Posts Tagged ‘banana plantations’

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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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:



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.




[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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The following article by Stephen Coats, Director of the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US Leap), was published in the April 2009 Peacework Magazine, a publication of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). We wish to thank the AFSC, one of our Interfaith partners, for their interest in exploring some of the complexities of the Fair Trade movement.  We also wish to thank Coats for providing us with a labor movement perspective on Fair Trade and workers’ rights, and for highlighting concerns of the labor movement about the Fair Trade certification of large-scale plantations, particularly in the banana industry. Coats suggests that if we truly want to see positive change for workers in the Global South, whether in farms or factories, we need to change the rules of trade. International trade agreements, such as NAFTA and CAFTA “have an enormous impact on the lives and working conditions of the world’s producers.” He concludes by arguing that it is critical that we “hold our governments accountable for strong labor and environmental standards in the agreements that increasingly regulate all global trade, fair and otherwise.”

 (In the same issue of Peaceworks, you can read another article about the Fair Trade movement:  “Eat Locally,  Think Globally:   Fair Trade, Food Sovereignty and the Food Crisis.”)


Tegucigalpa, Honduras, June 2003. Outside a negotiation meeting for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, demonstrators protest. Photo ©2009 Paul Jeffrey, http://www.kairosphotos.com

Consumers in the US have grown more concerned about and aware of the conditions under which the goods we purchase are produced. This increased consciousness has led to new models of production and consumption, and a variety of alternative product labels with respect to environmental issues (shade-grown coffee), health (organic produce), animal treatment (free-range chickens), and other concerns. Labels are intended to provide an easy way for consumers to know which products reflect our values.

These trends are now being extended to working conditions and the treatment of workers. In large part as a result of campaigns and news stories about sweatshops in the clothing industry, child labor in the coffee and banana sectors, and slave labor on cocoa plantations, companies have become increasingly concerned about their “brand image.” Consequently, a number of programs have emerged that certify that a product is produced under acceptable conditions of work.

Using consumer demand to push for better working conditions has proved to be a powerful approach; the “sweat-free” movement, fueled by college activists and workers’ rights advocates working together, has permanently raised the bar on what it means to be a “socially responsible” company. Through its Designated Suppliers Program, the anti-sweatshop movement created a set of standards, adopted by a growing number of universities and some municipalities, requiring that the goods purchased by these large institutions be bought from unionized or cooperative producers.

Fair Food

The most prominent consumer-oriented social certification in the US is Fair Trade, with a black and white label showing a figure holding evenly balanced scales. In the US, this label is managed by TransFair USA, a member of a consortium called the Fair Labeling Organizations which controls the label globally.

Non-profit groups interested in improving the conditions of small coffee farmers originated the Fair Trade movement in Western Europe. It has now expanded to other products and begun to evolve out of its origins as an “alternative” market into the mainstream. Fair Trade is a rapidly growing business, expanding its certification beyond coffee and cocoa to bananas, pineapples, and flowers, with plans to certify apparel.

Fair Trade activists sought out small, independent farms and cooperatives, and provided them with a way to reach consumers more directly, thus increasing their profits. Producers in the Fair Trade network are guaranteed a minimum price for their products, and also receive a cash “premium” to use as they wish — often this allows for improvements to production methods and to community services. In return for paying the higher price all this entails, consumers are guaranteed that the producers of their coffee were paid fairly and not deprived of their right to organize.

However, responding in part to growing consumer demand, Fair Trade has in recent years begun to certify food grown by different kinds of producers. For instance, almost all bananas imported to the US — a recent expansion area for Fair Trade — are grown on Latin American plantations, not on small farms or cooperatives. Some of the plantations which have earned the Fair Trade certification employ hundreds of workers.

