Where there is a will there is a way

Monday, February 21, 2011

Banana Republic article from Good magazine Issue 17 2011

The article "Banana Republic" from Good magazine Issue 17 2011 (March-April), p 48-55 has been reproduced here due to the its great value for educational and awareness purposes only.

Do you wish to know the truth behind the regular bananas you grab each week at the supermarket? If so, read this article. But here is what it's about: banana workers use pesticide on the plant which has the effect of sterility, and birth defects. Dole, Chiquita, they all use it although it has been banned in developing countries as it keeps their disease prone product pest free. Don't fear, there is something you can do - there are Fair Trade bananas out now, called "All Good Bananas". I saw them in Pak n' Save here in NZ. They are just taped together though, possibly off to one side, as the biggest banana supplier gets rights to sell them "loose".

Super cheap and plentiful in our supermarkets year round, it's no surprise that bananas arethe world 's most popular and heavily-traded fruit. Across the globe, more people eat bananas than any other fresh fruit and altogether over $25 billion is spent on them each year.

There's a lot to like about bananas; they come ready-wrapped and in a variety of sizes that make them as convenient to pop in the kids lunchboxes as they are to munch one-handed .... while we go about our business. According to The Guardian, only petrol and scratch card soutsell bananas in UK supermarkets.

Chock-full of dietary fibre and vital minerals such as potassium, they even contain tryptophan and vitamin B6, which are known to help us feel happy.

Bananas might be the easiest fruit eat, but susceptibility to disease combined with large-scale monoculture of single varieties means banana producers are second only to cotton producers in global pesticide use.

Then there's the social justice story: while banana sales and demand have soared in Western countries, plummeting prices have had a devastating effect on banana producers in the developing world - vhich is where most bananas are grown, with agencies such as Oxfam reporting that banana plantation workers not make enough to live on and support their families, many earning as little as NZ $3 a day.

According to the World Development Movement, unfair First World barriers cost developing countries US $700 billion a year in lost export earnings – some 14 times the amount that poor countries receive in aid.

But there is a better way. In this book, Harriet Lamb explains how a terrible experience prompted her to pour her efforts into the Fairtrade industry.

Travelling through Costa Rica finding finding out about what life was like for local banana workers, Harriet was suddenly just one mother listening to another talking about the most precious thing in the world - her child.


What could I say? There was nothing I could say. So I just sat next to Maria [footnote 1], held her hand, listened to her story and cried with her.

Like so many local men, her husband, Juan, worked on a banana plantation. During the 1980s his job was to inject a chemical called DBCP [dibromochloropropane] [footnote 2]into the ground with a hand-held machine to kill the worm-like parasites that attack the roots of banana plants. He prepared the chemical, carried it in an open container, and reloaded the machine from an open vat many times a day. As he worked he breathed in DBCP. It often went onto his skin.

Juan knew nothing of its hidden dangers. But the chemical companies who made it did, and the banana companies that used it did. The US manufacturers knew DBCP caused sterility in rats as early as the 1950s but suppressed the information and pressured officials to approve its use. Then in 1977 it was revealed DBCP had made thirty-five workers sterile at a factory in California. The state quickly banned its use and the US Environmental Protection Agency stopped registering any products containing DBCP. Rut the chemical manufacturers went on exporting it to poor countries like Costa Rica, where the banana companies continued using it on their plantations. Day after day Juan's body absorbed the poison - slowly and silently. Only years later did it exact its toll.

It was November 16, 1993. It should have been one of Juan and Maria's happiest days. But, Maria told me, after she had given birth to her son, the hospital staff seemed afraid to bring him to her. It had been a very difficult birth. In the end it was a caesarean.

"But now that was all over, I just wanted to see my child," she said. When she finally held him in her arms, she understood why it had been such a hard delivery and the staff had been reluctant to show her the baby. The boy was severely deformed. His head was four times bigger than his body. His eyes and nose were joined together. He had no proper eyelids. His skin was sickly green. Parts of his brain were missing. And it had all been caused by his father’s exposure to DBCP.

Haltingly she told me -with her eyes filling up - how her baby could never sleep for more than two hours at a stretch, as his condition tortured him. Even now, years later, it makes me cry when I remember her telling me, as she gestured weakly to the room where he had lain, how she couldn't even cuddle the crying boy.

"I couldn't hold him because it seemed to make him cry more. I just talked to him and cried with him. It's the worst thing that can ever happen to anyone. There are no words to explain what life is like." [footnote 3]

When Maria and Juan went to their local doctor for advice about the cause of the deformities and what could be done to help him, he fobbed them off.

"The doctor is in the pay of the company," the local priest later told me.

