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Archive for May, 2009

The following is the transcript from the 60 Minutes Show (May 11, 2008) that I mentioned in my last blog piece: Unpeeling Chiquita and Dole.

You can also view a video of the show by going to the CBS news website.

Below is the transcript printed in its entirety. 

 

60 Minutes

 

The Price Of Bananas

Steve Kroft: On How Colombian Paramilitaries Landed A U.S. Corporation In Hot Water

May 11, 2008

The Price Of Bananas

Chiquita Brands International says it paid murderous paramilitaries in Colombia to protect its employees there, but the families of civilians killed by the paramilitaries fault the company for their deaths. Steve Kroft reports.

(CBS)  For American corporations, the rewards of doing business abroad are enormous, but so are the risks. And over the past 25 years no place has been more perilous than Colombia, a country that is just beginning to emerge from the throes of civil war and narco-terrorism.

Chiquita Brands International of Cincinnati, Ohio, found out the hard way. It made millions growing bananas there, only to emerge with its reputation splattered in blood after acknowledging it had paid nearly $2 million in protection money to a murderous paramilitary group that has killed or massacred thousands of people. (more…)

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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?

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If you purchase bananas with a Chiquita or Dole sticker on them, you’re not alone.


Nevertheless, or better yet, because we eat these bananas, I’d like to ask you to please read the following letter from an old friend, Bob Perillo, who has spent the past 20 years or so in the struggle for worker rights in Guatemala and Colombia.  If you’re concerned about justice in the banana industry or just plain outraged about the idea of a U.S.-based company choosing to pay off paramilitaries in Colombia, please consider writing an email to Attorney General Eric Holder. Bob’s letter explains the situation and he provides a sample letter for you to send.

 

Last week a Florida law firm, Conrad and Scherer LLP, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Dole Food Company, one of the largest banana companies in the world. The lawsuit, brought on behalf of 73 plaintiffs from the Province of Magdalena, Colombia, charges Dole with having hired the right-wing paramilitary group known as the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) to act as a “local police force” in and around the company’s Magdalena banana plantations.

 

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

 

You can read the lawsuit against Dole here

 

International Rights Advocates, a non-governmental human rights organization in Washington that supports the lawsuit against Dole, is asking individuals and organizations to write the U.S. Department of Justice to urge that it investigate Dole’s ties to the AUC paramilitaries.  The AUC was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government in September 2001. The Justice Department has thus far not shown much interest in investigating U.S.-based multinational corporations alleged to have links to Colombia’s paramilitaries. In fact, before the current Attorney General, Eric Holder, was sworn in by the Obama administration in February of this year, he was a partner at the Washington D.C.-based law firm Covington and Burling, LLP, which represented Chiquita Brands in a criminal case stemming from Chiquita’s admission that it paid the AUC paramilitaries $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004. Chiquita pleaded guilty in 2007 and agreed to pay a fine of $25 million to the U.S. government. Chiquita’s admission and subsequent guilty plea did not result from a Justice Department investigation, but from an exposure initiated by a member of the company’s own board of directors. Covington and Burling, LLP continues to represent Chiquita in a separate civil suit brought against the company by Conrad and Scherer, LLP and International Rights Advocates on behalf of another group of plaintiffs whose relatives were murdered by the AUC paramilitaries.

 

If sufficient numbers of people demand an investigation of Dole Food Company, the Justice Department may find itself forced to carry one out, and then to extend it to other multinationals that have also profited handsomely from paramilitary repression against trade unions, peasant groups and human rights activists in Colombia.

 

Please consider sending a letter to the Attorney General today.  Letters, addressed to Attorney General Holder, can be sent by email to:  AskDOJ@usdoj.gov.  Please put USDOJ Comments in the Subject Line.

Or, you can send a letter by snail mail to:rp@iradvocates.org

The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Attorney General of the United States
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

 
The Attorney General’s office also accepts phone calls at 202-353-1555.

Below is a sample letter to the Attorney General. Please send a copy of your letter to:  rp@iradvocates.org

The plaintiffs in the Dole case will be grateful for your efforts.

