If you’ve been reading the blog last week, you know that I’ve been a bit obsessed with bananas lately.
I think it’s because there’s exciting news and some really troubling dealings – all going on simultaneously in today’s world of bananas. That these actions are occupying the same moment in time has caused me to think a lot about business, politics, marketing and ethics; ultimately, how and where we all draw our lines of what is acceptable and what is possible.
So… first the exciting news.
Equal Exchange is part owner of the first Fair Trade banana company in the United States, Oké USA.
This visionary company was launched in the U.S. by Agrofair (a Dutch company itself co-owned by small farmer co-ops), Equal Exchange, and long-time ally, Red Tomato in 2006. Until recently, it was run by Jonathan Rosenthal, one of Equal Exchange’s original founders. Starting this summer, Oké USA bananas will be sold in food co-ops and in other retail establishments displaying the Equal Exchange logo.
What’s so thrilling about Fair Trade bananas?
Some of you know the powerful history that coffee (tea and cocoa) have played in the world of international trade, colonial exploitation, political influence, and environmental degradation. Twenty three years ago, when Jonathan, Rink and Michael decided to launch Equal Exchange, conventional traders told them they were crazy: small scale growers could never compete in the same market as large plantations or multi-national corporations. Not on capital, not on quality, not on scale. Consumers wouldn’t care deeply enough where their food came from, how it was grown, or about the conditions of those who grow it. In short, it would be impossible for this upstart group of wide-eyed idealists to build a market for small scale coffee producers that would have any impact. Not here. Not there.
Equal Exchange proved those critics wrong.
Today, we have taken on a similar, some would say even crazier, more Sisyphus-like, challenge. Five banana companies own 96% of the bananas sold in the U.S. market. If you think coffee has played a nefarious role in many of the countries where it’s grown, try taking a college course on Latin American history without reading about United Fruit, CIA-sponsored coups, revolutions and counter-revolutions. “Banana Republics” weren’t called that without good reason.
I’ll say no more about the history of banana companies, their doings and wrongdoings for now. You can read some more on this blog, and in history books, novels and all over the web. For now, I’ll just say that I’m pleased to be working in a co-operative that cares about small producers, that wants to take on a monopolistic industry (despite all odds) by providing an alternative model, and that believes in U.S. consumers. Consumers vote with their dollars and we are confident that, given an actual choice and real information, most consumers will opt in favor of a system, a company, and a product that stands for: ethical and direct relationships up and down the supply chain, environmental sustainability, traceability, and community control. But if this is to happen, certain key factors are essential: information and available choices.
Now let me tell you the other, darker, side of why I’ve been so riled up these days.
I can’t stop thinking about these two companies and the fact that they are mired in lawsuits by family members of people assassinated by right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia. The allegations (and in the case of Chiquita, admission of guilt) is that the companies paid the paramilitaries, known as the “AUC” for a number of years for “protection services”. In a 60 Minutes interview last year, Chiquita Brands CEO, Fernando Aguirre, responded that the money was paid because there was a belief that if they refused, the AUC would target their employees. When asked if he therefore felt any responsibility for the deaths of those whom the AUC did kill, Aguirre replied that the guilty are those that carried out the killings.
I can’t stop thinking about that. I understand that companies choosing to do business in countries with complex political situations, civil wars, and the like, face tough decisions. It’s also always easier to be an armchair critic (especially when it’s not your business, or your life, on the line). The question may be naïve; but why didn’t these large multi-national companies make a different decision? Perhaps if funding right-wing paramilitaries, responsible for throwing farmers off the land, committing all sorts of human rights violations, and assassinating labor activists, was the only way to keep business afloat (and their employees safe), why didn’t they say, “sorry, it’s time to stop doing business in Colombia for now.” Would we consumers really have to forego bananas? Would their profits really have suffered?
Over the past three decades, Dole has also been the subject of lawsuits filed by thousands of banana plantation workers in Latin America, Africa and the Philipines, who claim that they have suffered sterilization and other severe health problems from the pesticide Nemagon which was widely used on banana plantations. In 2002, Dole, Dow, and Shell, were found liable under Nicaraguan law and ordered to pay almost $500 million in a class action lawsuit filed by 583 banana workers. In 2003, Dole filed a counter lawsuit in the U.S. claiming fraud. The U.S. courts sided with Dole. In the Nicaragua case, Dole refused to accept responsibility for any of the health impacts of a pesticide well known for its toxicity to humans. Its response was to counter- sue the banana farmers. An upcoming film, The Affected, by Catawampus Films, tells the full story. (See the riveting trailer here.)
