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Tyee Books

Battle for the Banana

Behind the peel, a torrid history of trade wars and bullish fruit magnates. Last of two.

By Spring Gillard 29 Dec 2011 |

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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Original Banana Republic, by Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa, 2002. "[Exploring] the history of North American imperialism in Guatemala through the figure of the United Fruit Company... I wrapped 100 pounds of bananas around my legs with Saran-wrap until the heavy weight made it almost impossible for me to walk." - Ramirez-Figueroa. Curated by Glenn Alteen, grunt gallery, Vancouver.

[Editor's note: Enjoy the second half of this chapter from Spring Gillard's ebook Something's Rotten in Compost City, a Primer on the Politics of Food. Peel into the first part here.]

Certainly other artists and writers have been inspired by the plight of the banana. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda trounced on the foreign-owned banana companies for their arrogant antics and political interference in Latin America in his poem, "La United Fruit Co." But as we talk, I learn just how intimate Naufus's connection with bananas is.

"It's a weird tropical fruit love poem," Naufus tells me. "It looks at bananas as a source of income. There is such a dependence on bananas in Guatemala. Even for me personally. Maybe there's no way out."

I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say Bananas have to ripen in a certain way When they are flecked with brown and have a golden hue Bananas taste the best and are best for you You can put them in a salad. You can put them in a pie-aye. Any way you want to eat them. It's impossible to beat them. But, bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator. So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator.

Chiquita Banana jingle

The United Fruit Company (UFCo) introduced the Chiquita name and the Carmen Miranda character and jingle in 1944. There were financial difficulties over the years. The company merged with AMK, a meat producer, in the 1970s and became United Brands. It wasn't until 1990 that they became Chiquita Brands International. Now the largest U.S. distributor of bananas, the company is owned by American Financial Group (AFG), which doesn't seem to have much to do with food. Carl Lindner was chairman of the board, founder and principal shareholder of AFG. He was also CEO of Chiquita from 1984 to 2001, and remained on the board until May of 2002. He has donated tens of millions to both the Republican and Democratic parties, so his concerns are always taken seriously. During his reign, the company was actively donating money and arms to terrorist groups on both sides of the conflict in Colombia.

To its credit, Chiquita has worked hard to be a better environmental steward. The Rainforest Alliance's Better Banana Project now certifies all of its farms in Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama. The program protects workers, local communities, the environment and wildlife. More than 15 per cent of all internationally traded bananas now bear the little frog sticker. The group also certifies pineapples, mangoes, avocadoes, guavas and citrus fruits. However, in Costa Rica, for example, the label does not guarantee the freedom to join a labour union.

Banana perfection

There are other programs, such as fair trade, that also protect workers. Already popular in European markets since 1996, fair trade bananas hit the North American market in the spring of 2004. As with coffee, tea and chocolate, fair trade bananas are certified through members of the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). The stickers guarantee that the deal has been made directly with the farmer (usually a cooperative), cutting out the middleman and ensuring that the farmer gets a higher price for the fruit, and also that the working conditions are healthy and safe, and that child labour laws are obeyed. The community benefits too: increased revenue helps the co-op set up schools, health clinics and improve housing in the community. Shoppers pay a higher price for the peace of mind this kind of social accountability brings. A fair trade banana is not necessarily organic, although sustainable farming practices are encouraged. Organic fruit will carry another label if certified.

Chiquita played a pivotal role in the history of the banana. And not just for its memorable jingle and Carmen Miranda-esque branding. They were responsible for setting the quality standards for bananas. Their trademark blue sticker announced: "This seal outside means the best inside."

To be label-worthy, a Chiquita banana had to be eight inches long and have a fullness to it (remember PR man, Bernays, was Freud's nephew). The bunch had to be symmetrical. The fruit had to be free of defects, meaning no blemishes on the peels. The ripening must be uniform. The company was concerned with the visual effects, not nutrition or flavor. And so the perfect fruit was born.

I remember Dr. Vandana Shiva talked about bananas at the lecture I attended at the University of B.C.

