The White River Junction Co-op, a cream-colored store just west of the Connecticut River in a cool little Vermont village, was once a tired, dirty grocery chain until it was purchased by the Co-op Food Stores a few years ago. It’s now a nice place, a neighborhood market where hipsters, ex-hippies, college students, and local folk of all types come together. (Moment of transparency: I'm a big fan because I live in WRJ and shop at the store all the time.) The store is where people catch up on the weather and the Red Sox while they shop for milk, bread, free-range eggs, and so on. Our family’s favorite thing in the store, besides the lively conversation, is the fresh produce. I love the Equal Exchange bananas especially.
I don’t know why I like the things so much. There just seems to be something special about them. Equal Exchange bananas are fairly traded, for one thing, meaning farmers a world away are paid a fair price for the product. But the bananas also simply taste good, with a slightly ripe texture and flavor, just the way I like them.
I never knew about it until I started working at the Co-op, but the humble banana has a dark history. I learned this years ago from a Co-op produce guy, a burly man with black hair and blazing blue eyes, who introduced me to the topic.
I was browsing the produce aisle in our Hanover store one day when the bananas caught my attention. They were a screaming yellow, the shade a child might come up with when fingerpainting a sun. I complimented my colleague on how good the display looked.
“Do you know how these little babies came to the west?” he asked me that day in his booming baritone voice. I told him I didn’t know anything about bananas, other than I could eat them all day long.
He laughed and put another bunch in a wooden crate. “Lemme tell you something,” he said, holding them up in front of me, “the banana story ain’t so sweet.”
He suggested I read up on the topic. So I did.
Today’s predatory multinational food corporation, with its long reach and nefarious intentions, can be traced to early 20th-century Latin America and a company called United Fruit. We all know that company today as Chiquita. Many of the bananas you see in supermarkets have the famous Chiquita label on the peel.
United Fruit was a monolithic banana conglomerate known to generations of Latin Americans as The Octopus. It began around the turn of the 20th century, and within decades it had equalled or surpassed the power of virtually any government in Latin America.
United Fruit had tentacles everywhere, reaching deep into the corridors of power and propping up puppet governments to protect its investments. As Financial Times reporter Peter Chapman writes in Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World, “United Fruit has possibly launched more exercises in ‘regime change’ on the banana’s behalf than has even been carried out in the name of oil.”
The claim is not hyperbolic. United Fruit was not to be trifled with. In Colombia in 1928, more than 30,000 United Fruit banana workers went on strike, demanding luxuries such as toilet facilities on the plantations where they toiled in the torturous sun for long hours every day. United Fruit representatives characterized the strike as “communist” and “subversive” in telegraphs to U.S. government officials, who put pressure on the Colombians to crack down. In an event known as the Banana Massacre, later immortalized in literature by Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the military open fire on thousands of unarmed striking workers and their families. The families were gathered in the town square in Cienaga on a quiet afternoon, right after Sunday mass.
The Banana Massacre is but one event in a long history of violence, oppression, and corruption. Writes Katharine Mieszkowski, reporting for Salon:
In some countries, United Fruit blatantly paid no taxes at all for decades. In others, when troubled by local officials, it simply installed a more sympathetic government. In Honduras in 1911, the banana men not only staged an invasion to depose the current regime and put in a new one, they had the audacity to demand the new government reimburse the costs incurred in the invasion!
Things are better now, one might hope. Today, much has improved. But there is still a long way to go. Perhaps not in name, but no doubt in spirit, The Octopus lives on.
Multinational food corporations continue to dominate the banana industry. Long hours, low wages, and bleak futures are the norm for many workers on banana plantations around the world.
In 2002, Human Rights Watch reported that banana farms in Ecuador were places of “widespread human rights abuses,” including exploitation and intimidation of workers and the flagrant use of child labor. And in 2007, Chiquita was fined $25 million by the U.S. Department of Justice for making payments to “terrorist organizations” in Colombia.
Why would a fruit company make payments to terrorists? The DOJ said the terrorists supported the company’s business interests.
I have friends who work for Equal Exchange, a large democratic worker co-op in Massachusetts. Equal Exchange was one of the first organizations to popularize the idea of fair trade.
Equal Exchange started with fairly traded coffee from Nicaragua in 1986 and, over the years, moved into other products, including tea, chocolate, avocados, and bananas. It’s not uncommon for someone at Equal Exchange to dress in a silly banana costume, hot and sticky as a sauna, to promote fairly traded bananas on a sweltering New England summer day.
My friend Phyllis Robinson is the Education and Campaign Manager for Equal Exchange. She has a kind face and wise eyes and frequently visits Latin America to work with banana farmers who have organized to create their own grower cooperatives. On the Equal Exchange blog, she wrote,
For well over a century, the banana conglomerates, specifically Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita, Bonita and Fyffes, have influenced every level of social, economic, and political history in Latin America. They have controlled the fate not only of the millions of workers who toil on their plantations, but have also been responsible for determining national lending, tax credit, land allotment, environment, and labor policies, even dictating the fate of the highest government officials.
Phyllis told me that the banana’s ugly, oppressive history is one of the things that attracted the interest of Equal Exchange. Working with small family farm partners in Latin America, Equal Exchange and other fair trade organizations have worked to improve the lives of farmers and their families and put the farmers’ livelihoods back into their own hands.
“Everything has changed,” Phyllis once told me. “Now there’s a choice, at least, a way to make things better. It’s all up to the consumer, now.”