In Peace,

Bob Perillo

******************************************************************

Sample letter:

[Date]

 

The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Attorney General of the United States
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

 

Dear Attorney General Holder,

 
I write to urge you to carry out a thorough investigation of Dole Food Company for its alleged links to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group that was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government in 2001. A group of 73 Colombian plaintiffs recently filed a civil wrongful death suit against Dole Food Company in a California court, alleging that the company hired the AUC to provide a number of violent services for Dole’s banana operations in Magdalena, Colombia. These services include murdering trade union leaders and intimidating Dole’s banana workers so that they would not dare to join unions or demand collective negotiations. The AUC paramilitaries also murdered small farmers, allegedly so that they would flee their land and permit Dole to plant bananas. Over a period of more than ten years, the AUC carried out a campaign of terror in Magdalena Province against anyone it suspected of aiding or sympathizing with the FARC and ELN guerrillas, in the process murdering thousands of civilians, all so that multinational companies like Dole could conduct their business profitably in the midst of an internal armed conflict.

 

The allegations contained in the lawsuit against Dole, together with the public testimony given by demobilized AUC leaders like Salvatore Mancuso, who has stated unequivocally that Dole and other banana companies made regular payments to the AUC in exchange for “security services,” should be sufficient grounds to spur the Department of Justice to investigate whether Dole Food Company and other U.S. companies profited by supporting violent terrorists, in the process violating U.S. anti-terrorism laws. In 2007 Chiquita agreed to pay a $25 million fine in order to settle the criminal charges it faced as a result of its payments to the AUC. That punishment, while woefully inadequate, given the scale of the crimes, stands in contrast to the absolute impunity that Dole Food Company has enjoyed up until today. Please put an end to that impunity by ordering the Department of Justice to investigate Dole Food Company.

 

Sincerely,

 

[Your Name]

[Organization Name]

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Bananas. Most of us eat them on a regular basis. But do we take the time to learn where they come from? Who grows them and under what conditions? Are they grown with care for the environment and the health of workers and consumers? Who profits from their sale?

 

I lived in Costa Rica once in a small village on a river in an area dominated by banana plantations. Men came from all over the country to work on the plantations. They lived in small cement dorms under the baking sun on plantations devoid of trees… just rows and rows of banana trees. The sickly sweet smell of the pesticides was constantly in the air, the discarded plastic bags used to cover the bananas on the trees to keep the insects away, floated down the rivers. Villagers, who mainly got around by canoe and small boats, learned to paddle around the bags and other trash that floated downriver from the plantations. Fridays was payday and the parents made sure their daughters stayed close to home as the men who lived on the plantations, far from their families, passed the time away in bars. Drugs and prostitution were rampant and the violence rate was high. When fish began washing up on the shore, the government quarantined the village and eventually made the residents leave. The toxicity level in the rivers was so high from the heavy pesticide use on the plantations up-river that it was no longer safe for the village residents.
 

Pesticides and poor working conditions have long been associated with banana plantations. Unabashed interference in the political and economic landscapes of developing countries certainly characterize the history of banana companies throughout the developing world. It’s not an uplifting story.
 

Did you know that just five companies control the majority of the world’s bananas?
 

That would be: Dole, Chiquita, DelMonte, Fyffes and Noboa/Bonita.
 

Equal Exchange has long been involved in trying to change the way trade is conducted in the coffee, tea and chocolate industries. As a part owner of Oke USA Fair Trade bananas, we now think it’s time to take on the banana industry. That means changing the way trade is conducted as well as educating consumers about the nature of the industry we are unwittingly supporting.
 

So, in an effort to begin to inform and educate ourselves and U.S. consumers about the nature of this fruit, which according to the USDA, the average American eats 26 pounds of bananas per year, we’re going to start writing a series of posts on bananas, the growers, and the industry in general.

Late last year, Nick Reid wrote an essay entitled, The Next Frontier.   Start with that one and keep reading.

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Thank you to Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, for posting this 4-minute video from the Daily Show on his blog. Be sure to read the comments following the video…

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The following article is an edited version of a blog entry posted several months ago. In honor of World Fair Trade Day (month), we are running it again. Happy Spring!