"Smallness is dangerous," she said facetiously. "Standardization is the norm for safety. In India, we have hundreds of varieties of bananas. But if we bring small bananas in from Kerala, they will kill you. We must have the big Del Monte rocks you call bananas." We all laughed of course, but us banana eaters knew she spoke the truth.

Chiquita's new quality standards and increased market demand led to the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers on the crop in the 1960s. That demand for perfection has crossed all fruit and vegetable boundaries now and is part of the reason why consumers find it hard to accept more imperfect looking organic produce.

Trade war

It is also why many developing countries can't compete on world markets. When I was in Belize on a kayaking trip, I asked one of our guides, a marine biologist, about the rough, unrefined sugar we were using. He said they get all the inferior products there because all the good stuff is exported. The fruits in Belize generally go straight to juicing plants for domestic fruit juice. Belize is also at the center of a banana battle between the U.S. and the European Union (E.U.). The trade war over a fruit that neither of them grows began in the 1990s and is still not resolved. While Chiquita has started to clean up its act, it is not above political shenanigans. They have been in the thick of the trade war.

Here's what's been happening. The E.U. has tariffs on Latin American bananas because it has a special deal with its former Caribbean colonies, countries such as Belize, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Dominica and other Windward Islands nations whose economies depend on banana exports. Only seven per cent of the E.U.'s imports were from these countries. These bananas are smaller, sweeter, more delicious and healthier because they use fewer chemicals; the poor farmers can't afford them. Also the black leaf-spot disease has not been present until now.

The E.U. thinks of the trade arrangement as a kind of aid to these small poor countries. Bananas are pretty well all they can grow on the volcanic soil, and the E.U. says without this income, growers would probably grow pot or other narcotics. The Central American plantations can grow other crops however, and they grow bananas so cheaply that without the tariffs they would easily wipe out the Caribbean market.

But even seven per cent was too much for the big U.S. banana companies. The U.S. threatened to slap massive tariffs on European goods like Scottish cashmere sweaters, French wines and Italian cheeses, German coffee grinders and French handbags, unless the E.U. dropped its tariffs on Central American bananas. The World Trade Organization (WTO) tried to mediate, but the U.S. would have none of it. They continued to cry foul on free trade (free for who exactly?), and the WTO ruled in 1998 that it was, well, against their law to favor former colonies. So it was now illegal to help the poor.

After the ruling, many Caribbean farmers were ruined or forced by poverty to migrate to the U.K., Canada or the U.S. When small countries lose their market, it's not like they can just switch to another product over night. They don't have the population base, and so there are efficiency problems. And it is the most efficient (meaning giant, usually from the west) who rule at the expense of the small and the poor. These private companies have bigger annual budgets than many of these small countries. The argument is that big monopolies can give us cheap food and so corporate greed outweighs public good.

This story plays out over and over again in the developing world. Countries like Belize and Guatemala have been battered by this new world trading order, unable to compete with their homegrown products. Belize already lost ground on the citrus market because Mexico (a good friend of the U.S.) was given favoured status under the North American Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA). Apparently, it's okay to favour when it favours the U.S. Just one more example of how unfair and political free trade really is. To mention renegotiation of any of these sacred trade agreements (as Barack Obama did during his first presidential campaign) is blasphemy.

Reign of the 'big banana boys'

But the war didn't end there. The E.U. appealed the WTO banana ruling and the battle continued. A 1999 Guardian Weekly newspaper article gives some background on the dispute. It was reported that U.S. diplomats said privately that they were ready to negotiate a joint aid-and-trade agreement with the E.U. to help the Caribbean Islands. Their main concern, they claimed, was to protect the "principles of free trade." But bananas are just the tip of the iceberg between these two trading partners: there is also the little matter of the Europeans not wanting hormones in the meat coming in from the U.S., and the matter of all matters, the E.U. is dead set against genetically modified crops. The U.S. is in the opposite camp.

Of course, Chiquita wasn't the only banana company throwing its weight around. In fact, it may be the tamest. Bandegua, a subsidiary of Del Monte, has its headquarters in Bananeras, a well-manicured and secure compound complete with company store and one-hole golf course. Crop dusters regularly take off from the company airfield to douse the vast banana plantations that surround the town with a variety of toxic sprays.