So I’ve been both appalled by the actions of companies like Chiquita and Dole and also, perhaps because of these behaviors, excited about the opportunity we have to grow a Fair Trade banana company that offers a product consumers can feel good about: organic Fair Trade bananas from small farmer co-ops.
Feels pretty cut and dry to me. Honestly, which banana would you choose?
But now the nuances come into play.
When I first started writing about Dole and Chiquita, I didn’t mention Equal Exchange’s involvement in Oké USA. I wanted to be able to express my indignation about these companies simply because it’s there. I worried that if I wrote about how outrageous some of the behavior of Chiquita and Dole has been, and then offered a polished piece about Oké and our small farmer partners, the cynics would dismiss the scale of Dole and Chiquita’s wrongdoings and see this as just an opportunistic “marketing” strategy to sell our bananas.
It’s really not. The fact is you can’t really win if you’re a mission-driven company. So I guess you just have to say what you think should be said.
But then, I had a very interesting and provocative conversation with the General Manager of a food co-op with whom Equal Exchange has had a long and close relationship. He told me about a political quandary that he is facing.
“We buy Oké USA bananas whenever we can,” he told me. “But there is much greater demand for these bananas than there is supply. Our distributor sends us Oké bananas whenever they are available, Dole whenever they’re not.” He went on, “So, a number of our consumers are aware that there is a lawsuit filed against Dole. They think that a food co-op with our values should not be carrying them. Even some members of my board are upset and want to see the Dole bananas pulled.” He shares the same concerns; on the other hand, however, he runs a store and bananas are the most highly demanded fruit. (According to the USDA, the average American eats 26 pounds of bananas a year; bananas are the most purchased fruit item in the U.S.) If there are no bananas available, consumers wishing to purchase them will be upset and perhaps shop somewhere other than their co-op.
So what are the options?
I empathized with his situation and was glad I didn’t have to make the call. But then he asked me what I would do? My first reaction, of course, was to feel enormous pride in the co-op movement: his members were informed and asking good questions, he and his board were struggling over these ethical and practical questions. Still, that didn’t give him his answer. It wasn’t such an obvious one (to me anyway). Of course, I wanted to take the high moral ground – no bananas from Dole! The solution I really wanted to offer is not yet a possibility: that one day consumers will demand enough small farmer Fair Trade bananas, that Oké will grow its supply chain, and these really in-your-face ethical dilemmas will fade into history books.
But that’s not possible at the moment. Three years after its launch, Oké USA is still just getting started. It’s hard work building a supply chain for small farmers where none exists.
So, in the absence of an organized consumer campaign to boycott Dole, it seemed like the best decision would be to carry the bananas but to inform consumers – where they come from, what the issues are and let them decide. I felt somewhat uncomfortable – is that a cop out? Where do you draw the line?
Where do YOU draw the line? I’d like to tell you that after all I’ve read and thought about Chiquita and Dole, the 1950s coup in Guatemala spurred by United Fruit that led to 100,000 dead in a 30-year civil war that still affects every facet of life in Guatemala today… I’d like to tell you that I’ve never bought a yellow banana marked Chiquita. But I’m afraid that would be a lie. I won’t even tell you how recently I bought my last one.
All I can tell you is that this ever-so-brief conversation underscored my commitment to help grow the market for Oké USA. Critics can dismiss it as “self-interest”, but it’s an interest rooted in deep beliefs of what’s right and wrong. Consumers need to know what Oké stands for on both sides of the supply chain. I want them to learn about our farmer partners. I’m excited to grow this market and sell to consumers who want to make the right choice and to food co-ops who think consciously about the food system they are building. In the near future, when someone challenges me about whether I buy Dole or Chiquita bananas, I want to be able to say “absolutely not.” I want a choice.
Unfortunately, I’m not quite finished here.
Let’s take the conversation away from the consumer for a moment. What is the role of the Fair Trade certifier in this global drama that affects millions?
Several weeks ago, Transfair USA gave Fair Trade certification to Dole bananas. That means that soon you will be able to buy a Fair Trade (non-organic) banana from Dole. How can this be? At the same exact time that a lawsuit with egregious claims has been filed in a Florida court against the company, Transfair USA decides that consumers need more Fair Trade bananas and Dole should be the source.
