and the politics that may be behind it.

The banana industry in the Philippines is in crisis after its biggest export market, China, stopped buying.

Beijing imposed tighter controls after it claimed pests were found in banana imports from the country.

But banana growers and exporters in the Philippines say they’re collateral damage from the recent renewed tension over disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Kesha West reports.
(Footage of banana plantation)

KESHA WEST, REPORTER: On the island of Mindanao the banana plantations stretch as far as the eye can see

The Philippines is the world's third biggest exporter of bananas, and it's here that most of them are grown. But the plantations are now deserted and overgrown, and the bananas lie rotten on the side of the road.

(Footage of bags of bananas beside the road)

JOSEPHINE CAPAGCUAN, BANANA GROWER: Towards the end of May this year, China, they just stop buy our bananas. So it is a big impact, especially to the banana growers.

Josephine Capagcuan's family has been growing bananas on this plantation, 70km from Davao City, for the past 17 years.

Like most small growers here, 90 per cent of her produce is exported to China.

But the mother of two says now, instead of packing her bananas off overseas, she's chopping them down and watching them rot away, along with her livelihood.

(Footage of bananas being chopped up on the ground)

JOSEPHINE CAPAGCUAN: The farm owners are having a hard time to finance their area, especially the farm imports, and the effect that they cannot pay their labourers anymore.

KESHA WEST: Local banana exporter, Joseph Calixijan, is facing the same crisis.

For the past two months he hasn't been able to sell any bananas to China, his biggest export market. Leaving him stuck with more than 1 million bananas, but still responsible for paying those who work for him.

JOSEPH CALIXIJAN, BANANA GROWER: We have to support a lot of people, a lot of families, those that are working for us.

STEPHEN ANTIG, PHILIPPINO BANANA GROWERS AND EXPORTERS ASSOCIATION: Actually the problems started early this year when the Chinese quarantine officials discovered some scale insects in one of the containers shipped to China. Then after that they allegedly discovered some milly bugs in 43 other shipments.

KESHA WEST: Immediately China clamped down on imports from the Philippines and put in place tough new requirements.

But most in the banana industry here believe it's about more than just bugs.

JOSEPH CALIXIJAN: The complaint came very timely when the issue on the disputed islands in the Philippines was at the height of their complaint or the height of the issue on the Scarborough Shoal. And that was also the time they stopped buying.

KESHA WEST: The Scarborough Shoal is a cluster of coral reefs and small islands that lie in the South China Sea. The resource rich area is claimed by both the Philippines and China, although its location puts it well inside the Philippines exclusive economic zone, provided for by the UN convention on the Law of the Sea.

The two countries have been locked in a stand off since April after a Philippine warship confronted Chinese fishermen near the shoal.

(Footage of protest in China)

The incident sparked nationalist protests in both countries, which then led Beijing to label the Philippines anti Chinese.

SERGIO ORTIZ-LUIS JR, PHILIPPINE EXPORTERS CONFEDERATION INC: This problem has cropped up in the past but there were no rejections then all of a sudden, because of the problems on the Scarborough Shoal, suddenly there was a series of rejections. And you draw your own conclusion.

KESHA WEST: It's estimated that as many as 200,000 people will lose their livelihood if China continues to restrict imports.

SERGIO ORTIZ-LUIS JR: We export something like $380 million worth of banana each year and the bulk of it goes to China. And at the moment I can't find we can't find immediately reasonable replacement for that.

KESHA WEST: The Philippine Exporters Confederation says there's signs China is beginning to ease its banana rejections after a delegation from the Philippines ministry of agriculture and some banana exporters went to China to discuss the problems.

But for many in the industry here, it’ll be a long time before they can recover from this crisis.
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