I don’t worry that America underestimates the gravity of the economic situation in which we find ourselves. I do worry that Americans will be content looking to the government to “bail us out”. Barack Obama, even with the sharpest team of economists and thinkers of our time, cannot solve our problems without the support, and actions, of the American people. We, Americans, need to see this economic crisis within the context of a greater global disaster, and open our eyes to the world at large and our role in it. “Fixing” our economy can be only one prong in an unprecedented effort to save our souls. Even in its current state, we are the most prosperous country in the world and yet we hesitate to flex our muscles in a way that would benefit the most desperate of the world’s population. Iraqis do not hate Americans because they are jealous; they resent our empirical role in the global reality.
Even while our struggling economy leads more shoppers to Wal-Mart, to ship more of their money to China and oil-producing theocracies, examples like Fair Trade coffee inspire me to believe that Americans are capable of doing the right thing, willing to sacrifice something, to truly invest in our values. But Fair Trade is also an example of how disconnected we truly are.
European consumers purchase Fair Trade-certified rice, quinoa, vanilla, flowers and bananas daily at their local supermarkets. Bananas, which have yet to make a dent in the American consumers’ radar, are a perfect example; the political and often violent history of banana production is astoundingly depraved. Bananas represent the world’s most popular and most–traded agricultural commodity after coffee. In April of 2008, the third-largest supermarket chain in Europe, Sainbury’s, committed to sourcing Fair Trade bananas exclusively. Tesco, the fifth-largest retailer in the world, has seen a 60% growth in Fair Trade produce since 2005, including bananas. While the United States seems content with a dismissable percentage of our coffee being Fair Trade, our contemporaries are pushing the boundaries of Fair Trade across the market.
Bananas are grown in over 100 countries in the world. Indigenous to Papua New Guinea, they have grown to become an economic powerhouse in tropical countries around the world. The largest fruit commodity in the world, “dessert bananas”, as we know them in the United States, represent a tiny (15-20%) of global production. In developing nations, bananas and their starchier relatives, plantains, are a dietary staple in the developing world, providing much-need sustenance for millions of the world’s poorest inhabitants. Millions of families rely on bananas to feed their families and fund their own community development.
Our own adoration of bananas began in earnest in the early 20th century, centuries after Portuguese traders introduced their production to their Atlantic colonies and later Brazil, and the Spanish emulated their cultivation in Central America in the 1500’s. Companies like the United Fruit Company established their domination in post-colonial Central America in the late 1800’s, and converted millions of acres of farmland to banana cultivation for export to the United States and Europe. Building upon the success of coffee and sugar in the developing world, United Fruit and their contemporaries, established gargantuan plantations in Honduras, Guatemala and across southern North America. They invested heavily in the infrastructure to produce and export the crop; resulting in entire countries built and completely reliant upon the banana trade.
Millions of small farmers were pushed off their land, enslaved by emerging “transnational corporations”. Formerly vibrant, diverse agricultural economies, reeling from the effects of Spanish colonialism, were converted to environmental and humanitarian hellscapes. Indigenous farmers were forced into slavery and their lands transformed into agricultural assembly-lines, while American business interests touted their “investment” in developing nations. Their investment, in actuality, was self-serving: railroads from plantations to ports, banks to finance banana cultivation and railroads, and export houses to facilitate the transport of wealth from fledgling economies to New York City.
By 1901, United Fruit was so entrenched in Latin America economics and society that the Guatemalan government commissioned the company to manage the countries postal service, and by 1930 UF was the largest employer in Central America. Their economic and political clout resulted in what we now refer to as “Banana Republics”; countries so subservient to American fruit companies they were no longer considered nations as much as Chiquita plantations.
The influence of United Fruit extended far beyond the politics of Central America. The American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, represented the United Fruit Company in court, and his brother, Allen Dulles (head of the CIA) led the 1954 invasion of Guatemala and subsequent assassination of the democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz, with the support of the American Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs John Moors Cabot, the former President of United Fruit. The egregious violation of sovereignty and human rights barely registered on the conscience of the American consumer; and when it did, United Fruit changed its name to Chiquita and continued its assent to global fruit empire.
Bananas, more than any other commodity, have come to represent colonialism and humanitarian indifference; the suffering of millions for the benefit of a few. Countries, communities and families have been destroyed for the sake of cheap produce. A previously unknown crop, bananas transformed the livelihood and culture of continents, and snuffed the hope of the developing world.
While Americans continue to worry about their own pocket-books, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our Auto companies, we fail to realize that our actions are fomenting unrest and hatred around the world. Fair Trade is not just the right thing to do, it is a matter of national security and prosperity; we cannot defeat our enemies abroad if our actions continue to create dissidents and anti-American extremists and we can’t climb our way out of this recession if we are unwilling to invest in local economies or cut ourselves off from cheap oil and cheap stuff made in sweatshops in Southeast Asia. Our assent to global hegemony was based on a commitment to justice, equality and freedom; our decline is epitomized by our commitment to the opposite.