You may remember the hoopla several years ago when Transfair tried – very hard – to certify Chiquita bananas. There was such an outcry from Fair Trade activists, as well as some labor unions, over pieces of the negotiation, that the deal eventually fell through. You could almost hear the sigh of relief from those Fair Traders who felt that sharing a Fair Trade seal with Chiquita was morally wrong – the last straw in a series of complaints about the direction of Fair Trade certification.
Again, it was a complex situation. Some labor unions had been pushing hard in support of Fair Trade plantation bananas. There was a moment where it seemed that Transfair might negotiate a deal where the plantations would have to be unionized. This would be a victory for the unions who have been fighting for improved working conditions and worker rights on plantations historically known for their disregard for workers.
Fair Trade activists looked at Chiquita’s record and scoffed. Small farmer advocates worried that it would be the end of small farmer bananas. Who could compete with a multi-national the size of Chiquita? Many doubted whether Transfair had the capacity to effectively monitor and implement the standards.
In the end, Chiquita itself seemed to get cold feet about giving increased control to unions and union plantation members and amidst much strife, the deal fell apart. The irony here is that there are some who work with the labor union movement in Latin America who believe that Chiquita’s plantations are much more unionized and have far better working conditions than those of Dole. Did the movement succeed in stopping Chiquita only to allow Dole to slip through while no one was looking?
So now, we will have non-unionized Fair Trade plantation bananas (from Dole) competing with bananas sourced from small farmers in the same Fair Trade system. Why would Transfair do such a thing? To be “fair”, I believe that they will say that there are not enough small banana farmers to create a meaningful supply of Fair Trade bananas in the U.S. and that therefore bananas from plantations are necessary to “grow” the Fair Trade market. Clearly, they will claim that Dole plantations are well managed, working conditions are good, and that workers will be empowered through participation in the Fair Trade system. What do they say about the lawsuit against Dole or the fact that the plantations need not be unionized? Will small banana farmers EVER be able to access a market dominated by 5 companies if those companies also have the Fair Trade seal?
[Aug. 20th edit: Please note that Transfair USA has pointed out to us that the information provided in the paragraph above concerning the certification of Dole bananas is incorrect, for which I would like to apologize. According to Transfair, the agreement is that Dole will source their bananas from a “balanced mix of small farmer associations or co-operatives and independently owned plantations that are unionized.”]
A group of us met last week to talk about this dilemma. We’re upset, but what’s the “right” response? Should Equal Exchange lead a movement to protest (boycott?) Dole? Well, we are definitely outraged, but none of us could honestly say that our attention should be focused on building a campaign against Dole. We are, however, among the leaders in the Fair Trade movement. Should we lead a campaign to protest Transfair USA’s decision giving Fair Trade certification to Dole bananas? Perhaps. If we did this, would we be accused of being opportunistic since we have our own brand of Fair Trade bananas we feel far better about? Maybe. Will some say drawing attention to these controversies will confuse consumers, divide “the movement?” Absolutely.
Does it matter if we really believe that certifying plantations will harm small farmers, do little to create positive impact on farm workers; ultimately expanding the quantity of Fair Trade bananas in the marketplace but not creating deep structural change?
It wasn’t an easy discussion and as always many differing opinions were expressed. Finally, however, we reached a decision and I believe it was the right one. We took stock and decided to stay the course and remain true to our mission. Perhaps we won’t be leading a campaign against Dole or spending our energy trying to transform Transfair. But that won’t stop us from sharing our perspectives, even if that makes some uncomfortable. And In the process, we’re willing to open ourselves up for critique as well. Sometimes it can be better for a movement to ask hard questions rather than have all the answers.
So we will do our best to put forth our views, ask tough questions, and encourage debate. We will take actions when they seem appropriate and effective. But ultimately, we will focus our energy doing what it is we deeply believe in, and remain, 23 years later, still committed to more than ever: changing the terms of international trade, providing an alternative model of business, and building ethical, transparent, and meaningful supply chains that empower small farmers and consumers. In other words, together with our small farmer partners, our Interfaith and food co-op partners, and all the engaged consumers and activists that share our vision: we will continue to walk the walk as tenaciously as possible opening markets for small farmers. I guess that’s where we’ll draw our line.