By Abby Barrios
Have you ever stopped and thought about the stories behind one of the world’s most popular snack? Bananas are a popular fruit that is largely desired throughout the world. They are produced all around the tropics and exported around the world, produce in the South and Exported to the North. Geography, age, ethnicity, gender, etc., are all demographics of which this particular food is part. From a plantation owner or boss, to the plantation worker, as well as from the CEO of a great company, to a lower or middle class individual; almost everyone around the world has access to this fruit. It is accessible and can be found virtually in every super market around the Global North, and in most small store or “farmer’s market” in the Global South.
Banana’s mode of consumption can highly vary across cultures. As we know here in the U.S. and many other part of the Global North, bananas are mainly consumed as a sweet to bake with, as is the case with banana bread, as an ingredient for smoothies, ice cream, and more. On the other hand, bananas are also consumed in other regions such as the Global South. As is the case of México and Guatemala, bananas and plantains are used as part of a meal, frying them or putting them on rice, as is how my family traditionally makes them. Banana leafs are also put to use, as they are used to wrap tamales together. France uses them as a topping for their crapes, while India uses them as part of their staple meals.
This research reflects upon bananas as an “object of concern” through which we can address issues of power, economics, history, and more, and understand the interconnectedness of such. Hence, through this example of bananas, I hope to provide the reader with a more informed understanding of the world, and thus, becoming a positive global citizen.
A Short History of Bananas
To understand the banana as an environmental and social puzzle we must first dealt into its social history. Although the evolutionary history of the fruit is not fully understood, the origin is said to be placed at about 8,000 to 5,000 BCE (Early History of the Banana) in Southeast Asia, prominently in the regions of New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines (All about Bananas). It is believed Africans are responsible for the name, since the word is derived from the Arab work from finders (All about Bananas). Through the geographic distribution attributed to Arab conquerors in 327 B.C., bananas undertook diffusion moving from Asia Minor, to Africa, and later to the New World by European colonizers to the Caribbean shores (A Brief History of Bananas). This diffusion is up for question due to the fact that researchers find it difficult to trace the exact diffusion after its arrival to the Philippines. As is highlighted by the UCSC database, the fruit seemed to have gone through an introduction on areas, only to be reintroduced, thus leading to a rediscovery of the food many years later (Early History of the Bananas), something that can be attributed to colonization.
Furthermore, Musa Acuminata, one of bananas’ wild ancestors were spindly plants with small okra-like pods, were bred to produce seedless fruit that at one point, genetically crossed with Musa Balbisiana to create plantains, hence leading to what we now know as the common banana types (Taming the Wild Banana). As stated by the UCSC database, humans reproduced bananas from the suckers “vegetatively” by separating the offshoot from the mother pseudostem, and then replacing the suckers as a separate plant”(The Biology of the Banana). Thus, this domestication led to the small fruit moving from producing big seeds to the virtually seedless larger fruits we see today. Through archaeological examination of banana pollen and stem imprints, it seems as though the ancestor Musa Acuminata has been cultivated since at least 6,500 years ago (Taming the Wild Bananas).
Currently, bananas are produced in many countries within the tropics, such as Ghana, Cameroon, Guatemala, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Peru, Brazil, Cuba, Hawaii, and more (Banana Production). Formerly, bananas were planted in the coffee plantation of the New World to shade the crops from weathering (Banana Production). This same article further highlights that the soils in which bananas are planted contain extensive alluvial deposits rich in decomposed vegetable matter, and of which can be located in the tropical regions of the world.
Today, the majority of banana consumption is attributed to the local community in which they are grown, with only 15% of global production for export (Soto). Worldwide, India is the leading producer of bananas, accounting for 23% of total production, although most is for domestic use (Ingale, Joshi, and Gupte). They are also of significant economic importance in the French Caribbean (Torgerson), Central America and the Philippines. According to UCSC “A Brief History of Bananas” Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, and the Philippines account for two-thirds of the imported banana crops. Those bananas grown and brought to the Central and South Americas in the early 1800’s by European colonizers are exported to the United States, while bananas from the Caribbean are exported to the EU.
The Consequences of Neoliberalism: “Rotten Fruit Company”
In 1950 during the Cold War, Jacobo Arbenz was democratically elected president of Guatemala. Arbenz claimed a “spiritual socialism” ideology for the good of his people; and although not a member of the Guatemalan Communist Party, he did allow communism to become active in unions around the country. During President Arbenz’ early administration, a new land reform took place. This law consisted of three main aspects. The confiscation of properties not currently being farmed, a compensation to the owners at government set prices, and the redistribution of land to poorer farmers to hopefully grow food (Hove).
This socialist approach was then seen as an attack on the wealth of Guatemala’s upper class landlords, and overall, an attack to the United Fruit Company, now renamed Chiquita Brands International. Within some of the main individuals affected by this reform where the Dulles Brothers, part owners of the UF Co., one being the leader of the CIA and the other Secretary of State (Rabe).
Due to the effect that the land reform had on the economic wealth and capital of the capitalist upper class and the U.S. officials, President Arbenz became portrayed as a communist by the United States. A fear that this “communist” agenda could then become a domino effect in Central America, leaving the U.S. with the enemy closer to home was something that would not be tolerated. This fear also spread to dictators Trujillo from Dominican Republic and Somoza from Nicaragua, which also wanted Arbenz removed (Hove). Leaving the Guatemalan president with no other choice, Arbenz was led to the decision of having to buy weapons to defend his country form a possible attack, and it was only communist countries that were willing to sell. Ending up purchasing old Czechoslovakian made light cannons through the Communist Polish Government; the United States officially names Arbenz a communist threat (Rabe).
