Fuck Bananas :: Free the People
“If you had to choose one industry (other than oil) to illustrate how big companies with interests in several countries can be so unbelievably corrupt and destructive then you would choose the banana industry.”
-Buy a Better Life(2)
A banana is often praised as being one of our most perfect foods. It is chocked full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber, making it a supposedly excellent choice for a boost of sustained energy. And if that wasn’t reason enough to consume them, they are typically $0.49-$0.69/ lb for conventional, and a mere $0.79-$0.99/ lb for organic, Fair Trade included. It appears that it is both a highly nutritious and cost effective option to sustain our active lifestyles, or is it that simple?
In my early days of working in a natural and organic produce department, I was astonished at how often we were stocking bananas. I came to find out that they are typically the number one item sold in grocers throughout the nation and they are the most widespread fruit crop in the whole world. Here we were, one small retailer in one small town, and we sold through cases and cases of them every day year round. Seriously, we couldn’t keep them on the shelves. I guess you could say that the banana was my first in-depth inquiry into the food that was on my plate and the systems required to get it to me. When my research had ended, I said goodbye to an old favorite and I have never eaten another banana since.
Bananas are native to tropical south and southeast Asia. In modern days, they are cultivated throughout the tropics in at least 107 countries, but commercially grown bananas are predominantly from Ecuador, Costa Rica, Columbia, Guatemala and Honduras.¹ It was originally United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands) that paved the way and the banana empire established compatible leaders in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These leaders gave the giant entities large swaths of jungle and rainforest for free and the nations themselves financed miles upon miles of railroads needed for transport.² The industry is still controlled to this day by three dominant US based fruit companies, Chiquita Brands (formerly United Fruit), Dole (Standard Fruit), and Del Monte.
Widespread tropical deforestation is just the first layer in assessing the environmental destruction that occurs for us to have our regular dose of banana. The rainforest is bulldozed right up to the river banks, marshes are drained, streams are channelized and drainage canals are built to prevent flooding fields. In Central America alone, this has happened on hundreds of thousands of hectares.³ Each individual hectare converts to 2.47105 acres. As the agricultural battle for deforestation continues, not even “protected” lands are immune these days. To illustrate, in 2011 Dole Food Company went so far as destroying rainforest in Somawathiya National Park in Sri Lanka, which is critical feeding grounds for the Asian elephant. This subspecies happens to be listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List due to massive habitat loss.4 While we often make loud outcries to save iconic endangered species, we continue to support the very industries that directly destroy these creatures havens that they so desperately require to survive, and so many, many other inhabitants as well.
While deforestation is the first assault, the banana empire does not stop there. Colossal and intensive production guides plantations to extensively utilize chemical fertilizers and some of the most dangerous pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and nematicides known to man. Some of these chemicals, nematicides in particular, are highly toxic to fisheries and have contributed to continual mass fish kills extending from rivers out to oceans.5 Workers themselves are also exposed to these chemicals through inhalation, ingestion and dermal contact. These toxins are sprayed onto the plants or spread from planes whiles workers are out in the field. Aerial cloud applications obviously also have a tendency to drift to nearby communities, rivers and streams. Workers are further exposed through dermal contact handling the fruit and ingestion through their communities water supplies.5 Aside from agrochemical health impacts, workers are forced to stay 10-12 hour a day, six days a week with extremely low wagess and no benefits, sexual harassment of females abounds and exploitation of children is common practice. This has all been widely publicized.
Then came Fair Trade. The unthinkable working conditions and growing practices prevailed as the banana barons competed with one another for the lowest retail price, but Fair Trade was the solution the world had been looking for. It was established to empower worker-owned small farms providing a social net and transform the oppressive economic system. Popularity of this label, often paired with organic, swept across western nations and consumers once again felt good about their choices and went back to bananas guilty free. Unfortunately, while Fair Trade is better than nothing, Fair Trade bananas have still continued to enslave these regions and peoples. While it guarantees a higher price than current market value, it encourages market oversupply, which in turn drives down global market values. Typical of a capitalist system, the marketing theme for Fair Trade certifiers shifted strategically from an economic revolution to a poverty alleviation strategy, or an attempt to make poverty more bearable.6
Neither the organic label on bananas, nor the Fair Trade certification, have had any quantifiable impact on freeing these bioregions from mass monoculture plantations and socio-cultural devastation. So just how do these nations willingly continue to destroy their land base? The qualitative development that international lending agencies (IMF, WMF and IADB) promised has never materialized into anything meaningful. The amount of funds each country is paying out increasingly exceeds the amount that it brings in through revenues. This forces them to abide by structural policies imposed by none other than the WTO and these transnational organizations. The IMF increases interest rates to encourage cutbacks in government spending, which leads to incentives that increase production and shift resources from domestic consumption to private investment and continually perpetuates a downward spiral of debt, corruption and enslavement.7
The shift of resources from domestic consumption to international trade and private investment has left such impoverished peoples an inability to neither grow food for their own people, nor to have the funds to purchase food on the free trade market. It does not take an expert to understand that eventually these peoples will be forced to take out another loan (from IMF, WMF or IADB) that will put further restrictions on their capacity to sustain, or they will make more sacrifices that further strip away their rights and their land.
