The hidden costs of Canada's banana market

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Photo: Kevin Edmonds.

Murder. Paramilitary death squads. Exploitation. Torture. Child Labour. Toxic chemicals. At first these words are not readily linked to a soft, sweet and innocent fruit, a staple in the majority of our homes, but rather to the actions of a tyrant operating in a forgotten corner of the world.

Unfortunately, the truth is much darker and violent than most Canadians can imagine. In 2009, Canada imported US$334.2 million of bananas, 95 per cent of which come from low cost suppliers in Central and South America such as Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Columbia, Honduras and Panama. Out of these bananas, only one per cent of them are certified as ethically produced fair trade bananas. The other 99 per cent, however, poses an important challenge to us as Canadians -- what do we as a society value more, our wallets or our morality?

In Canada, out of the major supermarket chains, only Loblaws offers fair-trade bananas -- but they admit it is only a small portion of the bananas they purchase overall. Fair trade bananas are on average about 40 cents more per kilo than conventionally produced bananas, but fair-trade producers state that the cost of production is higher due to low demand. If the demand for fair-trade produce increases in Canada, the cost of growing ethically produced bananas in source countries will fall in relation. The main factor guiding most consumers towards conventionally grown bananas is a lack of education on the topic. In an effort to combat this, here are some examples of the issues facing banana growers in Latin America.

Chiquita is currently facing a US$1 billion lawsuit from 242 Columbians who were victims of right-wing paramilitaries on the banana giant's payroll. In 2007, Chiquita admitted that they paid paramilitaries like the AUC (United Self Defence Forces of Columbia) -- but only to protect banana workers from falling victim to other armed groups in the region. The lawsuit is not the first against the corporation, as in 2007 Chiquita was forced by the U.S. Justice Department to pay a US$25 million fine for funding the AUC between 1997 to 2004. 

In Guatemala, Del Monte has been regularly linked to the murders of banana workers involved in union organizing. Guatemala ranks only second to Columbia as the most dangerous place to be a unionized worker. Since the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was ratified in 2006, six unions in Guatemala are currently involved in a legal battle with the government, who they claim are purposefully overlooking the murder and other human rights abuses of workers. In 2007, the SITRABI trade union leader Marco Tulio Ramirez Portela was gunned down on his way to work on a plantation.

Those responsible for his murder remain unpunished. Despite the US Trade Representative condemning the ongoing violence against banana workers and trade unionists, one needs only to look to their continued support of the Columbian government's murderous security forces to see how hollow the statements of action are.

In Honduras, Chiquita and Dole can now breathe a collective sigh of relief since the labour reforms -- including a 60 per cent raise of the minimum wage -- promised by former President Manuel Zelaya will never come into effect -- thanks to a coup d'etat in 2009. Dole and Chiquita complained that the new regulations would cost their companies millions, as it would cost them 10 cents more to produce a box of bananas, and 20 cents more for a box of pineapples

In 2009, Chiquita and Dole posted revenues of US$3.5 billion and US$3.3 billion respectively -- the exact amount of profit gained by engaging in violent activities against workers, trade unionists and activists will never be known.

Human Rights Watch investigated allegations of child labour in the banana growing town of Machala, Ecuador. The organization interviewed child labourers who had worked 12-hour days at the farms between the ages of 8 and 13. Child labour remains to be an endemic problem in Latin America, with an estimated 42 million underage children at work -- the majority of them in agriculture

Worldwide, banana workers have been exposed to numerous toxic chemicals which were banned from use in North America -- but not in the nations where the major fruit companies operate farms. These chemicals, such as Nemagon or DBCP have been proven to cause sterility, birth defects, cancers, paralysis, bone brittleness, strokes, blindness and diabetes amongst many other serious side effects. In 2002, Nicaraguan farmers won a landmark case against Shell, Dole, and Dow Chemical, who were ordered to pay US$489 million in damages to 450 workers affected by the use of Nemagon -- however, the companies have yet paid one cent to the victims. 

Back in Canada, there is no reason why we cannot become ethical consumers who demand more humane and environmentally sensitive growing practices from producers. Our current lack of awareness and purchasing habits are making us participants in a "race to the bottom" -- whereby we derive savings as consumers from widespread injustice inflicted on producers. In Switzerland, 50 per cent of the bananas consumed are fair-trade certified.

In England, where 25 per cent of all bananas consumed are fair trade, the national supermarket chain Sainsbury's have converted all of their bananas to 100 per cent fair-trade certified products. 

This move by Sainsbury has made a huge impact for small-scale producers in the Caribbean who had been dramatically affected by decisions made by the World Trade Organization in their 15 year trade dispute with the European Union. Since the "banana wars" began in 1993, out of the 25,000 farmers who produced bananas in the Windward Islands (St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent) only 5,000 remain today, as uncertainty caused prices to freefall to the point farmers could not survive, and instead walked away from their farms. The decline of agriculture in St. Lucia has been linked to the significant increase of drug-related crime and reduced government capacity, leading the nation into a dangerous situation. Sainsbury and their fair-trade model ensured that the remaining farmers could still access a market when the WTO closed the doors on the region.

Large grocers in Canada, such as Metro, point to being locked into long-term contracts with Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte as an excuse for not offering an ethical alternative. The truth is, if consumers demand it corporations will bend over backwards to capture their dollars. The case of bananas is no different. While fair trade is rightly viewed with skepticism by some on the left as a band-aid solution or compromise within the framework of global capitalism, there is no readily working model available as an alternative to improve working conditions for banana farmers now. Fair trade should be used as a stepping stone to empower and develop communities in a practical way, not as an end in itself. Bananas represent a wide variety of social, political, environmental and economic problems, and the first step is a small act of buying fair trade, asking your retailer to offer them, or writing a letter to a grocery chain can literally make the difference between life and death for banana workers.

Kevin Edmonds is a graduate student at McMaster University's Institute for Globalization and the Human Condition.

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