Del Monte managed to stay out of trouble for many years, exporting around two billion bananas a year. But then in 1999, they fired 900 employees, blaming a worldwide slump in banana prices and a drop in productivity following Hurricane Mitch. The unions rose up and organized strikes and roadblocks. Vigilante groups struck back with violent force, and families fled in terror. Following suspicious resignations of the union leaders, there was an international outcry. The UN, the president of Guatemala and the US ambassador finally came to an agreement and all workers were reinstated by the following year. The vigilantes did receive light prison sentences, but the union leaders were forced into exile, fearing retaliation. The conflict, complete with firings and protests, continued into the late 2000s.

Heightened competition was the cause of much of the turmoil. In the late 1990s the market was flooded with bananas, in part because of new countries entering the market. That caused prices and stock to plummet and forced the big bananas to search for new ways to slice costs in order to compete. Cutting jobs, lowering wages, and closing plantations were the order of the day. They needed to keep the stockholders happy and keep cheap food in stock.

One country in particular became the banana companies' saviour: Ecuador. The country currently provides 30 per cent of the world's bananas; 25 per cent of North American bananas come from Ecuador. Five companies dominate the Latin American banana industry: Noboa (an Ecuadorian company, sold as Bonita brand in the US); Fyffes (the European giant); Dole; Del Monte; and Chiquita. The big banana boys loved the country because of their low-wage, non-union workforce and their lax rules around workers' rights, the environment and child labor. In 2002, Human Rights Watch found children as young as 10 working 12 hour days and handling dangerous fungicides. Ecuador is dependent on banana revenue; its exports are second only to oil, and the industry employs nearly 400,000 Ecuadoreans. Dole currently gets 31 per cent of its bananas from Ecuador, Del Monte, 13 per cent and Chiquita seven per cent.

Instead of owning their own plantations, more and more of the big boys are contracting out and simply purchasing fruit from a nationally owned producer company. Often the companies, the multinationals and their suppliers, hire temporary labor through sub-contractors. Because these temporary workers are not officially recorded as employees, the companies can sidestep any health or pension benefits or safe workplace conditions. This subcontracting system is similar to the one used in the garment industry (a.k.a. sweatshops), and human rights activists call it a race to the bottom.

More rotten apples

The banana industry cannot lay claim to all the rotten apples. There is plenty of politics in the rest of the fruit world. In pineapple regions like the Philippines and Costa Rica, more and more land is being taken up to grow pineapples. Workers and the environment suffer from the chemical exposure. With less land to grow other crops, the communities have to buy expensive imported food. Labour abuses are common, too. Dole, one of the world's largest exporters of fresh and processed pineapple, has used intimidation to weaken unions. From the 1990s, the company replaced over two-thirds of its workforce in Costa Rica with contract labour to evade any responsibilities for basic employee benefits. In recent months Dole has finally agreed to stop its union-busting.

While banana workers are still some of the most exploited in the world, unions have made a difference in their lives. There are more than 40,000 unionized banana workers in Latin America alone (2002). Chiquita is the most unionized of the banana transnationals in Latin America. They signed a groundbreaking deal in 2001 with their unions and the International Union of Foodworkers. Union benefits include eight-hour workdays with decent wages, around $11 a day or more, on-the-job health and safety measures, adequate housing, healthcare and schooling for their children. By contrast, in Ecuador workers get lower wages and attempts at unionizing have often been met with intimidation, firings and even armed force.

While Chiquita has set new standards in the banana world, they say they can't compete with the lower wages in Ecuador and play that card in contract negotiations with banana unions. But they don't play as dirty as others. When Del Monte threatened to leave Guatemala in October 2001, workers agreed to a 30 per cent wage cut, plus 70 per cent of their health benefits and two-thirds of the school funding.

I corresponded with Alistair Smith, International Coordinator at Banana Link, a Britain-based non-profit dedicated to creating a fair and sustainable banana and pineapple trade. He sent me some very good news on the banana front: a peace agreement on E.U. import tariffs was finally reached and signed in Geneva in December 2009. That same month at the headquarters of the FAO, the World Banana Forum was launched. All the banana majors -- global retailers, growers, trade unions, plantation workers and groups along the supply chain -- will now be working together to ensure a sustainable banana industry.