 

Meeting at the San Fernando Co-op, Peru

Meeting at the San Fernando Co-op, Peru

 

This May, we celebrate World Fair Trade Day. We’re excited to honor all that we co-operatives have accomplished to support small farmers. Yet, it feels important to also take this opportunity to revisit the roots of Fair Trade, and reconsider what we aim to accomplish. Most people understand the critical importance of higher prices, advance credit and direct relationships – they allow farmers to stay on their land, send their children to school, and diversify their incomes. Yet, there’s another equally – some would say even more important – goal of Fair Trade, one that seems to be slowly disappearing as new iterations of “ethical trade” and “direct trade” appear in the market: empowering communities and social movements. It is for this reason Equal Exchange chooses to work with small-farmer co-operatives.

In our culture, individualism is steeped into our subconscious from an early age. The American Dream says anyone who works hard enough can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” to become a millionaire – or the country’s President. Americans have a hard time with the idea that movements are built by many anonymous, “ordinary” people each putting in “their grain of sand.” In contrast, many indigenous cultures are built around this central theme of “community”; even most European countries place a higher premium on “collective welfare” than we do. For people who have had to shed blood and lose family members to earn their most basic rights, it is obvious that true success can only happen through collective efforts, organization and cooperation.

This empowerment of indigenous peoples, and the poor in general – many of whom rely on farming as their livelihoods – is a concept that makes some people uncomfortable. As a society, we are okay with poverty alleviation and charity, but when the world’s disenfranchised begin to organize and take control over their own lives, businesses, and communities, when they start gaining economic power in the marketplace and political power in their countries, and in our own… that makes people nervous. Why would we rather raise money and give it to “poor farmers” than support their efforts to make their own livings?

For me, this notion of empowerment is the missing ingredient when folks in the coffee industry start talking about “going direct” or referring to a co-operative as yet another “middleman.” The strategy places too much emphasis on one person’s benevolence, and gives that person, or company, the upper hand. Today, I come to your village and establish a friendship, offer a scholarship for your family’s children and purchase your highest quality coffee. Tomorrow, I might go elsewhere. It is a strategy, that while well-intentioned and produces positive results, does little to build democratic control and power at the producer level.

These same strategies: scholarships, direct relationships, community projects, have a completely different, and I would argue stronger impact, when they occur within the framework of an organized co-operative, association, or community. It’s a question of who’s in control, who makes the decisions, who is acquiring experience, and ultimately who has the power to set the terms.

It’s about producers, consumers, and alternative trade organizations working together to ensure that the terms of trade are more fair. Higher prices – yes; advance credit; direct relationships; and social projects … all of these are critical. But the emphasis and ultimate goal of all our work needs to be about equity and social justice.

Fair Trade through co-operatives enables farmers to invest in their own businesses and improvements in their own communities. Through co-ops, they can participate in other organizations and social movements to influence, improve upon, and change national trade and agricultural policies. In this way, organized and well-run small farmer co-operatives can acquire the economic and political power necessary to create lasting and deep-seated change.

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The following reflection was offered by Andrew Kessel, Natural Foods Account Representative, Equal Exchange

What is your food co-op, favorite place to get a cup of coffee, or house of worship doing this Saturday for World Fair Trade Day?

 

Danica Yacik, from the Bound Brook Presbyterian Church in Middlesex, NJ. 

Danica Yacik, from the Bound Brook Presbyterian Church in Middlesex, NJ  

 

It is no surprise that an important factor contributing to Equal Exchange’s success is the diversity of support that we receive in helping build the Fair Trade movement. Much of this support has come from our retail partners – food co-ops, natural food stores, cafés, and even a few offices and conventional supermarkets, while other support has come from civil society – churches, synagogues, schools, and activist coalitions. With Fair Trade day coming up this Saturday and our 23rd birthday (May 1st), we are celebrating.
 

Let’s take the time to honor our partners for their support and creativity.

 

All across the U.S., we have seen examples of people acting and thinking creatively to engage consumers in Fair Trade. In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee FT Coalition does a Fair Trade crawl and has passports that get stamped as people visit local Fair Trade businesses. In Maryland, the students at St. Mary’s College  fought with the administration to make their own food service more sustainable and ethical.  Over the last two years, they were able to start a composting system, grow their own garden on campus, and bring in Fair Trade coffee. Last year, they helped start an Equal Exchange café on campus and we are continuing to work them as they try to convert the other café on campus, currently a Starbucks café, into a second Equal Exchange Café!

