Posts Tagged ‘Fair Trade bananas’

The following article, written by Scott Patterson, Director of Equal Exchange’s Minnesota Regional Office, first appeared in many of our food co-operative partner’s October newsletters.

If you work for a food co-operative, are a member or shopper of one, or quite simply are just plain interested in what a co-operative economy means, I think you’ll be inspired by some of the ideas Scott discusses below. Let us know what you think!

A co-owner of mine recently shared an interesting interaction. A woman came up to her at a co-op event that we were sponsoring and said that she had been a passionate Equal Exchange supporter in our early days, but assumed that after nearly 25 years we had sold out to grow or survive.


Given the current climate of corporate bailouts and the long list of disappointments from Green & Black’s, Tom’s, Burt’s, Kashi, Dagoba, Honest Tea and more, it’s easy to arrive at that conclusion. When we shared that Equal Exchange is a worker-owned co-operative and that, like at her food co-op, the values of transparency and democracy are the rules by which we govern – and, aren’t just pretty words – the landscape shifted.


There is some grey area here; it is, of course, possible for co-ops to be broken, sold or poorly managed. But when done well, the one member, one vote and profit sharing backbone of co-ops protects against greed and promotes ethical entrepreneurialism better than any business model I have seen to date. In the case of Equal Exchange, imagine 91 people who have a genuine financial stake in seeing their work succeed. Our recent jump into bananas exemplifies this spirit.


Last December, the worker-owners at Equal Exchange voted to take on a daunting challenge. The banana industry is totally dominated by Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte. Who in their right mind would try this? But remember we aren’t just talking about one company. The origins and success of Fair Trade coffee can almost exclusively be traced to a powerful chain of cooperators. Picture it: small farmers Û Equal Exchange Û natural foods co-ops around the country Û you.


Together, both with international and local farmers, our collective work is one of creating food chains that stand for our values. The beauty of co-ops and these supply chains is that they are transparent; you can get to know something real about the 80 farmers who are growing your bananas. And with shared ownership and decision making, when you as a shopper support cooperatively owned companies on the shelves of your store, you are sharing your power and creating authentic change.


Traditionally, October’s co-op month has been about celebration and we have many successes to enjoy. At the same time, we have a lot of work ahead. While we’ve seen copycats repackage our work and call it things like “direct trade,” we do need to reinvigorate and step up our game when Frito Lay and Wal-Mart tout their “relationships” with farmers. No wonder most shoppers are skeptical. And the risk is that when we can no longer distinguish between real efforts and marketing, we lose our ability to create true change.


So, how do we move forward together? Well, for Equal Exchange’s part, in addition to jumping into the banana industry, we are committing to doing a better job of sharing both why small-scale farmer organizations are valuable and to letting you all get to know us. I suggest that natural foods co-ops embrace the debate about who owns the companies on your shelves share this with your member-owners and do even more to actively promote cooperatively owned companies.


Don’t get me wrong, I know some of you are here already and we feel extremely well represented. But in addition to local, organic and Fair Trade labeling, let’s identify and be proud of our business models. On the part of shoppers, hang in there! I know you are stretched for time and money but if you’ve read this far you must see value in building these connections! I ask for your amazing, continued loyalty to your co-op and to Equal Exchange, and that you join us in holding our collective feet to the fire. Remember, your grocery store has been an innovator and is able to carry the products you want because it is a co-op! Why not look for more of the same in all the companies your dollars support – and in this way remove the incentive for companies to sell out.

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The road heading south between Guayaquil and Machala, on the coast of Ecuador, is lined with banana plantations. Endless rows of green banana plants stretch as far as the eye can see. It is to learn more about this fruit and the farmers who grow it, that drew my colleague, Bradley Russell, and I to Ecuador this past summer.

Picture1Economic activity in this tropical region revolves almost exclusively around banana production and export. In fact, Ecuador is one of the world’s largest banana exporting countries. Approximately 40% of bananas consumed throughout the world are produced here, leaving the country through the docks at Machala’s Puerto Bolivar. For this reason, Machala is often referred to as the banana capital of the world.

Ecuador joined the ranks of other Latin American countries known as “Banana Republics” after World War II, and similar to the rest of the world, the banana industry in Ecuador has been controlled by five major corporations: Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita, Bonita and Fyffes. Unfortunately, the history of these five multi-national corporations has been no less nefarious in this region of the Americas than it has been elsewhere. (For more information on banana history, see the end of this article).

225_ElGuabo_TransportAs we head to Machala from the Guayaquil airport, the tremendous power these companies exert here in southern Ecuador is evident at every turn. Signs at the plantation entrances proudly proclaim the ownership of these companies. On the road ahead of us, we see their trucks stacked high with labeled boxes of bananas making their way from company-owned packing stations to company-owned warehouses. Moments later, 25-foot containers, emblazoned with the logos of these same industry giants, cruise past us on their way to the ports of Machala and Guayaquil.

The presence of the banana industry can be seen everywhere and it’s no secret which folks are running the show. And yet, something else is also happening here in southern Ecuador. You have to look a little harder, past all the corporate indicators and infrastructure. But if you do, you’ll see signs of something new and fresh and exciting igniting sparks both in Ecuador and abroad. And from all evidence, this new initiative in Ecuador, tied to an international movement, is gaining visibility and momentum.

