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FEATURE ARTICLE - JULY/AUG 2005
Yes, We Have Fair Trade Bananas
Many people know there’s Fair Trade coffee, tea, and chocolate. Now, you can help get Fair Trade bananas into a supermarket near you.
From discarded drink mats to key rings and decorative pens, Ruth Zuniga’s passion for collecting takes many forms. But none of her collections tracks the changes in her life as closely as her album of banana stickers.
Since acquiring her first job at a banana plantation nearly 25 years ago, Ruth has accumulated many of the different stickers used over the years in various Costa Rica banana packing houses, including several iterations of labels from Chiquita, Dole, and Del Monte, the three largest banana producers in the world.
In the late 1990s, with banana prices plummeting and large banana companies turning to other countries for cheaper and cheaper fruit, Ruth added a new sticker to her collection—the International Fair Trade mark. Ruth worked for Coopetrabasur (a cooperatively organized banana plantation owned and operated by former Chiquita employees) at the time, and her cooperative had just started selling bananas to the European Fair Trade market to earn a higher price for their fruit. To be registered as a Fair Trade supplier, Coopetrabasur had to implement certain environmental and social improvements on its plantations.
“When Fair Trade arrived here we got paid more,” Ruth told the UK-based Fairtrade Federation.
Furthermore, going Fair Trade meant protective gear (rubber boots, gloves, and aprons) for Ruth and other workers who come into contact with pesticides used on the plantation. Coopetrabasur is presently working to go organic, like many other Fair Trade banana producers.
“Before, we worked with chemicals without gloves or any protection ... Now we use much less chemicals than other companies, and we manage the environment better,” says Ruth.
For decades, multinational fruit companies have exploited labor in developing nations, leaving behind a legacy of social and environmental harm while delivering artificially cheap tropical fruits like bananas to Western consumers. Your consumer choices and your voice can make a difference for workers in the fruit industry and for the environment.
Bananas in Developing Countries
Banana companies have a history of meddling in the affairs of banana-producing developing countries to further their own ends. In 1904, the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Banana) negotiated a deal with the dictator of Guatemala to produce the railroad infrastructure for the country—which it could then use for transporting its bananas—in exchange for 99 years of tax breaks. In 1910, the company supported a coup against the president of Honduras and secured 25 years of tax breaks from the newly installed regime. In 1929, workers on United Fruit plantations in Colombia went on strike, demonstrating for written contracts, eight-hour days, and six-day weeks. The Colombian government retaliated with military action against the strikers, and many say United Fruit turned a blind eye to this abuse.
By the middle of the 20th century, United Fruit controlled rail lines and postal service across Central America and owned its own refrigerated ships for carrying bananas over the long distances back to the United States. By this time, the term “banana republic” had been coined to describe small countries that are economically dependent on a single export commodity (like bananas), with a military dictatorship government beholden to the corporate interests in control of that commodity.
Over time, the powerful United Fruit Company changed its name to Chiquita Banana and gradually ceded market share to today’s other two giant banana corporations, Del Monte and the privately owned Dole company, which have had similar histories in banana producing regions.
Chiquita signed onto the core labor conventions of the International Labor Organization and signed historic labor agreements in Central America in 2001; however, Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita still find themselves opposed by labor leaders, Central American community groups, and environmental advocates for their business practices in the countries that produce bananas.
Labor, Health, and the Environment
In the 1990s, banana workers from 26 countries sued Del Monte, Dole, and Chiquita (along with chemical companies Dow, Shell, and Occidental) for harm inflicted on them from the widespread use of DBCP as a pesticide on banana plantations. In the lawsuits, the more than 25,000 workers cited numerous ill health and environmental effects of DBCP, which the EPA listed as a human carcinogen in 1975, banning it from use in the US.
Though Chiquita, Del Monte, and the chemical companies settled in 1997 after nearly five years of legal battles, Dole continues to fight the lawsuits. It recently had its case assigned to a US court, where in March of this year, plaintiffs like Carlos Sosa from Costa Rica testified about sterility brought on by sustained exposure to DBCP.
While many banana workers involved in the lawsuits were exposed before the EPA banned DBCP, other plaintiffs like Oldemar Salas say they were exposed in the late 1970s or after. Some witnesses have reported the chemical’s use on banana plantations in the Philippines as late as 1991.
“The best cases to bring against Dole have already died,” Salas told the Dallas Observer. “Whole families died … of cancer—the mother, the father, and the child.”
Banana workers around the world often face such health risks. And though they work long hours in the fields, banana workers make very little money, as companies race to the bottom cutting labor costs. Banana workers make as little as $1 a day, forcing many into the rudimentary free housing owned by the corporations and perpetuating a cycle of dependence from which workers can find it difficult to free themselves. Wages of banana workers in Central America have actually declined over the past decade, and union organizers like Selfa Sandoval in Guatemala say that grueling work weeks (12- to 14-hour days, six days a week) are common among non-unionized workers.
“To have a cheap product in the States, we have paid for it [in Central America],” says Sosa.
Supermarkets and Fair Trade
Transfair USA, the nonprofit organization that certifies coffee, tea, chocolate, and other fairly traded commodities, began certifying tropical fruits in early 2004. Since then, Transfair has certified six different fruit importers, which focus mainly on bananas, although Fair Trade mangoes, pineapples, and grapes are available in select markets also.
Although there are more than 27,000 supermarkets in America, Green America’s Fair Trade Alliance director Erin Gorman says only around 700 have committed to stocking Fair Trade Certified™ fruit in their stores.
“The problem is not that there’s no supply, because Fair Trade fruit is available, and consumers have built a respectable market for it in Europe,” says Gorman. “The problem is that the supermarkets look at bananas as throwaway items that they can sell cheaply just to get customers in the door.”
Jonathan Rosenthal, project coordinator for Red Tomato (a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting small farmers), says that consumer education is key to driving demand.
“People see Fair Trade as a growing trend. Supermarkets are saying, ‘If you can convince us there really is demand, we may very well be interested,’” says Rosenthal.
David Klein, produce manager for the French Broad Food Co-op in Asheville, North Carolina, says he’s been stocking Fair Trade Certified™ bananas for about a year and has seen positive response from his customers. “When I get feedback from people, it’s that they’re willing to pay more for Fair Trade fruit,” he says.
Gorman says such feedback from customers is crucial. “People have to let supermarkets know that they want Fair Trade bananas,” she says, “And they also need to tell them broadly that they don’t want cheaper and cheaper products at the expense of the farmers in the field and the environment.”
To that end, Rosenthal and the rest of the Red Tomato staff have recently been working to establish a new, 100-percent Fair Trade banana company. Based in the Northeast US, the company will source from Central America to serve co-ops, natural foods stores, and supermarkets in the northeast United States. Partnering with AgroFair, a European-based company that distributes Fair Trade bananas, mangoes, and pineapples in Europe, Red Tomato hopes to begin US distribution in 2006.
Help Us Get Fair Trade Fruit in Your Supermarket
Help build demand for Fair Trade products. Adopt a nearby supermarket and ask the manager to stock Fair Trade bananas, as well as Fair Trade coffee, chocolate, and tea. Give the manager a copy of this article, as well as previous Real Green articles on Fair Trade chocolate and coffee. For more information joining Green America's Fair Trade Alliance, click here.