Bananas

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, July 2, 1999

Bananas. There are serious issues lurking in this tasty yellow fruit. In the past year, bananas have been in the news for two seemingly unrelated reasons: a trade war between the US and Europe and a conflict over a newspaper report on the business and agricultural practices of the world's largest banana-marketing company. However, both stories reveal concentrated corporate power exercising unseemly influence with serious environmental and social costs and a further loss of freedom.

First, a little background information: Bananas are mostly grown in the tropics. Three giant, US-based corporations control 60 percent of the global banana market. The fruit they sell is grown primarily on huge, 2,500 to 12,000 acre, corporate-owned or contracted plantations in banana republics.

On the seven Windward Islands (former European colonies in the eastern Caribbean), 24,000 farmers produce about three percent of the world's supply of bananas on small farms which average less than four acres in size. Apparently, these bananas are smaller, more succulent and more expensive than those produced in Central and South America by the US corporations.

The European Union (EU) wants to import a small percentage of its bananas from these former colonies. It may be out of loyalty, because they prefer to support small farms and more environmentally-benign agriculture or because the workers in the islands are better paid and society there is more equitable. These are all good reasons! However, in the brave new world of global free trade, the only thing that can matter is the bottom line. According to a World Trade Organization (WTO) decision in March, the Europeans can't make their buying decisions based on anything other than price. A small minimum quota for fruit from their former colonies, like any other social or environmental considerations, is not allowed.

After the WTO decision, the US threatened to impose a 100% duty on some imports from Europe, and the EU backed down. It is reported that the day after the US first took the banana issue to the World Trade Organization, the CEO of the largest banana marketer, one of this country's wealthiest men, donated half a million dollars to the Democratic Party. Of course, he also gives generously to the Republican Party.

Before it was the name for a chain of trendy clothing stores in upscale malls, banana republic was a derogatory term. In our Webster's New World Dictionary , a banana republic is defined as "any small Latin American country that has a one crop economy controlled by foreign capital."

A year ago, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an 18-page investigative report on Honduras, a real banana republic, and the activities of the Ohio-based banana marketer which is controlled by that same politically-generous CEO.

The report alleged that the company used military force and a corrupt local government to solve its labor and land problems, and that its toxic pesticides poisoned workers and ecosystems in several countries. The company sued, claiming that the story was based on stolen voice-mail tapes. As a result, the Enquirer fired the reporter, ran a front-page apology for three days and paid $10 million to the banana company (enough to buy lots more government favors). That discouraged discussion of the serious environmental, social and political issues the report raised.

These events have serious implications for the environment, for small farms and for democracy. They imply restrictions of our freedom to chose to support social and environmental benefits and to know about bad behavior that might discourage us from buying particular products. This seems especially unfortunate.

Independence Day rings increasingly hollow as enormously concentrated corporate and personal power and wealth eats away at our democracy.

Here's food for thought as we celebrate the Fourth of July and yet another good reason to support and eat from local organic gardens and farms.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth


This page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.