Banana tradein the banana economy, many interests collide – from small farmers and large corporations, corrupt heads of state and fair trade. Even wars have been fought over the lucrative banana business.
By Stephanie Hiller and Sine Maier-Bode
A banana empire emerges
The banana originated in Southeast Asia. From there it was brought by sailors to India and Africa and by the Spanish conquerors to the Canary Islands, where it is still cultivated today. With the conquest of funds-. South America the banana came to the New World. However, the highly perishable fruit was initially grown almost exclusively for home consumption.
The beginning of the great banana plantations of Central America coincides with the construction of the railroads. One American in particular made a name for himself in this field: Minor C. Keith. 1871 Keith traveled to his uncle in Costa Rica. Got involved in its railroad construction project. Along the railroad line he had banana plantations built for exportation. Thanks to the railroads, the heavy fruit could be transported more easily to the company's own transhipment facilities in the ports.
Success proved Keith right, and he was soon planning railroad construction projects and plantations in other Central American countries. However, he lacked his own shipping lines and a good distribution network to sell the bananas in the USA.
Railroads and bananas
In 1899, Keith joined forces with the Boston Fruit Company together. The company had no railroads, but it did have shipping lines and a functioning distribution system. The United Fruit Company was founded. To this day, it still controls the plantations – today under the name "Chiquita Brands Co." – with two other large concerns the banana export business world-wide.
The empire grows
At almost the same time that Keith was building his banana empire, two brothers who had immigrated to the U.S. from Sicily also began trading in bananas. The Vaccaro brothers settled in Honduras and built a railroad and a port pier there. In return, they received land from Honduras. Privileges for the banana trade. From 1926, their company was called Standard Fruit and Steamship Company (SFCO).
These were good years in the banana business – but not for everyone: Many smaller companies tried to hold on to the market, but only a few succeeded in. Soon UFCO controlled 80 to 90 percent of the U.S. banana market. Only SFCO, the forerunner of today's Dole, remained alongside UFCO.
The banana business required the utmost attention from everyone involved, because the fruit is highly perishable and must be harvested and transported as quickly as possible.
Because they expected the plantations to run smoothly, the corporations structured their plantations in a strict hierarchy: the upper management positions were filled by foreign forces. They lived separately from the local workers, in better housing and with other recreational facilities.
But not only the plantations belonged to the banana empires. Since the Central American states generally did not have the necessary infrastructure, the corporations themselves took care of this. Soon, in addition to transportation, they had control of the telephone system, water and electricity, and finally politics.
The big companies also control the transport
Soon, Central America was all about the banana. The economic dependence of most states on banana plantations was enormous. Many of the government leaders were also easy to manipulate as long as they were granted power and personal wealth by the banana corporations. If they did not work, it soon became clear who really held the power.
In about a hundred years of banana cultivation in Central America, there have been 28 incursions by the U.S. in the interests of U.S. corporations into the "banana republics." The company's activities were not always successful, some of which the general public only became aware of decades later.
One of these occurred in Guatemala, where Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was elected president of the country in 1951.
In his short time in office, he pushed through a law that gave Guatemalan small farmers the right to the land that was owned by UFCO but lay fallow. He also planned to build his own port and electricity plant to make the country independent of the UFCO.
Reactions from the U.S. were prompt: the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected president. The agrarian reform was stopped and the country experienced a social regression under changing military governments.
Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (m.) was overthrown by the CIA
In the mid-1970s, the Central American countries formed the Union of Banana-Producing Countries together in order to be able to generate at least a small part of the profits for their own states. They supported smaller plantations that could now work for the big corporations as contract farmers.
Only gradually did the corporations realize that they, too, were reaping the benefits, since they still retained control over banana cultivation and could nevertheless pass on many of the risks to the farmers.
Corporations had less understanding with the unions. The difficult, often inhumane working conditions brought the trade unions great popularity in the early days of banana growing.
In Costa Rica, the corporations initially reacted with persecution and police violence, but later found a more moderate way to get rid of the unions: They introduced internal workers' committees and supported them against the unions – with success: In Costa Rica, the union was virtually dead for a long time in the banana fields on the Atlantic coast.
Very few plantation workers are unionized
Not only political crises accompanied the history of banana cultivation in Central America. Plant diseases, severe weather and other disasters have been affecting the banana business for more than a hundred years now. The only way to fight back was often with new achievements in research, which, however, often caused new damage to the land and the people.
The mountains of garbage from plastic bags grew and the decades-long use of chemical poisons had consequences for the health of the workers on the plantations. Increasing cases of sterility, miscarriages and nervous disorders have become public knowledge. They damaged the image of the large corporations. Forced them to face consequences.
The 1990s also finally brought a rethinking of ecological ies. The big corporations decided to voluntarily control them.
Since the end of the 1990s there has been a seal of quality. The seal ISO 14.001 ensures that some pesticides can no longer be used and that certain measures are taken to safeguard the environment.