Bananas Are Dying—Killed By Corporate Monoculture
Prepare to say goodbye to bananas. They're dying, and their death is a precursor of what’s to come if we continue to accept corporate farming.
by Heidi Stevenson
Prepare to say goodbye to bananas. Do you remember back in the sixties when there was a change in bananas? It wasn’t announced, but those of us who love the fruit recall it. They became less sweet and creamy -- just not as good. There was no information about it. The change seemed to slip under the radar and most of us forgot about it.
That change foretold what’s now coming—the near-complete death of bananas. They're dying, and their death is a precursor of what’s to come if we continue to accept corporate farming. But first, back to the impending loss of bananas.
We tend to think of bananas as a single species with no more than one or two variations on the theme—something like oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits that are all variations of a single species. That, though, is far from the truth. Until the mid-eighteen hundreds, most bananas grew wild and local people ate them, though some local cultivation existed. There was a huge variety. Some were sweet and some sour. Some were creamy, while others had a bit of crunch. Some were yellow, but others were red or purple. Today, most of that variety is lost.
During the 1870’s, Minor Keith was a young man from a wealthy railroad company who went to Costa Rica to help build a national railroad. He and other relatives accomplished the task at the cost of 5,000 workers’ lives. He also started planting bananas, a crop that was gaining popularity in the US, on the easements along the railway. The Costa Rican government could not make payments on its railroad loans from British banks. Because of his wealth and connections, Keith was able to raise the money to finish the job, largely by negotiating a significant decrease in the interest rate, from 7% down to 2.5%. This put him in the debt of the dictator, whose daughter he'd married, so he was granted 800,000 acres of tax-free land along the railroad, where he’d been planting bananas, along with a 99-year lease on the railroad’s operation along that route.
Yes, it’s just amazing what can be accomplished through birth into wealth combined with an utterly unscrupulous nature. The corporation that came out of this was United Fruit, now known as Chiquita. It had an insatiable appetite for profits, which it was willing to satisfy at virtually any cost to the people, the countries it occupied, and nature. Their typical modus operandi was, from the very beginning, to force their way into a poor nation, slash and burn to create banana plantations, and provide slave wages to the natives. Virtually any means was used to lop off anything that got in the way of profits.
It was this—the behavior of Chiquita—that led to the term Banana Republic, coined by the novelist and short story writer, O. Henry. It was not a term of derision for the countries, but a term of sympathy for their enslavement by United Fruit. In the February 2008 issue of The Nation, the author states that United Fruit "was truly a terrorizing company—a kind of Halliburton, McDonald's, Nike, and Archer Daniels Midland all rolled into one. United Fruit set the precedent for the propaganda, exploitation and imperialism of modern-day corporate plunderers."
Then in 1903, what should have brought these practices to a screaching halt, worsened the tale. A fungus named Fusarium oxysporum, commonly known as Panama disease or Agent Green and sometimes called Sigatoka, started to attack the monoculture crop, the Gros Michael variety. Since these crops were not grown from seed, but instead were all clones, the result of planting only from rhizomes (underground stems), none of the plants stood a chance once one had been infected.
Of course, United Fruit did what any giant of monoculture would do. They dumped tons of chemicals on the crops. It didn’t work. The plants continued to die. Though advised that the only real solution was to plant a wide range of banana varieties, United Fruit’s only real concern was the short term bottom line. Their first solution was to find more impoverished nations with the right climate and repeat what they’d done to Costa Rica, and by that time, many other nations.
The company’s own adherence to short term profit, even over its own long term survival, resulted in refusal to engage in even the most basic techniques to avoid carrying the infection to previously-unaffected locations. The chemicals slowed the progression on Panama disease, but didn’t stop it. Then, in 1935, Sigatoka, an even more virulent fungus, showed up. This was the death-knell of the Gros Michael banana.
By 1960, the Gros Michael banana was extinct. United Fruit, though, was lucky. They found another variety, the Cavendish, that was resistant to the fungus infections. Note, though, the word resistant. They were not immune.
Naturally, Cavendish bananas replaced Gros Michaels. United Fruit -- by then known as Chiquita -- didn’t learn any good lessons. They continued the same practices of monoculture clone planting, massive chemical use, and moving to new countries as the bananas in old ones died.