The final step, albeit seems mild in comparison, is to analyze the transport and delivery systems needed to get the banana to its consumer. To localize our contribution lets take a look at shipping to Portland, OR. Bananas are carefully packaged, wrapped, loaded into cargo containers and transported somewhere between 2800 and 4200 miles as the crow flies. Location of sea shipping ports and trucking routes add far more distance to fossil fuel energy consumption for this equation. Bananas are also a very delicate item and consumers demand an aesthetically appealing end product, so they are picked VERY green and transported in refrigeration the whole way. Upon arrival to the region where they will find there way to retailers, they must first go through their final process in a ripening chamber, aka gas chamber. It is a delicate business of proper temperature control, air circulation and the introduction of artificially manufactured Ethylene gas for up to twenty-four hours.8 At last these bananas that have come so far can be loaded onto another fossil fuel transporter and shipped to your local retailer. The labor along the way has all been undermined and even your retailer spends many hours a week continually stocking these precious commodities.
When we talk about how cost effective a banana is for a meal fix, we are only looking at our immediate personal savings. I think it is dangerous to not dig into the true costs of all items we consume. I ate bananas for years and started working in a produce department almost 7 years ago. Through this whole process I have noticed something peculiar. Through many years of global inflation, through all these trials and tribulations, the cost of a banana at retail has remained relatively unchanged. I do believe that readers that have made it with me this whole way are now more equipped to understand the logistics of how and why.
Here in lies the final dilemma. While many uphold that revenue and employment of this industry is extremely important to banana yielding economies and nations, we must question how valid this statement is over time. As we look at bioregional developments and the corporate delusions they entrap us in, would the peoples of each land base be better off if we just got out of their way? I believe that the people of Central and South America, where bananas are grown, could grow enough food for all their people, live far healthier lives and find solutions to restoring their land if we got the hell out of their way. Corporations and economic powers are coercing the world over into forced policies that strip all peoples and their land bases of the ability to survive.
We have all seen corruption in Cascadia thin out our old growth forests to a fraction of their original stands, all in the name of profit. We are looking at the floodgates opening up once more across our local lands as we are running out of funds and ways to stay afloat in a global economy heading towards a collapse. I ask the banana consumer, how sweet is that next banana going to taste now? I plead to all Cascadians, please stop consuming bananas, protect our land base and demand that all land bases are given back to the communities that can find their own autonomous solutions. My contribution to the Cascadian meme is that you cannot support bioregionalism and eat bananas.
I would have loved to include imagery of the ripening chambers, but I could surprisingly not find one with creative commons, or fair use rights. Please refer to this pdf from the Banana Congress to put these things into perspective. And an example of one that exploded.
1. Wikipedia contributors, ‘Banana’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana> [accessed 29 February 2012]
2. Bananas are Bananas. Retrieved February 29, 2012, from http://www.buyabetterlife.net/bananas-are-bananas
3. McCracken, C. 1998, “The Impacts of Banana Plantation Development in Central America”, Members Tripod [online] available at http://members.tripod.com/foro_emaus/BanPlantsCA.htm
4. Hance, J. 2011, “Dole Destroying Forest in National Park for Bananas”, Mongabay [online] available at http://news.mongabay.com/2011/0814-hance_srilanka_dole.html
5. Wheat, A. 1996, “Toxic Bananas”, Multinational Monitor [online] available at http://multinationalmonitor.org/hyper/mm0996.04.html
6. Robinson, P. 2011, “Fair Trade Is In Crisis”, Fair Trade Community [online] available at http://www.fairtradecommunity.com/articles/17-fair-trade/19-fair-trade-is-in-crisis
7. Sourakhata, 2008, “Life & Debt on How IMF and World Bank Has Impoverished Jamaica and Other Countries”. Assata Shakur Forum. Retrieved February 29, 2012, from http://www.assatashakur.org/forum/conscious-edutainment-videos-movies-tv/30335-life-debt-how-imf-world-bank-has-impoverished-jamaica-other-countries.html
8. Health and Safety Executive/ Local Authorities Enforcement Liaison Committe. Retrieved February 29, 2012, from http://www.hse.gov.uk/lau/lacs/31-2.htm