While Fair Trade has added new criteria for certification that includes how the workers are treated and respect for their basic rights, the expansion of the Fair Trade model to large-scale producers has raised concerns in the labor movement, particularly with banana unions in Latin America (banana production is the most thoroughly unionized sector in Central America, with many active unions working in effective coalitions across national and ideological boundaries). Long-time Fair Trade supporters have raised additional concerns, including opposition to certification of products marketed by transnational corporations (e.g. Dole bananas or Starbucks coffee) and whether Fair Trade has erred in moving beyond small-scale producers to large employers like the banana plantations. These questions are being debated by trade unionists, representatives of the Fair Trade networks, and global labor activists, in an attempt to find a course that promotes environmental sustainability, human rights, and growth for the promising “Fair Trade” sector.

The Global Picture

While Fair Trade certification is an important instrument for making positive change, the most fundamental issue for workers in the Global South is the rules of global trade. The terms of international trade agreements have an enormous impact on the lives and working conditions of the world’s producers. We need strong trade rules protecting workers’ right to organize in order for workers in every sector to achieve the kind of conditions that Fair Trade certifies.

In this area, we have lost a lot of important ground with the passage of NAFTA and CAFTA, international agreements that represent steps backwards in the US’s ability to push for the enforcement of international labor standards. For instance, in 1999 when seven Guatemalan union leaders were threatened with murder and fled to the US, the US acted in accordance with existing trade law and withheld Guatemala’s trade benefits until the Guatemalan government had apprehended and tried the unionists’ attackers. Since the passage of CAFTA, however, there has been a resurgence in anti-labor violence in Guatemala (four trade unionists were assassinated in 2007 and another five in 2008, with no charges brought in any of the cases) and the US has not been able to apply any meaningful trade pressure to hold the Guatemalan government accountable.

For those of us in the US, this is a key moment to focus on the terms of global trade. While this issue is not yet foremost on the new Administration’s agenda, the debate is being framed for the consideration of several “bilateral” agreements between the US and other countries. Four agreements were negotiated by the Bush Administration. Only one, the Peru Agreement, has been passed. The good news is that these agreements are stronger than NAFTA and CAFTA on the protection of workers’ rights. The bad news is that they still aren’t strong enough. The Peru Agreement went into effect on February 1 of 2009, so this is an area for close observation.

Sustainability On the Line

Workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation right now. In 2005, the international Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (also known as the “Multifibre Agreement”) came to an end. For 20 years this pact had provided quotas for the amount of clothing that each developing nation could export to wealthier European and North American markets. The World Trade Organization’s decision to phase it out has ushered in a period of intense competition among exporter nations, which translates as a “race to the bottom” to reduce labor costs. To this, of course, has been added the impact of the global recession, causing downward pressure on wages and working conditions for workers.

As Fair Trade activists have recognized from the beginning, workers’ rights and environmental sustainability are inseparable. In Latin America, banana workers’ unions understand this as well, and have been organizing to make the cultivation of bananas more biologically stable (bananas are grown in a monoculture which makes them particularly vulnerable to disease) and less destructive of ecosystems in the communities where the workers make their homes. To wield our greatest power as consumers, we must not only pay a surcharge on some items to cover their real cost — we must also drop a dime and call our Congress members. We need to hold our governments accountable for strong labor and environmental standards in the agreements that increasingly regulate all global trade, fair and otherwise.

To Get Involved

US LEAP supports those workers who are employed directly or indirectly by US companies producing for the US market.

Citizens Trade Campaign is a national coalition of environmental, labor, consumer, family farm, religious, and other civil society groups founded in 1992 to improve the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Global Trade Watch, a program of the consumer group Public Citizen, promotes a public interest perspective on globalization issues, including implications for our food, health and safety, environmental protection, economic justice, and democratic, accountable governance.

Maquila Solidarity Network, based in Canada, is a labor and women’s rights organization that supports the efforts of workers in global supply chains to win improved wages and working conditions and a better quality of life.

Equal Exchange is a leader in the Fair Trade coffee market and runs a lively blog on Fair Trade issues:  http://www.SmallFarmersBigChange.coop.


Stephen Coats is the director of the US Labor Education in the Americas Project, an organization that supports Latin American workers who are fighting to overcome poverty and make a better life for their families. USLEAP especially supports those workers who are employed directly or indirectly by US companies producing for the US market.


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