There are a lot of foods that changed the world, and few of them were as influential as the banana.
Buy a banana at an American supermarket and you might see the tag "Chiquita" on your banana. For most of my life, I looked at the tag indifferently and didn't think much about it. That was until a day or two when I looked up the history behind Chiquita Brands International to see that Chiquita is the successor of the infamous United Fruit Company.
Bananas are my favorite fruit. As a runner, bananas are the crown jewel food in the morning to prepare me to run as fast as I can. With the banana as the most popular fruit in the United States, it's time to look deeper at the history behind bananas, and what that means for us, now, as consumers, to fight the historical and even-present day atrocities and abuses of the banana industry.
According to Dan Koeppel, the author of the book Banana: the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, the first banana company in the world was Boston Fruit, which, along with other banana companies and mergers, took over nations and suppressed labor movements.
These companies engaged in brutal atrocities. In December, 1928, a group of United Fruit workers were on strike to protest subpar working conditions. After several weeks, United Fruit representatives and U.S. officials threatened to invade Colombia with the Marine Corps if the government didn't protect the business interests of United Fruit. The Colombian government sent the military in from Bogota, and opened fire on a group of plantation workers and their families after their Sunday morning mass. As the inspiration for a scene Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magnum opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the banana massacre's number of casualties is still disputed.
And before we say that atrocities like the 1928 Banana Massacre is a thing of the past, we have to look at what's at stake now. While Chiquita is not actively massacring people, in 2007, it admitted to paying $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia (A.U.C.), a far-right paramilitary group responsible for thousands of killings and some of the worst massacres in Colombia. The A.U.C. was designated by the United States as a terrorist group at the time and Chiquita was forced to pay $25 million for violating counterterrorism laws. In particular, the A.U.C. targeted labor leaders, liquidate problem employees, and removed people from lands needed for cultivation.
"They are so bad that in 2001, even the Bush administration was forced to designate them as a terrorist organization," said Terry Collingsworth, a Labor and Human Rights Attorney. He proceeds to say that multinational corporations had automatically aligned with the A.U.C. "They've made it safe for business here. That's what they do." Collingsworth states, from his and his associates' reporting, that Chiquita likely paid much more than $1.7 million to the A.U.C.
The film "Bananaland" is a documentary that is dedicated to "the thousands of people who have suffered under the influence of the banana industry." Part of the reason behind the cutthroat banana business model is that only one strain of banana -- the Cavendish banana, is processed. Only this banana is used in this supply chain, or else costs go up. Having one strain as a business model is profitable, convenient, but dangerous, as a single pest could infect the strain as a disease and decimate a whole industry. This is what happened when Irish potato farmers favored a single potato variety.
Bananas are also cheap -- sold at usually less than 89 cents per pound, despite being grown thousands of miles away and having to be transported a very long way. That's less than apples and oranges, which are grown in the country and don't need to be transported as far. In 1876, at the Centennial International Exhibition celebrating America being 100 years old, new inventions and foods were showcased that changed the world. The first was the telephone, created by Alexander Graham Bell. The second was the banana, a novel fruit relatively unknown to Americans before.
The excitement from the banana led the Boston Fruit Company to buy land in Central America for the sole purpose of growing bananas. The offer from fruit companies like the Boston Fruit Company seemed promising. According to Daniel Stone of the National Geographic, the banana business model offered governments jobs, money for roads, and fertilizer.
But the model was not for the welfare of the people or governments of Latin America -- the priority was the heavy profits of banana companies. Laborers made low wages while American fruit companies made most of the money. Over much of the 20th century, banana companies like United Fruit effectively took over governments in countries like Guatemala and Honduras, leading to the countries' model being known as "banana republics". A banana republic would describe politically unstable countries economically dependent on bananas as a sole export and product, and it has been diversified to include other limited-resource products. The CIA would strong-arm these governments to protect the business interests of banana companies at the expense of workers and people who lived in those countries, often propping up repressive regimes.
With a historic priority of keeping the costs of bananas low, banana companies were willing to do whatever it took to keep prices low, from stifling labor movements, keeping wages low, and strong-arming governments. The United Fruit Company did it then, and Chiquita Brands does it now.
As consumers, what can we do differently to stop the bloody cycle of the banana industry? Not eating bananas is not going to happen for all of us. For most of us, bananas are cheap, healthy, and nutritious. We are not saints, and all of us are still going to be complicit in the neocolonial history that allowed workers to be exploited and terrorized for our own convenience. We can support homegrown organizers and reformers who demand more rights, but there's one thing we can do better.
In 1999, President Clinton apologized to Guatemala, saying that "support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake."
Apologies, however, are not enough, especially when companies like Chiquita and Dole are still doing a lot of the same practices. However, the banana business model revolves around having one strain of banana in the market, what is known as a "monoculture". In the 1950s, the banana industry revolved around the "Gros Michel" strain of bananas, but a fungus called Fusarium, popularly known as Panama Disease, wiped out large banana plantations across Central America.
Luckily for the banana industry, the Cavendish banana was being grown and replaced the Gros Michel as a banana monoculture. But now, the Cavendish banana is facing a similar predicament to Panama Disease: a new strain of Panama Disease called Tropical Race 4 is rapidly killing off Cavendish bananas. Scientists are trying to breed a new monoculture that is also resistant to Tropical Race 4.
Very likely, the most popular banana on the planet could disappear in the coming decades. And while we have a gut reaction to try to save it, we have to look past that reaction and ask ourselves: would the world be a better place without bananas?
Yes, it would drastically re-shape the world if the Cavendish monoculture disappears -- but the banana industry monoculture business model would also shatter. We will have more varieties of the banana instead of a single monoculture re-shaping it, but that would also mean the fall of companies like Dole and Chiquita, and the diversification of bananas. Right now, every time we eat a Cavendish banana, we're perpetuating a vicious cycle, as behind that banana is a trail of blood, violence, tears, and exploitation.
For now, the power lies with us, the consumers. Let's break the cycle of banana workers exploitation by big banana by supporting the diversification of the banana industry and supply chain.
"As long as you're part of the system that's bringing Cavendish to us, you're part of the problem," Koeppel says at the end of "Bananaland". "All the energy we use...would be better spent bringing diversity to the banana business."
"You do that, and you break the chain."