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. 


  1. Thanks for posting this! Really important stuff. I wanna hear more about bananas.
    I have a couple tangential questions.

    A) Is location of the bananas an indication of "better bananas"? Or are all organic bananas equal from a socioeconomic or equal exchange perspective. All the consumer sees is "organic" and a little tag that indicates the distributor and location.

    B) Most bananas sold are represented by only a couple species but I've heard there are some mighty tasty varieties out there. I live in a fairly diverse and progressive town but still don't see many other varieties (Plantains aside). How do I get to try other fun varieties?

    C) After your travels and studies of bananas in Costa Rica;
    a. Do you still eat bananas?
    b. Do native Costa Ricans eat bananas and do they prepare them in any interesting ways?

    Thanks for any help with this,

    1. Hi Sean, thanks your for all the thoughtful questions, some of these will make for great future blog posts. In your search for a socially just and environmentall sustainable banana source, let us know what you find out! Now, here are my thoughts:

      A) All organic bananas are not equal from a socio-economic perspective and that is why it is important to know about the company that is marketing the bananas. Large companies, such as Dole and others, have to buy large-scale (to make a profit while keeping prices relatively low); thus, by nature such companies will never meet the pre-requisite to being "fair-trade" or "equal exchange", i.e., buying only from small-scale farmers and farms. Large companies do however, try to meet corporate social responsibility quotas, but as you can imagine this is more for marketing and less for a genuine concern for the livelihoods of the farmers themselves. In sum, the location really does not tell you much it is more about what standards a given company is holding themselves to.

      If you can not buy a banana directly from a farmer, or find fair-trade or equal exchange, then your next best option would be to check out the company and find out what their corporate social responsibility is and if/how they comply with international regulations regarding fair working conditions for farmers. While in Costa Rica, I tried to contact representatives from one of the largest organic banana companies to ask similar questions but, such an interview was politely declined.

      B) This is such a great question because the diversity of bananas is immense; while in Costa Rica I tasted over 8 varieties and the tastiest ones were not the Cavendish or Gros Michel varieties we find in large super markets. I asked something similar to your question to my host family in Talamanca, I asked why companies did not buy the tastiest and most visually appealing varieties. The answer is likely, as a friend told me, that companies want consistency, they want a standard yellow banana that every customer knows and loves. Unfortunately, this homogenization of the agricultural market, drives many small-scale farmers to slowly abandon the diverse crops and grow more of what sells on the market. Another outcome of the homogenization of agriculture, in my opinion, is that it can quickly makes small-scale farmers dependent on one species, if they are not careful to hedge their bets. Once farmers are highly dependent on one market, the large companies can do what they want with the market and some people have no choice but to comply. Fortunately, I know many farmers that grow ancestral varieties because it is part of their identity, because of the taste, or just for the fun of it.

      Now, to your question, how can you try these fun varieties? I think this is reason for a trip to an farmer's market in the tropics, maybe Costa Rica, Or maybe even New Guinea, where bananas are thought to be first domesticated! If travel is not possible, you could talk to your local food shop and talk to them about some of the new equal exchange banana markets (e.g., http://www.beyondthepeel.com/) and hope they offer some unique varieties. Right now, I do not know where to get any of these other bananas in North America, so please let us know what you find out!

  2. Part II

    C) Do I still eat bananas? Yes, I do, but I no longer eat organic bananas marketed by transnational companies (TNCs) and I have made similar choices with foods, such as organic chocolate, coffee and tea, whose markets are often controlled by TNCs.

    Do native Costa Ricans eat bananas and do they prepare them in any interesting ways? Yes, and the diversity of eating bananas is so great that your question will make for a great new blog post. How people eat bananas will depend where you go in Costa Rica. I experienced some of the most unique ways of using bananas while living in the Bribri Indigenous Territory in the South Caribbean of Costa Rica. We ate a lot of boiled green bananas, all different types, with every meal. There is a purple variety of banana, called mana or chop morado (I do not know the scientific name yet) that is special to eat, boiled, with armadillo. We used green plantains, again boiled, to eat with different animals from pigs to peccaries. One of my favourite snacks was a sweet variety of plantain roasted in the wood fire. This sweet plantain was often served with 100% pure hot cacao drink, which my friends also grew and harvested right in the community.

    Thank you again for some great thought provoking questions!

  3. Sean, I just found a post I wrote last year with some pictures of a few banana meals: http://farmsforestsfoods.blogspot.com/2012/12/eating-in-forest-2012-highlights_10.html

  4. Hi Olivia, this was a great blog; I thought just buying organic solved the world's problems but now I see I have to find organic, fair trade products. Where would I find organic fair trade products? How do I go about finding them?

  5. Hi Nina,

    Thanks for your interest and great question.

    There are different ways to find fairly traded products. For veggies at a Farmer's Market, it is pretty easy to find fairly traded goods, because you are often buying directly from the farmer. For stuff we can't grow in North America, like coffee, chocolate, bananas, and tea, it may be slightly harder. Recently however, even the large super markets carry these products in health food aisles, just look for labels such as Fair Trade (FT), Fair Wild, or Equal Exchange. You can go online and read about what companies must adhere to if Fair Trade label lis on their product. I've summarized FT guidelines in past blog post about coffee but it is a standard label that applies to other Fair Trade products in North America (http://farmsforestsfoods.blogspot.com/2011/07/fair-trade-organic-and-shade-grown.html).

    If you have a specific concern, it is always a good idea to email company representatives who can provide more details on the social, economic, and enviornmental standards they follow.

    If you are buying FT products be sure to read labels carefully. I've seen Transnational Coroporations marketing chocolate as fairtrade but in the fine print it says only 10% fairly traded.

    Lastly, if you can not find a FT product you want, try asking your local food store to order it, if that option is available.

  6. Congratulatios on a great article:

    I am touched when you point out that the farmers who do most of the work enjoy an almost non-existent share of the profits of their labor. The only good thing that can be said about the multi-national chains who are buying organic bananas is that the people who finally eat them will not be eating all the pesticides that are and have been applied to bananas coming from huge plantations where there the workers and their families were slowly poisoned from close proximity to the many pesticide sprays that were used. US public television who
    (also see http://books.google.ca/books/about/Circle_of_poison.html?id=Ho4ZiTa2fRQC&redir_esc=y )
    produced a series about this back in the 1970's where they showed that the use of pesticides which acted as female hormones lead to breast development in the male children of workers in tropical plantations and genital warts in the young females.

    But as you have stated, even the organic farmers today are not getting fair wages for the hard work and responsibilities that they have assumed in caring for their plants. growin the bananas and transporting them to buyers. This is so unfair. Can we as a caring society resolve the disparity that exists? How can we convince our society that we have been contributing to the problem?