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Secrets of the Banana

Not the forbidden fruit, but equally sinister. Part one of my journey into the republic.

Spring Gillard 28 Dec

Spring Gillard is a sustainability consultant and author of Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator, Edible Essays on City Farming (New Society, 2003). She blogs at

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Para Ti El Banano Madura Al Peso De Tu Dulce Amor, by Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa, 2008. "In this performance-installation, I slept with a banana bunch for two weeks. Letting it slowly turn yellow through contact with my body's warmth. [It] questioned if the Central American psyche has been affected by its interminable economic dependence on the exportation of bananas." -- Ramirez-Figueroa

[Editor's note: Enjoy this chewy chapter of Spring Gillard's ebook Something's Rotten in Compost City, a Primer on the Politics of Food, running in two parts today and tomorrow on The Tyee.]

I was getting ready to leave for an interview with a Guatemalan performance artist who frequently used bananas as his subject. I grabbed my heavy winter duffle coat off the back of the dining room chair, flung it around my shoulders and as I did, one of the sleeves slapped something off the nearby bookshelf. I heard the horrible thump and looked down to see what had fallen.

My heart fell when I saw what it was: a small pottery sculpture of a Mexican peasant woman, a treasured gift from a friend. She was in traditional dress, a simple skirt and blouse, ripe with color; vibrant blues, pinks, reds and yellows against her warm brown skin. She wore a basket of fruit atop her head, a slice of watermelon and two large purple pineapples, a truer version of the Hollywoodized iconic Carmen Miranda. She carried the sun in one arm and an empty yellow basket hung over the other. She appeared content, strolling along at the morning market, unsuspecting, when that ghostly arm reached out and struck her to the ground. I quickly bent to retrieve her, hoping she'd survived the fall. The basket had snapped off, the severed handle now looked like a single banana. She was broken. I was crushed.

I first met Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa at Earth, an arts and cultural festival, part of the UN's World Urban Forum held here in Vancouver in June of 2006. The festival danced with some of the same themes that the main conference did: environmental protection, human rights and social justice. There were artists and performers from 24 countries enlivening an industrial site with exhibits, music, performance art, art-based workshops and seminars and, of course, food.

Old shipping containers became the booths at the festival site. When I stepped inside one of the bright yellow metal boxes, I saw Naufus huddled over a sewing machine, sewing bananas out of yellow silk cloth. Some of them had already been hung, dangling above him under a canopy of bright green vinyl leaves. Turns out silk bananas are the variety most Guatemalans eat. They grow them in their backyards. They are a little smaller than the bananas we are used to seeing, and according to Naufus, sweeter. Their skins are very soft, making them too delicate to ship. Bananera was meant to kindle conversation about the banana industry. And it did.

"People wanted to know something new," he told me a couple of years later in a sushi restaurant. Some people got aggressive when they thought he couldn't tell them anything new, or accused him of trying to guilt them.

"One guy got really angry when I said you can't fair trade bananas because people are still displaced to create the farms," said Naufus.

He sewed day and night for five days, but even with the help of some friends, he only completed one big bunch of bananas -- driving home the point that banana plantations were just another sweatshop.

I love bananas. Green ones, not so green that you can barely peel them, but definitely green leaning. I try to buy local food as much as I can, but I cannot give up my imported banana a day. Seems I need the potassium too, as my feet start to cramp if I do go without for a day or two. I buy fair trade organic to justify my purchase. The problem is bananas ripen so fast that I soon have a bunch of too yellow fruit on my hands. So I throw them into a double plastic bag in the freezer, still in their blackening skins. These make for great smoothies. Still after learning more about bananas from Naufus, banana eating has become a bit of a guilty pleasure for me.

Potassium politics

Perhaps there is no more political fruit than the banana, and its history is intimately tied to the United Fruit Company (UFCo), an entity that was more than just a fruit company. Like the East India and Dutch India companies before it, it practiced corporate colonialism and brandished huge political clout. El Pulpo (the octopus), as it came to be known because its tentacles reached into so many inkpots, pretty well controlled the economies of Central America and many South American and Caribbean countries as well. Some say globalization was born with the UFCo and that it was the first of the now ubiquitous multinationals.

It all started with an industrious young man from New York, Minor Keith, who began to build a railroad in Costa Rica. As construction progressed, he also planted bananas along the tracks to help with cash flow. By letting the workers fill up on the fruit, his food costs would be lowered too. Once the railway was complete, transporting the bananas around to the new and salivating markets in the U.S. and Europe became easy and economical. A decade later, with three banana companies under his belt, Keith joined up with Boston businessman Andrew Preston of the Boston Fruit Company. The merger in 1899 created the United Fruit Company with Preston as president and Keith as vice president. It became the largest banana company in the world, with plantations throughout Central and South America as well as Cuba and the Dominican Republic. But perhaps no country was more under its thumb than Guatemala.