A few months later the baby died. Maria was far from alone. The babies of over 3,500 women in Costa Rica alone suffered birth defects, we were told. Tens of thousands of workers in Central America and Asia say they have been left sterile by DBCP [footnote 4]. As we sat there, and she showed me pictures of her baby, rage bubbled up inside me because the companies knew of the dangers of this chemical but they ignored them. I have never, ever forgotten Maria.

As I walked away down the path from her small house, I felt a burning desire to tell supermarket shoppers about the misery suffered by people like Maria and Juan in order to deliver ever cheaper and more spotless fruit into their shopping trolleys.

It was 1997. I was working for a British pressure group on world poverty, the World Development Movement (WDM). I was in Costa Rica's banana­growing Atlantic region with Alistair Smith - a tall, intense campaigner from the watchdog group Banana link - to find out from the workers there how shoppers who ate their bananas could support their struggle for better wages and conditions. The emotions of my meeting with Maria were still churning inside me as he and I sat later in a smoky, ramshackle cafe in town sipping hot sweet coffees and long glasses of water. Nick Shaw, a somewhat dishevelled freelance journalist who was hoping to interest TV's Channel Four News in the issue, had just joined us. We were discussing the companies' line that things had improved. "Things are getting worse, not better," Alistair interjected heatedly, looking up from rolling a cigarette. "The price war between the supermarkets means the banana companies are squeezing workers so they can get the fruit cheaper. Sackings, union-busting, wage cuts, threats to move production to other countries, intimidation - you name it. They're clamping down everywhere."

I'd felt this pressure among the staff of the country's embattled Plantation WorkersUnion, called SITRAP,when we'd visited earlier in the day. "It's like a war now," one of them had told me starkly.

Arriving during the still-gentle, pink, early sun light we'd met Carlos Arguedas, a former 'bananero', or banana worker; now working on environmental issues at SITRAP. His warm, avuncular face and drooping grey moustache belied the horrors he, too, had suffered .

"Yes, I'm one of the 'burnts', as we're jokingly called," he told me. "I was affected by DBCP. I am unable to procreate. I have headaches, kidney problems, loss of sight. DBCP produces inflammation of the testicles, or the shrinking of testicles even to the point of being nearly eliminated. The worker who has reduced testicles has suffered less than those whose testicles have been inflamed or those who have had to have theirs amputated. There are co-workers affected by DBCP who don 't have genitals any more now."

By that time, 16,000 banana workers from 12 countries were trying to take legal action in the US courts against the chemical companies Shell, Dow Chemical and Occidental Chemical as well as the three banana giants ­ Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte - that dominate the trade. Despite years of legal wrangling, none of these workers had yet received one single cent in compensation from US courts. Others had felt compelled to take offensively small, out-of-court settlements. Many had died young waiting for justice.

In November 2007, however, after decades of doing everything to avoid justice in the US, Dow and Dole finally were proved guilty in a Los Angeles courtroom of making six Nicaraguan banana workers sterile through the use of DBCP and were ordered to pay out $3.3 million in compensation.

Company letters from the 1960s and 1970s were used in court to show that "Dole knew about the problems with DBCP, but wanted to continue using the chemical because the company feared not doing so would hurt their banana crops", reported Associated Press. Thousands of further cases of banana workers in Central America and West Africa who allege they have been affected by DBCP are waiting to come to court.” [footnote 5]

As we sat in the union's cramped office, Carlos told me he'd eventually accepted an out-of-court settlement of $7,600 - no liability was admitted, and it was only enough for ten treatment sessions at a local clinic for a condition he'd have for the rest of his life. And yet, he says, some US workers affected by DBCP received $1 million compensation each.

He says of the pay-out, "It makes me angry when I think the multinationals come to our country, contaminate our men, take back their dollars, leaving mutilated men and women, and don 't face up to their responsibilities afterwards. "

I asked Carlos if he'd like to give a message to people in the UK who buy Costa Rican bananas. His response was striking. "Bananas carry a high cost in this country. We don't ask people in Britain to stop buying them. But we do ask they be mindful so that sooner, rather than later, we should have a banana industry that is in accord with nature and with humankind. We hope to have the strength to continue producing that dessert which is so popular in your country. But we hope to continue doing so in humane and ecologically-sound living conditions."

His vision of a fairer way of trading bananas could have sounded hopelessly naive. But from Carlos, who knew first­hand the brutal realities of the cur-throat trade and the power of the companies who controlled it, the words were powerful and inspiring. I felt then for the first time, as I feel now, that building this better type of trade had to be possible. And across the world - in Costa Rica, in Mexico, in tiny Caribbean islands, in development organisations in Europe and North America -more and more people were thin king.along the same lines. The beginnings of a global movement were stirring.

