Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Do you know where your bananas come from?

Although this blog post has been on my mind for months, I did not write it in fear of doing the topic an injustice. How can words on a page possibly bring you to the root of the banana industry where women, men, and children engage in risky and consistently hard labour to bring the perfect unblemished banana to our tables? The longer I sit on this story, the more important I realize it is. So here is my story, based on eight months working with bananas.

When we want a banana the furthest most of us have to travel is to the grocery store. But, this convenience is not without costs. Save for a small label that identifies the country of origin, we have no idea about the farms our bananas come from. We also have no idea what farmers have sacrificed to produce a bushel of bananas. Buying organic satisfies many consumers and frees them of any guilt about unsustainable eating. Until 2012, I was one of those consumers who thought I was doing my best for farmers and the environment when buying organic.

Last year I realized the real danger of this assumption. I realized that the label organic tells us nothing about how banana companies treat banana farmers. I realized that organic bananas are bought and marketed mainly by Transnational Corporations and human rights aren’t necessarily one of their priorities, getting you to buy their organic banana is.

Traveling into these Talamanca Mountains, I did not expect to find the heart of Costa Rica's banana industry
In my experience I was farming organic bananas in a Southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica called Talamanca. I was working with Bribri Indigenous people who have lived in the country since time immemorial. In addition to being an Indigenous Territory this is arguably the most biodiverse region of Costa Rica and where you can find Costa Rica’s largest national park. This region is also hard to access, requiring boat, bus, and foot travel to arrive. Needless to say, when I moved to this remote and lush tropical forest, I did not expect to see large-scale banana farming.
Soils in Talamanca that have been organic since time immemorial

The first two questions I asked, when I unexpectedly found myself amidst a lot of bananas were: 1) With all the agricultural land in Costa Rica, why did organic banana companies choose to buy bananas from Talamanca? And 2) How was it cost-effective to export bananas through unpredictable rivers and hard to access roads?

On export day, twice a month, this rocky shore is buried under bananas to be transported to the capital city
As I recalled my research on organic farming, it dawned upon me. For organic bananas you need organic land, land that has not been exposed to chemical pesticides for at least three years. Unbeknownst to many, organic land is something that is hard to find in Costa Rica (because of widespread pesticide use). So, the fastest and cheapest way for companies to find organic land was likely to travel to Indigenous communities, deep into the forest where chemicals have never been used.

You don’t see anything wrong with the picture yet? Let’s dig a little deeper.

Do transnational banana companies pay Indigenous people fair wages?

No. An average farmer receives from 20-160 USD a month, far less than the Costa Rican minimum wage of 502 USD. A kg of bananas is bought for less than one-cent USD and sold – at my store – for about 20 times more.

Do banana companies recognize and respect traditional farming practices?

No. Although Bribri bananas are cropped alongside many other food and timber species, companies do not see this biocultural diversity as beneficial, they see it as getting in the way of profits. Consequently, company representatives have tried to coerce people to increase production (and decrease crop diversity) through training as well as with economic threats.

Fresh peach palm fruits, just one part of the rich crop diversity common on Bribri farms

Do companies have any liability if people get hurt or harmed on the job or do they compensate people if their bananas get lost during unpredictable river transport?

No and No.

As you can imagine, corporations are different and may not have the same modus operandi as the one I experienced in Costa Rica. However, other people’s experiences suggest that transnational corporations elsewhere are similarly concerned with profit increase and similarly disinterested in human rights. My experiences demonstrate that buying organic is not enough to free us of our social and environmental eating responsibilities.

After moving home from Talamanca, it is safe to say that I do not necessarily support large banana companies that simply label their products as organic . When I do buy bananas – and other exotic foods like coffee or chocolate - I look for equal exchange or other fairly traded products.