Imagine this: in a region where multi-national companies own every stage of the industry from banana plantations to packing stations, warehouses, trucks, containers, and shipping lines, an association of 400 small banana farmers have decided that they’ve been controlled for long enough and have decided to join together to build their own democratically-organized export business with the dual goals of running a top-quality, sustainable Fair Trade business while improving the economic and social conditions of the members’ families and their communities.


Against all odds, this entrepreneurial and socially-conscious organization, the El Guabo Association of Small Banana Producers, is gaining ground. Their achievements are creating ripples of change: in the farmers’ lives and communities; in their health and the health of the environment; and increasingly in the banana industry as a whole.

What are those signs of change that this innovative Fair Trade Organic banana program is sparking?

Here are just some hints of what we saw that indicate we’re on the edge of something big:

*In a country long dominated by corporate interests, the Minister of Agriculture pays regular visits to El Guabo farmers to discuss current economic and agriculture proposals and to solicit members’ feedback. We attended one such meeting in which the farmers asked questions, offered opinions and occasionally contradicted an “official” point of view.

*El Guabo routinely receives visits from non-governmental and producer organizations throughout Ecuador and other countries that are interested in learning about their organizational and economic model. Not only is the co-operative one of the few associations of small- and medium-sized banana farmers, but they are also successfully selling Fair Trade and organic high-quality bananas into the U.S. and European markets. They developed a successful business model as well as a highly democratic and socially-driven organization that has had considerable influence in the region and impact on the local communities.

*In an industry where low-flying planes routinely dust the banana plantations with pesticides as a matter of course, growing numbers of small- and medium-sized banana farmers are rejecting the use of pesticides and converting their farms to organic cultivation.

1685_ElGuabo_Transport* Amidst the endless monoculture of banana plantations, increasing numbers of small-scale farmers are cultivating their bananas under the principles of “agro-forestry”, interspersing bananas with cacao and citrus trees, and cultivating organically and under shade, to protect the farms’ natural eco-systems and the health of both producers and consumers. El Guabo also provides low-interest loans to farmers to carry out environmental improvements and recycling programs on their farms.

*Unlike many conventional plantations, where working conditions are abysmal and worker rights’ non-existent, the members of El Guabo (and the day laborers who work for them) receive medical insurance, social security, and other social benefits from their association.

* The availability of social services and infrastructure is often woefully absent or inadequate in rural communities throughout the world. Typically schools, medical clinics and other social institutions are under-funded and sparsely equipped. In the three regions where El Guabo is operating, the members have voted to spend 80% of the Fair Trade premium they receive ($1 per box) for the sale of their bananas on community medical clinics, teachers, and a school for autistic children. Last year, the Association designated $1.8 million for social projects to benefit the wider community.

When you think about the fact that the average American consumes 26 pounds of bananas a year and that bananas are the world’s most popular fruit, the potential for impact – on the farmers livelihoods, on our environment, our health, and our values – is tremendous. We want high quality food at an affordable price, but what if we had a choice? What if we could buy high quality, affordable fruit, and also know, down to the farmer, who grew it, how they grew it, and what impact our purchase had on a local community?

Copy of ecuador el guabo pr 2009 158

Equal Exchange has worked for 23 years to transform the coffee, tea, and chocolate industries. We are infinitely proud to announce that YOU NOW HAVE A CHOICE in the kind of banana industry you support. Next time you purchase a banana, look to see if there’s an Equal Exchange sticker on the bunch. If there is, you are choosing to connect yourself to these courageous banana farmers who are making history for themselves, and quite possibly, for the banana industry as a whole. Align yourself with these small farmers and become part of this new banana revolution!

EE bananas at cafe












More about the ugly truth of banana history
For well over a century, the banana conglomerates, specifically Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita, Bonita and Fyffes, have influenced every level of social, economic, and political history in Latin America. They have controlled the fate not only of the millions of workers who toil on their plantations, but have also been responsible for determining national lending, tax credit, land allotment, environment, and labor policies, even dictating the fate of the highest government officials. The most infamous case occurred in 1954, when the United Fruit Company (predecessor of Chiquita Brands) received the support of the CIA to back a military coup against Guatemala President Jacobo Arbenz, because his land reform policies interfered with the company’s expansion plans.

The banana plantations operated by the giant companies have been notorious for poor working conditions and blatant labor abuses, subjecting many of the banana companies to numerous lawsuits for these and other activities. For example, several of the corporations were sued by their workers and the thousands of affected individuals for respiratory illnesses, cancer, infertility, and birth defects, a result of continued exposure to pesticides used on the banana plantations, long-banned in the United States. Dole and Chiquita have been involved in lawsuits by family members of farm workers, labor unionists and community members who were killed by paramilitary groups (on the U.S. terrorist list) in Colombia after it was revealed that the corporations had been paying these groups “protection money” for years in order to continue operating in the region. Just this year, Dole and Chiquita have again received attention for a possible role in the military coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, after he decided to raise the country’s minimum wage over their opposition. Finally, while less severe, the extent of corporation control over the entire banana supply chain has also enabled this handful of companies to dictate contracts determining supply and price, thereby extending their reach into supermarkets and homes across the globe.

While some argue that Chiquita, Dole, and the other three banana companies have certainly improved their image, if not their practices in recent years, the question remains: are these the companies that we as consumers wish to support? Until very recently, natural food stores, co-operatives, and other retail establishments have had no choice regarding which brand to carry. Farmers have had no choice regarding the company where they could sell their bananas and consumers certainly have had no choice in which bunch to bring home. Fortunately, as we discussed above, the choice now lies with the consumer. Thank you for supporting small farmers, a just food system, and for being part of the change.

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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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