Footnotes:l. Names have been changed to protect the identities of workers and because legal proceedings to secure compensation continue.
2. Excerpt on pineapple plantations in Hawaii. World Development Movement (WDM ), DBCP Legal Action, 1997, WDM.
3. WDM, DBCP Legal Action, 1997, WDM.
4. WDM, Saying Yes to the Best - Justice for Banana Workers, 1997, WDM.
5. Associated Press, 5 November 2007; Los Angeles Times, 6 November 2007. See also www.ihr.com/articles/ap/2007/11/06/business/NA-FIN-US­Banana-Workers.php

- From Fighting the Banana Wars and Other Fairtrade Battles, by Harriet Lamb, Rider 2009, $28. Extracted with permission, proceeds donated to the Fairtrade Foundation.

(Photo Left) Harriet Lamb

Fairtrade warriorDescribed in the press as dynamic, inspiring and the 'Eco Queen', Harriet Lamb is living proof that individuals can make a difference. Born in India, Harriet was educated at a private boarding school in Wiltshire, UK. A political science degree at Cambridge University was followed by an MPhil in Development Studies.

Returning to India, Harriet spent 18 months helping farm workers in the lowest caste system, the 'untouchables', to band together in a co-operative selling grapes. She's travelled and campaigned in many countries but cites the heart-rending meeting with Maria, described above, as the moment that convincedher of theimportanceoffairtrade.

Harriet has bee nthe executive director of the United Kingdom Fairtrade Foundation since 2001 and through her leadership she's helped make fairtrade one of Britain's most active grassroots social movements. Accolades include the UK's Orange Businesswoman of the Year 2008 and a CBE (Commander of the Order of theBritish Empire) for her contribution to Fairtrade.

Harriet plans to visit NewZealand mid 2011.Watch this space!

Sunny side upBanana devotee ANDY KENWORTHY gives usthe goods on the availability of guilt-free bananas in New Zealand.I recently visited naturopath Christine Lane, and the hardest task she set me was to improve my diet was to "expand your choice of fruit beyond bananas ". I love those hand-sized packages of seedless goodness: you don 't need tools to eat one, your fingers don't get sticky and you don't spend the rest of the day picking bits from your teeth.

But I don 't think I love bananas as much as Chris Morrison. Right now he has several 40-foot containers full of them and several more container loads on the way.

Other than my naturopath, the only thing that ever gave me pause when grabbing a bunch of bananas was the thought that they had to be flown in from some pretty poverty-stricken, far-off places. From my experience of working with non-government organisations like Oxfam and WWF, I know local producers don't often get their fair share of the profits and environmental safeguards can be limited or non-existent. Chris is working to remove this final barrier between me and my lifelong banana addiction, and ruin my naturopath's best-laid plans.

Along with his wife, Deborah Cairns, and business partner Roger Harris, Chris co-founded Phoenix Organics, and spent two decades pioneering New Zealand's organic drinks market. Then in 2008 his new company, All Good Bananas, was launched with hisbrother,M atthew,and business partner, Simon Coley.At first, the team imported organic Samoan bananas, then began searching for ethical producers elsewhere. The first to get Fairtrade bananas onto our nation's shelves, their company also hopes to secure an ongoing supply of organic Fairtrade bananas if it can.

I asked Chris why.

"It has been on my radar for a long time and we have seen how successful organic bananas have been around the world, particularly in Europe," says Chris. "We knew that New Zealanders love bananas, so I thought it was time they were offered a fair banana."
Timing is key: a lot of the groundwork for Fairtrade and organic produce has been done by cafes offering ethical coffee to the country's caffeine addicts. And in recent years, non­government organisations have raised awareness of the issues involved and are now promoting All Good Bananas to their networks of supporters.

"There are similar issues with other commodities like coffee, tea and cocoa. It's about giving people a fair price for their products and for their labours," says Chris.

But is the current recession the best time to launch All Good, given that more money for the producers means the bananas will cost about a dollar more a bunch?

Chris is optimistic: "I think Kiwis can relate to people not having a lot. It is a wake-up call for shoppers - they can make a difference. And it is great to see Kiwis responding positively to that message."

The power of positive thought appears to be working. So far the company is knocking our five 40-foot containers of bananas a month to Nosh, Pak'n Save, New World and others all over the country, with more orders rolling in all the time. But as this is fairtrade, getting the fruit into the shops was only one part of the challenge: the other was sourcing the right bananas in the first place.

Here the team at All Good enlisted the help of AgroFair, a company that imports a large amount of Fairtrade fruit into Europe. AgroFair hooked the company up with a co-operative in El Guabo, Ecuador. Like all Fairtrade producers, El Guabo is independently audited. In addition, Matthew, Simon and Chris's daughter Rose have all visited the co-operative to meet the workers and see the effect of their efforts firsthand.

