Yesterday, I posted an Action Alert asking folks to write Attorney General Eric Holder demanding that an investigation be conducted into Dole Food Company’s alleged hiring of the AUC, a paramilitary group in Colombia, to act as a “local police force” in and around the company’s Magdalena banana plantations.
According to a letter we received recently by someone working on the lawsuit, “the plaintiffs allege that the AUC paramilitaries performed a number of violent services for Dole, including driving small farmers from their land to allow Dole to plant bananas; driving leftist guerrillas out of the Magdalena banana zone, and in the process murdering thousands of innocent people, including relatives of the plaintiffs; keeping trade unions out of Dole’s banana plantations by murdering union leaders and organizers, and using terror tactics to discourage workers from joining unions or negotiating collective bargaining agreements with Dole.“
Dole is not the first U.S. company to be sued for providing money to a “terrorist organization.” In the wake of September 11th, the U.S. government made it a crime to knowingly support terrorist groups. In May 2004, the CEO of Chiquita Brands International turned himself in, admitting that the company had paid a total of $1.7 million between 1997 to 2004 to “buy protection” for its employees working in Colombia. They were the first company to admit that such payments were made.
While Fernando Aguirre, the CEO of Chiquita Brands, paid a $25 million fine to remain out of jail, the company has not yet cleared up their legal problems. In November 2007, the largest U.S. lawsuit to date against Chiquita Brands was filed, claiming that the company funded and armed a Colombian paramilitary organization accused of killing banana growers. This is the largest in a series of civil lawsuits filed by Colombian victims against Chiquita in the U.S. They are seeking $10 million in punitive and $10 million in compensatory damages for each of the victims.
If you’re outraged to learn that a U.S. company would decide to pay a paramilitary organization, known to be committing violent acts in the region, in order to continue doing business, you should check out this 60 Minutes May 5th show. You can see the video or read the transcript here. I promise you’ll think twice before purchasing your next banana.
I bring up both of these lawsuits now for several reasons.
First, an international human rights organization, the International Rights Advocates, is asking folks to take action. Labor rights activists feel that pressure is needed to bring justice to the plaintiffs in this case.
Second, these lawsuits are occurring at a time when President Obama is attempting to craft his direction on free trade agreements in Panama, Colombia and elsewhere. Although Obama was clear during the campaign that our free trade agreements, such as NAFTA and CAFTA, should be renegotiated, he has not maintained the same level of commitment since coming to office. Human rights abuses and labor union assassinations remain high in Colombia; and it is hard to imagine that a trade agreement which truly respected and protected the rights of small farmers, labor and the environment, could actually be negotiated and implemented in this kind of climate.
Finally, there is one more reason to care about Dole and its actions in Colombia. Transfair USA has just given Fair Trade certification to Dole bananas. Several years ago, Fair Trade activists were outraged when Transfair USA tried to bring Chiquita Brands into the system. Could small farmer bananas ever successfully gain market access and compete in a market with Fair Trade plantation bananas sourced from a multi-national company as large and sophisticated as Chiquita Brands? Did a company with the kind of history that Chiquita has had “belong” in an ethical Fair Trade system? Could Transfair have the capability to ensure that plantations were respecting worker rights and Fair Trade agreements such as the use of social premiums? Many labor organizations were in favor of giving Fair Trade certification to unionized plantations, as a way of further promoting workers rights and they were at odds with the Fair Trade activists. Chiquita itself appeared uncomfortable giving a stronger voice to labor unions and vetoed the idea of Fair Trade premiums being decided by union members. In the end, amidst much controversy (and some secrecy), the deal collapsed.
Now, without much fanfare, Dole Fruit Company bananas will soon “appear” in the Fair Trade system and on the shelves. Those working on the Dole lawsuit tell me that if we think Chiquita was a dubious company and were concerned about its entrance into the Fair Trade system, we should be even more upset about the certification of Dole bananas. While Chiquita has allowed many of its plantations to be unionized, apparently Dole has a much less tolerant view of unions and worker rights issues.
What will the reaction to this decision be, I wonder?