 

In preparation for World Fair Trade Day, a lot of people seem to be organizing and planning events around the world’s largest Fair Trade coffee break.  Outpost Natural Foods Co-op (Milwaukee, WI) is featuring two Fair Trade product displays: one with wines and chocolates and another one for produce including our Domestic Fair Trade snacks (pecans, cranberries, and almonds) along with some Fair Trade bananas, locally made Fair Trade chocolate, and caramel ice cream to top it off – sounds like a delicious Fair Trade split!   Weaver’s Way Co-op (Philadelphia, PA) also is setting up a display with our hot cocoas and Fair Trade snacks with a Fair Trade hiking theme.

 

These events in May are not anomalies as many people continue to use the holidays as excuses to promote a more equitable form of trade.  Starting in February with Valentine’s Day and all of the obvious chocolate connections and then with May (Fair Trade Day), people have gotten creative in July as well.  For example, Lori’s Natural (Rochester, NY) made an interesting display featuring independent companies on Independence Day.  In October, we celebrate Co-op and Fair Trade month and many retailers have come up with displays featuring products from other co-operative businesses.  Halloween, at the end of the month, has also been a particularly fruitful time for education and outreach and Equal Exchange has helped lead the charge with our Reverse Trick-or-Treating campaign.

 

Some people have really taken it upon themselves to use Halloween as a teaching moment:  “Now that I’m aware [of child slavery on cocoa farms], I feel it is my duty to tell everyone I can about how they can use their consumer dollars to change the world. That’s why last October during Halloween I organized an event at The Gathering church in Salem, Massachusetts called Death by Chocolate. Volunteers from The Gathering, Grace Fellowship, the organization Not for Sale, Gordon College and I gave tourists free Equal Exchange mini bars which they could eat while listening to a recorded story about a boy who was tricked into working in the cocoa fields in Africa. It was a bittersweet experience. They loved the chocolate. And they were as shocked as I was to learn about the existence of slavery in the production of non-Fair Trade chocolate.”- Anita Coco of Grace Fellowship Church in Danvers, Massachusetts, and is active in the Disciples of Christ Coffee Project.


Lastly, we can’t forget the end-of-the year festivities when everyone is looking for a creative idea.  At the Humble Bean Coffeehouse (Sioux Center, Iowa), the owners looked for a way to re-use materials and commit to green business principles. For over a couple of months they saved the silver 5 lb bulk bags that our coffee comes in and used them to make wreathes for Christmas time.  They even had some of the “regular” customers help them out, resulting in a beautiful Fair Trade Christmas Gala.

ChristmasWreaths2

 

ChristmasWreathsThe Humble Bean is not the only place that’s found interesting ways to re-use the 5 lb. bulk bags.  One employee at Bloomingfoods Co-op (Bloomington, IN) used the bags to make Fair Trade wallets which she then sent back to us as gifts while another employee there used the bags for a local parade as “Ms. Fair Trade.”  Go Bloomingfoods Co-op!

Nicki from Bloomingfoods during the town’s annual parade – seen here as Ms. “Fair Trade”

Nicki from Bloomingfoods during the town’s annual parade – seen here as Ms. “Fair Trade”. Little Uncle Sam is her son.

 

 

 

And finally, sometimes places such as Bulldog News (Seattle, WA),  one of our cafe accounts, are just plain too cool for words.  They did a Fair Trade coffee tasting at the University of Washington’s Burke Musueum (Natural History) in conjunction with an exhibit on coffee!

The funny thing is that people are always being creative and coming up with fun ideas for promoting Fair Trade and we sometimes forget that collectively it does add up and make a difference.  A lot of times we don’t even hear about what’s going on but we know that there are people out there helping organize to become the next Fair Trade town, or students (such as the group,  United Students for Fair Trade ) who are working to encourage their food service suppliers to switch to Fair Trade products, and the countless others pushing for a more ethical and sustainable food system.  So as we celebrate, others build displays; enjoy Fair Trade splits and a cup of coffee to recognize Fair Trade Day on Saturday, what will you – as consumers – do?

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