Examples of United Fruit-Chiquita Methods of Operation
Colombian Strike Against United Fruit
In 1928, thousands of United Fruit workers were on strike, demanding a six-day work week, an eight-hour day, medical care, and payment in real money, rather than company scrip that could only be spent at the company store. They demonstrated peacefully in a town square. After a five-minute warning, the United Fruit-controlled Colombian government’s military opened up with machine guns, killing an unknown number. United Fruit itself estimates at least 1,000 were killed, but the real extent of the massacre will never be known, since most of the bodies were probably dumped in the sea and buried deep in the forest. In other words, the incident was covered up.
After the president, Eli Black, commited suicide in 1975, the corporation, now called United Brands after a flurry of corporate buyouts and mergers, was subjected to an investigation, which resulted in a tale of bribery. The puppet president of Honduras had been given $1.25 million and promised another equivalent amount in exchange for reduction of export taxes. Then, it was discovered that European officials had received $750,000 in bribes.
In 1978, United Brands admitted that it had given $2.5 million to Honduras’s economy minister. For that, they were fined $15,000.
United Brands' response was to continue using DBCP in other countries.
Throughout its history, United Fruit-Chiquita operated a scorched earth policy against anyone and anything that stood in the way of short term profits. Nothing seems to have been too evil.
Encouraged by Chiquita, the CIA carried out a 1954 coup, which overthrew the legitimate Guatemalan government. Jacobo Arbenz, the president, had implemented an act much like the United States' Homestead Act, which allowed uncultivated portions of plantations -- code word for a monoculture banana tract -- to be appropriated for the people's use. His goal was the same as the Homestead Act, to create a nation of landowners. The corporate landowners were paid the tax appraisal value of the land.
Connections With Colombian Narcotics Traffickers
Colombia's military government is propped up by the United States. When the U.S. itself doesn't take matters into its own hands, local paramilitary narcotics gangs do the job of murdering union leaders and workers who have tried to organize, especially in banana fields. Since 1985, at least 4,000 have been killed or have disappeared during strikes or while organizing workers.
Known collaborators of these gangs include Chiquita. The attorney for a lawsuit filed in 2007 by some of the victims' families stated, "It was about acquiring every aspect of banana distribution and sale through a reign of terror." Chiquita claimed that it had been paying protection money to protect its employees, who they claim had been threatened if they didn't pay. The company does not explain how this makes sense when the only employees killed were those involved with union organizing.
One of the core techniques of any successful agribusiness corporation is propaganda. United Fruit was a master.
For a nominal fee, in 1962 American schools were provided with packages that contained lessons about bananas, information about Central American countries (obviously not delineating its own activities in destroying them), banana recipes nicely formatted into a folder, and teaching tools, including a wall chart, movies, and a teacher's manual on how best to use them.
That same year, the Chiquita logo was affixed to bananas and an advertising campaign to convince the public of their superiority was launched.
Discarded bananas were turned into a profit center. In 1966, a factory was built in Honduras to produce banana puree from discards. It took some time to realize a profit, but by the 1980's banana puree started to show up in ice cream, yogurt, and other similar foods. Just think—that prepared food with the listed ingredient of banana was very likely made from rejected bananas.
In 1967, after Del Monte entered the banana business, United Fruit gave 90,000 full color recipe cards, along with peanut butter sandwiches to U.S. schools.
Of course, when propaganda fails and bad PR is about to be produced, Chiquita falls back on the time-honored technique of suppression. In 1998, a particularly ugly bit of Chiquita's activities were about to be exposed by the Cincinnati Enquirer. The investigative reporter, Mike Gallagher, dug up clear documentation showing:
The technique used by Chiquita to get the Cincinnati Enquirer to pull the story were to ruin the career of Mike Gallagher. He was accused of hacking into their e-mails. As a long term and well respected investigative reporter, one must wonder why he'd have used such a klutzy method. It's surmised that he likely got the information from employees, who could have been at risk had he told the truth. Of course, this method of gaining information is time-honored by the profession. One of Edward R. Murrow's most significant documentaries, "Factories in the Field", was produced through such techniques. "History of the Standard Oil Company" by Ida Tarbell would never have been made, either.
By using the threat of lawsuit against a newspaper that had significantly less money to defend itself or its reporter, Chiquita was successful in keeping the story from the general public.
The "Solution" Being Suggested
So, what solution is being bandied about for the coming tragic loss of bananas five to twenty years from now? This is even scarier than all that Chiquita has done to this point. The primary suggestion offered is genetic engineering. Scientists are already at work mapping the banana's genome. Already, there are genetic experiments to modify bananas with the hepatitis B vaccine and with fish. That this sort of solution is nothing more than the next, utterly insane, step in a food system already mad with monoculture seems to be of no concern. The time of the mad scientist is now.
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