Guatemala epitomized the banana republic, a term coined by American writer O. Henry in his 1904 book of short stories entitled, Cabbages and Kings. The pejorative term signifies a small, politically unstable country, controlled by a corrupt and wealthy elite committed to keeping its social structure -- or should we say fiefdom -- in place. Its economy is usually dependent on one product, such as bananas. And one of the "benefits" of this class system was the steady stream of cheap labor.

The first entry of the UFCo into Guatemala occurred in 1901, when Manuel Estrada Cabrera, the right-wing dictator of the day, commissioned them to transport mail between Guatemala and the U.S. Keith, who felt the country had "an ideal investment climate," then formed the Guatemalan Railroad Company. He built a railway and strung telegraph lines between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios, gaining control of all transport and communications in Guatemala. He also bought up land at bargain basement prices. And while the UFCo charged high tariffs to anyone shipping out of their port, the deal they cut with the government ensured that they didn't have to pay taxes for 99 years!

By the time of his death in 1929, Keith was the most influential man in the region, employing thousands of Guatemalans and making vast profits. He was known as the Green Pope and many children were named after him. In 1962 Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemalan novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967, immortalized him in El Papa Verde, one of three novels in his banana trilogy that dealt with the exploitation of Guatemalan natives in the banana industry. He wrote "...the Green Pope... lifts a finger and a ship starts or stops. He says a word and a republic is bought. He sneezes and a president, whether general or lawyer, falls... He rubs his behind on a chair and a revolution breaks out." And there is ample historical evidence to support that characterization.

Makings of an empire

Bananas were virtually unknown in the western world prior to 1870. But within three decades, Americans were gobbling up more than 16 million bunches of the tropical fruit a year. Banana sales are now about US$20 billion a year; 15 million tons of the yellow fruit was sold in 2006. They are the fourth most important staple crop after wheat, rice and corn, just behind citrus fruits in value, but not in popularity. They are now the favorite fruit in North America and Europe and not just for their good taste, but their nutritional value too. They are rich in potassium and fiber. And although they are cheap for the consumer, they are a grocery store's single most profitable item, giving the largest chunk of the banana dollar. Only 12 cents on every dollar spent on bananas stays in the producing country.

While developed countries are the prime destination for bananas, it is the developing countries that grow them because of the ideal tropical climes. Ten countries produce 75 per cent of the bananas, with India, Ecuador, Brazil and China accounting for half of total production, according to 2004 statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The headquarters of the UFCo was in Bananera, Guatemala. I kid you not. It was there that the UFCo built its empire, using any means possible, including special arrangements with right-wing dictators who terrorized, tortured and murdered the people. And when things didn't go their way, they would intervene in local politics and enlist the help of friends. The most egregious example of political meddling happened in 1954. President Jacobo Arbenz had been elected in a free election and was continuing with his predecessors' reforms, building schools, making progress in education and health care. A socialist perhaps, but aren't these basic needs what we should expect in a true democracy?

Arbenz decided it would be a good idea to give some of the unused land in the country to its citizens to farm. At that time just 2.2 per cent of the population (you guessed it, the wealthy European elite) owned 70 per cent of the land and only 10 per cent of the land was available to 90 percent of the population, most of whom were Indians. The problem was the UFCo owned a lot of that unused land so they cried Communism! to their US buddies. The two friends hired a public relations firm headed up by Edward Bernays, the father of spin (also Freud's nephew). They launched a campaign to convince Americans that Guatemala was a Soviet satellite. The CIA then orchestrated a coup and replaced the freely elected government with a right-wing dictator that would bow to the will of the UFCo. Bernays subsequently helped the Americans wage the same kind of propaganda war during the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and in Vietnam. Some of his other clients included CBS, General Electric, Procter & Gamble and the American Tobacco Company.

Naufus has a personal connection to Bananera. His relatives have lived and worked and died on plantations there for the last century. He remembers riding through the vast fields on the train as a child with his mother. Recently, he and his mother visited one of the compounds where some of their relatives still reside. "It was not a very nice place to live," he said. "It was very small. There wasn't much freedom there. It made me sad." He went to a store there and found little variety. There was a brothel too.

