When the last great colonial monoculture crop of sugar became unprofitable in the 1950s, former British colonies such as Jamaica and the Windward Isles (Grenada, Domenica, St Vincent and St Lucia) were encouraged to move into banana production. This trade was protected by a system of quotas and licences which granted them preferential access to the UK market. The advantageous trade terms were a recognition of the fact that the small-scale, family farmers on these islands could never compete cost-wise with the vast banana plantations in places like Latin America.
Caribbean bananas are necessarily more expensive to produce than their plantation equivalents. Banana farms on these hilly little islands are characteristically small, the terrain is steep and not suitable for mechanisation; and irrigation is rarely an affordable option, so growers depend on erratic rainfall. The cost of transporting produce from the islands to market is inevitably higher than on a large landmass, where fruit can be rapidly trucked to major ports. And well-observed labour laws in the Caribbean ensure that workers are properly remunerated by regional standards.
Despite these handicaps, the preferential trading conditions given to Caribbean growers, and Britain’s sense of obligation and loyalty to former colonies, allowed West Indian bananas to hold their own. Until the early 1990s, two thirds of the bananas we ate in Britain came from the Caribbean. But just 15 years later, Caribbean bananas now account for less than 20 per cent of the British market.
US-owned multinationals such as Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita have used the US government and the World Trade Organisation to argue that the protection given to former colonies was anti-competitive. They have forced the EU to open up its market to imports of cheaper ‘dollar’ bananas from Latin America, where the US giants control production. And if current plans to make the EU banana market completely free go ahead, then by January 2006 Caribbean producers could disappear altogether.
This is a depressing scenario for the Caribbean islands, whose fragile economies are heavily dependent on bananas. Association of Caribbean Farmers spokesman Wilberforce Emanuel says: ‘Already on St Vincent we are seeing old men carrying drugs around town and more vagrants who have migrated from rural banana-producing areas. If the Caribbean and the Windwards are not seen as a special case, we’re looking at major social unrest and bad fall-out. We don’t want aid; we just want to be a place that produces bananas.’
As the Caribbean share of UK banana sales has plummeted, Latin American countries, most notably Costa Rica, have become the biggest supplying region to the UK, producing about 60 per cent of our bananas. But what do we know about the conditions in which Latin American bananas are produced?
Gilberth Bermudez works for the Latin American Coordination of Banana Workers’ Unions. He gets very angry when he talks about conditions in the banana sector of his native Costa Rica. ‘Since the age of four,’ he says, ‘I had a machete in my hand to work with bananas. Conventional banana production in my country is like a small bomb.’ Bermudez has slides of insecticide-impregnated blue plastic bags, waste from banana plantations, collecting in river deltas flowing into the Caribbean Sea. ‘What are we going to show tourists in a few years when all our coasts and beaches are polluted by intensive banana and pineapple cultivation?’ he asks. ‘Species like the sea cow and the tortoise are facing extinction. Pesticides are killing off the algae on which the sea cows feed, and the tortoises are asphyxiating on plastic bags from plantations. The coral reefs are dying. When scuba divers go down now, they can’t see the reefs for the residue from banana plantations. It’s the same story in Honduras, Belize and Panama.’
Bermudez explains that until the 1960s, Costa Rican growers concentrated on traditional varieties of Creole bananas that were curvy and flavoursome. Then production intensified, switching to one variety: the Cavendish. It is straighter, tolerates refrigerated transport, and produces higher yields and, with liberal applications of pesticides, the smooth, uniform, cosmetically perfect fruits that supermarkets like.
The consequences of this, Bermudez says, are there for all to see: degradation of soil, and sick people. ‘Eighty per cent of banana families live in slums with very precarious sanitary conditions on the edge of plantations where aerial spraying of pesticides is [done] almost daily and the planes don’t distinguish between workers’ homes and plantations. Hundreds of children have deformed fingers and joints as a result of pesticides applied during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Thirteen thousand male workers are sterile as a result of working with pesticides, and still today highly toxic pesticides are being used. It is a human tragedy, and we can’t keep silent about it.’
Bermudez’s Guatemalan colleague Selfa Sandoval tells a similar story. ‘The banana worker today is a melancholy person with no pride in what she or he does. The gospel of free trade has made it possible for transnational corporations to penetrate our country and violate our rights daily.’ Sandoval explains that Guatemalan banana workers typically earn less than the minimum wage for a 12- to 14-hour day, six days a week. ‘Many female workers are illiterate and can’t afford to send their kids to school,’ she says. ‘You have women with four or five children and dependent parents working in semi-slave conditions in banana packing plants. Even if you have a sick child or there’s a death in the family you can’t get leave. You are only allowed 10 to 15 days leave a year. On the plantations pesticides are used without regard to effects on workers, so allergies, nausea and lumbago are commonplace. Many women have varicose veins from being on their feet for 11 to 14 hours a day. We demand our voices to be heard.’