Chris explains the impact: "Unfortunately, there is still a lot of corruption in the developing world. We may think we are doing the best thing for people by giving them aid, but only a percentage of that goes into the right hands. Fairtrade is independently audited, the producers get paid a fair wage and the community co-operatives receive a premium. They work democratically, and can choose to spend it on education, medical facilities or more farming equipment."

Ecuador is a long way away. Isn't there some way we could cut the air miles on our bananas too?

"In an ideal world, we would like to work with our neighbours in the Pacific," says Chris. “A lot of bananas used to come from the Pacific but then the big corporations stepped in and undercut them, destroying markets overnight.

"We are working to try and help set them back up, but a lot of the infrastructure has gone. We are currently experimenting with bringing in Samoan dried bananas to put into a health bar with coconut and other whole food ingredients."

So where to next? Spray free?

As El Guabo is certified by The Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, a long list of fungicides and pesticides commonly found in conventional banana production are no longer present in theirs. But like other food imports, All Good Bananas sometimes get fumigated by inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry on their way in. So Chris and his team are working on new ways of packing and shipping their bananas to minimise the chances of this happening. "We don't have full organic certification just yet, but it's our ultimate goal. We're working hard on this and our producers already use organic fertilisers," says Chris.

And, finally, if you've wondered why the All Good Bananas come in taped 1 kg bunches in supermarkets, it's because selling ' loose' is the exclusive preserve of the biggest banana supplier in each store.

To help ensure we get Fairtrade organic bananas loose in our supermarket sometime soon, I'm off to get me some All Good Bananas.

Sorry Christine.

The Last Banana?
- In 2003, New Scientist magazine ran a cover story arguing that the supply of Cavendish bananas, the type most commonly sold around the world (including All Good Bananas). could be devastated.by diseases sweeping through the world's crop.

- This has happened before. The banana cultivar Gros Michel used to be the type most people were eating around the world. By most accounts it was tastier, more robust and easier to ship. Then in 1960 Panama disease, also known as Fusarium wilt, killed so many bananas it pretty much wiped out this cultivar as a commercial proposition. That's when the world shifted to the Cavendish. But it, too, is now being hit by new strains of the same disease. Research is underway into the use of other varieties and even genetic modification as potential solutions to the problem.

- Bananas are Australia's top-selling fruit, but even though more than 85 percent of the nation's banana crop was destroyed in February's cyclone, they won't be bringing any in from overseas. Australia technically permits imports from the Philippines, but biosecurity standards are so high no grower has yet obtained entry.

-Andy Kenworthy

1. Michael on top of a mound of the organic fertiliser he makes for the El Guabo Co-operative. He collects by-products from local farms and industries, including processed coffee, rice grasses, and liquid biological fertiliser

2. Washed,weighing and checking hands of bananas for quality in the packing shed at the San Andrea s farm in El Guabo

3. A team of Bananeros, the local name for banana farmers, harvesting bananas at San Andreas farm in El Guabo

4. Maricela Calero cleaning the flowers out from bunch of bananas at the San Andreas farm in El Guabo

5. Anibal Upulte has owned and farmed his small Fairtrade organic banana farm on the border of Ecuador and Peru for over 30 years

6. Taping and packing AllGood Bananas into 1kg bunches as you find them in store. Tape bearing the Fairtrade mark is carefully wound around each bunch before they're placed in boxes bound for New Zealand. The Fairtrade mark is an independent, third-party certification scheme identifying bananas that guarantee growers a fair deal

7. A cable system carefully transports the bananas to the packing shed at the San Andreas farm in EI Guabo Centre

8. Children swim in the river below Cabrera's organic banana farm in the highlands of EI Guabo. Biodiversity and the absence of herbicides and pesticides on farms like this keep the local water clean and unpolluted for drinking and swimming

9. Teams of two cut and carry the bunches of bananas harvested at fruit from the palm
From top left to right:
1. Segundo Ceguana, President of the E1 Guabo Association of Small Banana Producers

2. Jose Tenesaca has been able to support his wife Maria and family by owning his small banana farm as a member of the El Guabo Association of small Banana Producers

3. Abel Ugarte, Elizabeth Urdiales and their family at their organic farm in Pasaje, El Guabo.

4. Children at one of E1Guabo's 17 schools. Over 900 local children benefit from the Fairtrade premium paid by shoppers


There are two issues here - one is the human impact of the way we produce food - the human cost of the efficiency and perfection the world demands. The other is biological, in regardes to the food plant itself with the impact of monoculture growing. When only one strain of a food is mass-produced for greater efficiency, that single variety is more prone to being wiped out than a variety of strains suited to local climates.

From the article, of particular note is:

"According to the World Development Movement, unfair First World barriers cost developing countries US $700 billion a year in lost export earnings – some 14 times the amount that poor countries receive in aid."

1 comment:

Rajkumar Elayaperumal said...

It is awful to know that banana suppliers in early days used harmful chemicals for the plant growth.