On his mother's side of the family, there is an interesting class split. His grandmother's people are Guatemalan Indians who have long worked on the plantations. On his grandfather's side, his relatives are of Spanish descent and they are overseers. Although even within the bloodlines there was mixing. His grandma was "mixed." Her tell-tale green eyes meant she could better her social standing which is what happened when she married his grandfather. He died before Naufus was born.

"I have learned that you can never demonize anybody," he tells me in between bites of sushi. He seems to have unified his family's banana split. Perhaps that is also why he does not wholly condemn the UFCo.

As the East India Company brought infrastructure and a rail system to India, one could argue that the UFCo did bring similar progress to Guatemala. It paid its employees higher wages than other farms. It built housing, schools and hospitals for the communities. And its researchers toiled in laboratories to find remedies for tropical diseases and banana plant pests which monocultures encourage.

There were on-going health risks for workers too, like dengue fever and malaria. And while the pay may have been better at UFCo farms, the work was still very hard and seasonal. The UFCo stomped on any attempts at unionizing and would abandon an area that was successful in forming a union, tearing down the homes and schools on their way out of town.

Field workers are still exposed to dangerous chemicals and suffer from subsequent health problems. Tens of thousands have been rendered sterile for example by dibromochloropropane. The nematicide kills nematodes or parasitic worms in the soil. It was still used widely on crops in developing countries, including bananas until well after its prohibition in the U.S. The banana industry uses 10 times more pesticides than are used for conventional agriculture in developed countries. Carcinogenic fungicides are aerial-sprayed up to 60 times a year, while other deadly poisons are applied dozens of times a year. The fruit is washed in disinfectants and even the plastic bags and tags are coated in insecticides.

And it's not only the workers who are being poisoned: the heavy use of chemicals affects the environment too. They soak into the land and leach into waterways, affecting the plants and wildlife, fish and coral. The massive deforestation also upsets the delicate ecology of the former rainforest. After a few decades of abuse, the soil is finally exhausted and the field abandoned. And then there's the industry waste; two tons of it for every ton of bananas, laced with chemicals and plastic.

Interference in local politics had its lasting effects too. The coup in 1954 planted the seeds for the 36-year civil war that began a few years later. The civil unrest was a result of the extreme economic and social discrimination to which indigenous Guatemalans were subjected. Many of the guerillas were of Mayan descent -- the group makes up half of the country's population. By the end of the war, 200,000 people were dead, most of them Mayan. The majority of the atrocities and massacres were blamed on the Guatemalan military whose soldiers had been trained in U.S. camps.

Digesting history

Naufus was born in Guatemala City in 1978. One of his uncles, thought to be head of a guerilla group, was killed in December of 1983 and his body was dumped on the university steps. That was the catalyst for Naufus's family leaving Guatemala. He came to Canada as a refugee when he was seven years old along with his mother and grandmother. They returned a couple years later, but the city was still too dangerous. His grandmother took him back to Canada, but his mother stayed in Guatemala. She was a social worker who worked closely with local farmers. She was rumored to be a guerilla and at one point Naufus lost contact with her. The family feared she was one of the disappeared. But she resurfaced, and now lives in northern Guatemala on her own farm and continues to help other farmers. His father lives in Guatemala City but has not really been part of Naufus' life. He feared the guerilla connection.

His grandmother raised Naufus in Vancouver. She had been a teacher in Guatemala, but here she worked as a caregiver for an elderly woman. Naufus struggled at school because he didn't know the language and was constantly bullied. "The only thing I did well was art," he told me.

The bullying proved to be too much for this sensitive, artistic boy, and he dropped out of school in Grade 12. His grandmother was very sick with lupus and he looked after her and continued to make art. She died when he was 18. He was bereft; with his ally, best friend and champion gone, he plunged into depression. But he decided to test himself, to see if he was really an artist and struggled to make ends meet working only at his craft. When he was 23, he applied to Emily Carr College of Art & Design (now a university) as a mature student and was accepted. Naufus has had many exhibits and his website gives highlights of his impressive body of work. Now 30 years old, he has just completed his Masters of Fine Arts at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. Even in his early days, he often used food as a subject to try to understand his experience of political oppression and war trauma.

"Making art is a way to digest a subject. It's like going through a tunnel. Maybe I know a fact, but until I make a work of art I don't feel it or have an embodied feeling of it. I always understand what the message was after it is done. It was a way for me to talk about my history. It was a root, a pathway. My grandma didn't talk about the war or why my mother left. I had a lot of questions. It was a way for me to get some answers," he said.

[Find part two of this story tomorrow on The Tyee.]  [Tyee]

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