After Latin America, the second biggest supplier of bananas to the UK is Cameroon, the West African country that has come from nowhere in the past five years to now produce 15 per cent of Britain’s bananas. In Cameroon, vast banana plantations are being cultivated on land that used to produce palm oil. Despite logging, 40 per cent of the country is still virgin forest, but the transnational corporations that control banana production there are reported to be eyeing up the forest for future expansion. Cameroon has proved highly profitable over the past five years because labour costs are even lower than in Latin America and also because cultivation in the country qualifies for EU development funds. But Patrick Vewessee, general-secretary of the Fako Agricultural Workers’ Union, paints an alarming picture of the cost of intensive banana production in the country. ‘You are compelled to work 13 hours to get eight hours pay because the wages are calculated by piecework and incentives,’ he says. ‘Many workers have to leave home at four in the morning to get to work for a 6.30 start. They may not see their children because they leave so early and get back so late. In Cameroon the average wage for a banana worker is £27 a month, which is not a living wage. But even the unions do not know what bananas sell for in Europe… The banana companies keep it a closely guarded secret.’
Approximately 30 pesticides are used in banana production in Cameroon. Some are applied manually by workers without any protective clothing, and others are sprayed by light planes. ‘Sometimes when the workers are in the field, the pesticides are sprayed on them as they work,’ Vewessee says. ‘The people who have farms around the banana plantation areas also have their gardens sprayed because it is indiscriminate. Illness is much more prevalent among banana workers than in other agricultural sectors. But unemployment in Cameroon is 60 per cent, so you even find graduates working on banana plantations. Workers feel exploited, but if they complain about bad conditions there are people out there who will fill their jobs like a shot. So employers can do whatever they want. If you get too vocal as a shop steward, then you might be sacked.’
It is not surprising that transnational companies, taking advantage of free-trade rhetoric, will choose to locate banana production in countries where ‘production costs’ (wages, social conditions, environmental standards, etc) are at their least onerous. Their rapaciousness has been intensified of late as they are put under the screw by the new lords of the banana trade: the large supermarket chains. These retailers increasingly set the terms of trade with producers by demanding ever lower prices. They also impose ‘quality’ standards designed to ensure a uniform, blemishfree fruit: standards that perpetuate the intensive systems in which virtually all bananas are currently grown. No wonder then that on many banana plantations these days, more money is spent on pesticides than on wages.
Bananas are the single biggest profit-making item sold in UK supermarkets today. This is despite the fact that the supermarkets use them as a highprofile bargain to place a halo of low price around everything they sell. In 2002 Asda Wal-Mart started a banana price war. You can now buy a kilo of bananas for as little as 65 pence. Before 2002, the price was around £1.
Consumers might not be so enthusiastic about these bargain bananas if they understood just how miserable the conditions are in which most of them are grown. Supermarkets still expect to make a margin of up to 40 per cent on them. And predictably it is the banana workers in producer countries who suffer, in terms of worsening working conditions, to make sure such margins are reconcilable with low prices for the consumer. Alistair Smith, of the fair-trade NGO Banana Link, sums up the situation as follows: ‘The “promise’ of free trade leads, in practice, to a driving down of prices and squeezing out of smaller producers, forcing down wages and cutting social benefits, more trade union repression, less job security, and increasing damage to the environment and human health.’
Unless the British government stands up and fights their case, the ethical, small-scale banana producers of the Caribbean will be forced out of business, and the pay and conditions on the corporate plantations poised to completely replace them will decline even further.
Joanna Blythman is the author of Shopped: the shocking power of British supermarkets (Harper Perennial, £7.99).
• In 1995 the average use of pesticides in Costa Rica’s banana plantations was 44 kilograms per hectare per year, compared to an average 2.7 kilograms per hectare per year for crops in industrialised countries.
• The chemicals used on corporate banana plantations include at least four classified by the World Health Organisation as extremely hazardous (the strongest classification), including paraquat, and three organophosphates not approved for use in the UK.
• Pesticide poisoning rates in Costa Rica are three times higher in the banana regions than in the rest of the country. Cases of sterility and cancers are increasingly frequent among workers.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2005