Every Wednesday and Thursday, the road to the port in Castries fills with hundreds of pickups and other small trucks brimming with the Caribbean's yellow gold - bananas.

Carrying fruit from St. Lucia's many small farms, truckers wait in line outside the busy port for their vehicles to be weighed, emptied and then weighed again, after their cargo is lifted off and loaded onto a freighter bound for Europe.The scene is repeated each week year-round throughout the Caribbean island nations where bananas are the economic bed-rock.

But Caribbean leaders at a summit of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) in St. Lucia on Friday said that way of life is under attack, from a U.S.-backed effort to end the region's preferential access to the European market and make the European Union more open to less expensive bananas from Latin America.

Bananas are ingrained in the livelihood of many small Caribbean nations. There are an estimated 20,000 banana farms, some as small as an acre, in the Windward Islands.

In St. Lucia, more than 60,000 people, or more than one-third of the island's population, depend on bananas for employment. Bananas are key crops in Dominica and Grenada, and 70 percent of St. Vincent and the Grenadines' 111,000 people live off the industry directly or indirectly.

"There are constant examples of powerful forces working against our interests," said St. Vincent Prime Minister James Mitchell in a speech to Caricom before thanking the EU for its decision last week to retain some protection for Caribbean banana producers.

After a suit filed by the United States, the Geneva-based World Trade Organization ruled in September 1997 that aspects of the EU's banana policy broke free trade rules and ordered its change by the end of 1998.

EU ministers agreed June 26 on a new banana import policy that eliminated the licensing system that the United States had said unfairly benefited Caribbean, African and Pacific nations.