As a way to combat this threat, the CIA introduced Operation Success 1954 (Rabe). This operation considered of 7 main strategies. Firstly, the CIA selected non-democratic Castillo Armas to be Guatemala’s next president. They later equipped a small rebel army to overthrow President Arbenz, but accomplished nothing since people didn’t believe in this rebellion and weren’t looking to overthrow their newly elected president. This lead to the CIA introducing a fake rebel radio station and make it seem as though the rebel army was winning these fake battles. Even after this, the people still were apprehensive in this so-called battle, thus leading to an even more drastic tactic by the CIA to fly a fake rebel air force of unmarked planes to drop a few bombs in Guatemala city (Wasserstrom). Furthermore, the CIA used speakers on the roof of the United States Embassy to project battle sounds (Wasserstom).
It was after the accumulation of these events that people began to fear and believe in the rebellion, leading Arbenz’ soldiered advising him to leave in fear of a presidential overthrow, leaving the President with no other option than to flee to México (Rabe). Castillo Armas was then placed as the new Guatemalan president with full support from the United States government, despite his anti-democratic ideals. As a result of this, attacks on communism, Arbenz followers, and the confiscation of Mayan lands produces a 30-year civil war (Wasserstom).
Given these points, the tremendous effects of U.S. imperialistic intervention and the overall capitalistic globalization of commodities in the name of bananas can be better understood. It was for the profiting of bananas, not allowing a socialist agenda of indigenous and land rights to oppose the capitalist system in place which profited over inhuman working condition and destruction of land and nature, and great fear of communism, which lead to the almost 80 years of unrest that is still prevalent today.
Environmental Ethics: Exploitation of People and the Environment
“Stack banana 'til de mornin' come
Daylight come and me wan' go home.”
- Banana Boat Song by Harry Belafonte
Belafonte’s popular 1950’s song highlighted the lives of Jamaican workers who loaded bananas to ships heading towards Europe. At the time the banana industry was a key part of the Jamaican and Caribbean economy; as these fruits were, and continue to be highly intertwined with the global economy; thus resulting in strong link to social justice, land use, environmental degradation, and economic dependence. Hence, through bananas we can see the fundamental weaknesses of the capitalist global economic system and the problem inherent in neoliberalism.
In order to produce bananas in the industrial scale that has been prevalent for the past centuries, exploitation of labor and the environment have taken place. One the one hand, we see the health issue attributed to the cultivation of such crop. Pesticide used for banana plantation is over 20 times higher than the average pesticide use on crops in the Global North (Mendenhall). In Costa Rica, over 280 different pesticides are used on banana cultivations, with an average of 44kg/hectare/year (compared to 2.7) of active ingredients are applied to such fruit (Mendenhall). More so then this, it is also important to highlight that these pesticides are applied constantly throughout the year, and it is done so manually. It is the task of numerous workers to carry on the spraying of such harmful chemicals, while other have the duty of removing plastic bags covered in organophosphate insecticides (Mendenhall).
Likewise, Mendenhall’s article also highlights how these chemicals are also affecting workers in packing plants, as they cut and wash the product in “pesticide-laden water”, applying even more pesticide to prevent rotting during transportation. At the end of the local production cycle, workers without gloves are also targeted through the packaging of the bananas into boxes (Mendenhall). Thus, wee see that through the production cycle, exhaustive use harmful pesticides ultimately produce an extremely hazardous problem to workers. As is common with agricultural workers throughout the world, there are no accurate records of the pesticide related illness among banana workers; and even still, the National University in Heredia, Costa Rica have shown that pesticide poisoning rates are three times higher in banana regions than any other location in the country (Mendenhall).
On the other hand, there is also a correlation between bananas and poor water quality. Both pesticides runoff and aerial spraying are attributed to the contamination of water in workers’ communities; thus extending the hazardous issue to family members and overall communities. By contaminating the water, local fish are killed and an important food sources and ecosystem, destroyed (Mendenhall). Soil, has also been affected by this industrial agricultural practice, leaving the land unfit for local agriculture and civil agriculture practices.
Increase in production also means mass deforestation and wildlife habitat destruction. The Mendenhall article further highlights how from 1979 to 1992, banana plantation expansion was responsible for over 50,000 hectares of primary and secondary forest deforestation. Not only is this a displacement of nature, but there is also a displacement of people as banana companies pressure farmers to sell their lands (Mendenhall). Through this climate of insecurity, workers are subject of exploitation and become afraid to form unions.
As a result, poor health and malnutrition affect workers, while also providing a large effect to their families. Neurological and developmental problems among children are common and can be linked to the pesticide environment in which their parents work in. Thus, by pondering upon these facts, we can see how both people and the environment are exploited, subordinated, and abused to make way for the flawless banana that is placed in your supermarket.
Consequently, many banana plantation workers in Latin America have taken it upon themselves to expose the numerous pesticides risk in such plantations. In the case of Ecuador, workers are part of a campaign that hopes to reach international labor standers, basic protection while working, and the right to organize and form unions (Mendenhall). As a result, many organizations have targeted consumers in the Global North, asking to opt for fair trade bananas.
Bananas have and continue to be indistinguishably intertwined with the global economy, becoming linked to social justice, issues of land use, environmental justice, and economic dependency. Henceforth, through this work, we see some of the ways in which contemporary condition of globalization shape the overall contribution of bananas to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the globalized neoliberal polices, steaming form how these fruits become industrialized and globalized. By placing bananas as an object of concern, we examine the global interactions that mold commodity system, while simultaneously highlighting they way in which actors within these systems shape the nature of globalization and the local and international policies.
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