Sustainable purchasing policies adopted by local governments, hospitals and academic institutions are also helping to address workers rights, social equity, community and environmental stewardship. The City of Sacramento has adopted an environmental purchasing policy. The City of Vancouver has an ethical purchasing policy that complies with codes of conduct set out by the International Labor Organization. The City of Seattle has a sustainable purchasing policy that informs its purchases of goods, materials, services and even capital improvements. In partnership with Local Food Plus, the University of Toronto became the first university in North America to formally commit to purchasing local sustainable food for its cafeterias and residences.

Naufus is not convinced that the banana world can be sustainable. "There is no way bananas can be grown without someone getting exploited," he said when I told him the news from Banana Link. "Bananas are as delicate as orchids. They need a lot of land to grow on. That land is taken away from people. And it takes a lot of labour. Then they have to be refrigerated and sent through a network of exporting. The real cost of a banana is very expensive. It is a luxury that is sold very cheap. They should be thirty dollars a bunch!" His advice, "Stop eating bananas here."

Bananas of our subconscious

I tell Naufus about a line I came across in my research: "A cluster of bananas is called a hand and consists of ten to twenty bananas, which are known as fingers." It seems an ironic but apt image for the banana multinationals. "Inspiration for a new piece?" I suggest. It also reminds me of my little statue, still lying broken on my dining room table. That night I dream about Carmen Miranda dancing in a banana grove.

Carmen Miranda is an enduring icon of camp. The lady in the tutti-frutti hat was the inspiration for Chiquita Brands logo and for countless drag queen revues. But behind the outrageous costumes and cartoonish sensuality was a real woman battling her own inner demons and trying to live up to the expectations of her new country and her home country of Brazil.

She was a huge recording and film star back home before coming to America. She came from a middle class Portuguese family, but her music had its roots in the black slum samba sounds of Bahia, a northeastern state. Her costume was also inspired by the clothing worn by the poor black women fruit sellers. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Bahia was a center of sugar cultivation. A vast number of African slaves were imported to work the cane fields; more than 37 per cent of all slaves from Africa were sent to Brazil. Bahia is now the main producer and exporter of cacao in Brazil.

Once in the U.S, the Brazilian Bombshell starred in a bunch of goofy south-of-the-border musicals. The Latin stereotype was born with her: flamboyant, gaudy, fast-talking, with amusing contortions of the English language. And the role paid off for Miranda; in 1945 she was the highest-paid woman in America. Her home country was not amused, accusing her of ridiculing them for the pleasure of entertaining Americans and branding her a sell out. Her participation in Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Program, an effort to improve relations with Latin America, didn't help her image at home. All that stress took its toll on her. She had drug problems, an abusive marriage and was clinically depressed. Like Marilyn Monroe, another tragic icon, Miranda buckled under the pressures of Hollywood. The funny, vivacious woman died of a heart attack at the age of forty-six while performing live on the Jimmy Durante Show. Struck down by powerful outside forces, just like my unsuspecting little statue.

I wondered if the women from these banana-producing countries were really just passive bystanders though. I came across a movement that tells me they are not. For the last 20 years, women banana workers, las mujeres bananeras, or simply bananeras have been organizing, and are gaining a foothold for gender equity issues in unions, workplaces and their communities. Dana Frank tells their story in her book, Bananeras, Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America (South End Press, 2005). The symbol on the front of the book is a redesigned Chiquita label picturing a strong, smiling woman with one arm raised up as a sign of power and solidarity.

"Bananas have been part of Guatemala for so long now, more than a century, so they are now a part of our subconscious," said Naufus. "They come up in our dreams. They are part of our fantasy world. They are no longer just something objective. They are so embedded in the culture now. It is no longer about being communist or capitalist... They are so rooted in that place, that if the industry went away, there would be a wound, even if it would be better economically for the country."

Bananera. I hear the echoes of meaning. From company towns to powerful symbol. I attempt to glue my statue back together and in the process, snap her arm off. I decide to re-attach it pointing upwards and transform her into a bananera.

[Tags: Food]  [Tyee]

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