Posts Tagged ‘Chiquita’

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.

It’s Chiquita and Dole.

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.

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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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The following post is offered by Nicholas Reid, Sales Representative of the Natural Foods Department at Equal Exchange. His original comments were published in response to a post on GreenLAGirl’s blog about the Business Week article, “Is Fair Trade Becoming ‘Fair Trade Lite’?”.

At Equal Exchange we feel strongly that small-scale sustainable farming is the most effective way to feed the planet, care for the environment, and sustain healthy and vibrant communities and businesses. We believe that small farmer co-operatives provide a model for participatory decision-making, local control, and economic development that is desperately needed to fix a broken food system and an ailing planet.

In this blog, we have tried to make our case by highlighting inspiring stories from our farmer co-op partners and referencing articles written about the importance of agroecology, organic farming, and consumer and farmer movements that are trying to make changes to agricultural and trade policies that serve no one but large scale agribusiness. We have deliberately tried not to focus too much on the debate around plantations, or the competition between different coffee roasters. Nevertheless, I wanted to share Nick’s observations as I thought he did a great job of highlighting some of the history of plantations and the reasons why we choose to focus our work, and continue to build strong relationships, with small farmer organizations in the Fair Trade system.

Fair Trade as a Tool For Transformation: Can plantations play that role?

by Nicholas Reid

For years now, folks have been questioning whether the Fair Trade certifiers should have allowed plantations into a system which was founded by and for small farmer co-operatives. One of the arguments put forth to justify the entry of plantations into the system is that there are many products (such as bananas and tea) which are primarily produced by plantations and therefore are not possible to source from small farmer co-operatives. This is a false premise. The majority of bananas and tea ARE produced by small farmers. More importantly, by allowing plantations into the Fair Trade system, the certifiers are ensuring that products produced by small farmer co-operatives will never thrive in the Fair Trade system.

I would buy the argument that the majority of the world’s tea, bananas and cocoa for export are grown by plantations and large-scale agriculture. But seriously, Fair Trade exists to support small farmers because plantations dominate banana and tea production for export. It aims to create the systems that would allow small farmers to benefit from exporting those products. (more…)

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