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Last updated: 20 December, 2007 - Published 10:03 GMT
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Caribbean cost of living crisis

Shop 'til you drop' or 'drop the shopping'?
Skyrocketing food prices - and the general cost of living - have become the hot topic of discussion throughout the Caribbean.

The year-end ‘shopping spree’ is expected to take a pounding with people resorting to simply shopping, without too much 'spree-ing'.

This is expected to lead to wider economic implications for the region.

The issue was highlighted at the prime ministerial level by Grenada's Dr Keith Mitchell who urged his colleague leaders of CARICOM (Caribbean Community) to "take up the matter."

keith mitchell
Grenada PM Keith Mitchell raised the 'cost of living' alarm

But that appeal did not come without a note of caution from the current CARICOM chairman, and Barbados Prime Minister, Owen Arthur.

He advised that the region's leaders must be careful not to give people false hopes of "a quick-fix, Caribbean-wide solution” to the problem of rising food prices.

Belt tightening

The President of the The St Vincent and Grenadines Chamber of Commerce, Jerry George, has reminded of a call he made in September during an interview with BBC Caribbean for regional governments and the private sector to work together, to address the issue of rising food prices.

Mr George had said at the time that while not much can be done to stop the increases ... regional consultation was needed to assess the impact and come up with possible solutions.

Many people have emailed BBC Caribbean on this issue.

"The price of food in the Caribbean, St. Lucia in particular, is ridiculous," wrote Jase of Gros Islet, St Lucia.

"Everything has increased, especially our basic necessities: rice, flour, milk, salt, sugar, tinned foods etc. What is going on?" Jase asked.

Joel Pogson of Charlestown in Nevis said, "the disparity (in prices) between smaller islands and the larger island is quite evident. This I find quite odd since many of these islands boast of a strong agricultural background.”

 The price of food in the Caribbean is ridiculous
Jase, Gros Islet, St Lucia

Joel also wonders "is it that we dispose of our income on trivialities and then complain about the necessities that we postponed?"

oil price market
Is it all due to the price of oil?

Steve Malcolm, President of the National Consumers League in Jamaica has a theory, shared by many government leaders, businessmen and analysts.

That view focuses on the rising cost of oil on the world market having a traceable trickle-down effect on just about everything, especially in small countries which import most of what they consume.

Mr Malcolm told BBC Caribbean: "We're living in a global market system where the price of oil has skyrocketed and the price of wheat has gone up."

He recalled that "the last time I was doing a price comparison, a bag of rice was selling for about $JA 10,000 ($US 141). By the next time it had increased nearly 10 per cent. The price of sugar has gone up nearly 40 per cent, flour by about 30 per cent and petrol has increased by over three dollars (JA)."

However Mr Malcolm feels much of the spin-off effects due to external forces were beyond the Jamaica government's control.

Bur the leader of the opposition People's National Party, former prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller, chided the government for, as she saw it, ignoring the issue.

Mrs Simpson Miller said the Bruce Golding administration was paying more attention to bringing allegations against her former government rather than addressing pressing issues such as food prices.

She said it was a lame excuse for the government to even suggest that there's not much it can do about it.

CARICOM action?

On the prodding of Grenada's Prime Minister Keith Mitchell CARICOM leaders discussed the rising cost of food and other items at a meeting on December 7 called, coincidentally, on a matter which had the potential for even more far-reaching cost-of-living consequences.

 We're living in a global market system
Steve Malcolm, Jamaica National Consumers League

That was the negotiations between African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states and the European Union for the free trade Economic Partnership Agreements(EPAs).

They decided to set up a technical team to review a set of commodities which are widely used in the Caribbean but not produced in significant quantities in the region, and to advise on reducing or removing the taxes on these goods.

carciom flag
CARICOM leaders set up a committee to examine the 'prices' issue

Other steps to be considered include encouraging Caribbean people to eat more of the food produced in the region and organising a CARICOM agriculture investment forum next year.

Country plan

Some countries report that they are already taking steps to 'reduce the cost of living'.

In St Kitts Nevis the list of goods under price control has been expanded.

Ambassador Roslyn Hazelle, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce told BBC Caribbean: "We have always had price control but we've never had them to such as extent.

"There is a new program in which we are looking at the mark up wholesalers and retailers can charge on a (basket of items)."

denzil douglas
St Kitts Nevis PM Denzil Douglas is arranging a 'trade-off' with businesses over prices

As a trade-off, the St Kitts Nevis business community is proposing that the government looks into reducing some import duties.

In his recent budget address Prime Minister Dr Denzil Douglas committed to that.

"We will identify a number of food items in particular, that form a critical part of the diet of our low income families and we will remove duties and taxes from such items," he declared.

"In addition," Dr Douglas went to say, "we will impose very strict price controls on those items so that our businesses would not be able to charge excessive margins in respect of such items...we are asking them to give up a portion of their margins."

Personal responsibility

In the case of St Lucia the government has said it would look into the list of goods under price control.

The Stephenson King administration had indicated that it is following St Kitts/Nevis and Barbados by putting a cap on food prices.

Prime Minister King had said that Castries won't wait for regional action on food prices in response to the rising cost of living.

Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur has told Bajans to take greater personal responsibility and do more for themselves to minimise the impact of rising food prices.

Owen Arthur, Barbados prime minister
Barbados PM Owen Arthur has his own vegetable patch

He has also announced a 20 per cent reduction on retail mark-ups on a basket of 26 food and personal care products.

Prime Minister Arthur indicated that he was 'leading by example' in growing some of what he eats.

The Barbados opposition has also been questioning how merchants 'make their money.'

David Thompson, leader of the Democratic Labour Party, challenged the mark-up route - from the port, to the transporting of the good, to the warehousing, to the shelf - and wondered if the merchants weren't being greedy.

The chairman of the Barbados Chamber of Commerce, Ian Alleyne has said in response to the growing clamour that they are "trying to keep the prices as reasonable as possible under the circumstances."

food market
Shoppers say they are paying too much for too little

The cost of living issue has also been a prominent feature in recent government budget addresses across the region.

Some governments have offered to, 'in the coming year', pursue a range of initiatives to make life easier for their people.

Global concern

The issue of food prices in the Caribbean has also come to the attention of the Pan American Health Organisation(PAHO).

In a new report PAHO includes several Caribbean states among 37 nations worldwide facing food crises because of conflict and disaster and which may require foreign aid.

It lists Dominica, St Lucia, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic as countries which have to contend with "severe localised food insecurity as a result of floods caused by tropical storms."

In its global assessment, the agency said food prices were being driven upwards by drought and floods linked to climate change, rising oil prices, and a growing demand for bio-fuels.

It said many countries will not be able to cope unless their farmers get immediate help.

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