World Rainforest Movement

Banana plantations in Latin America

Bananas, in terms of gross value of production, are the world’s fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat and maize. Latin America dominates the world banana economy, where they are cultivated mostly in large mono-crop plantations.

The sector has been an important pillar of the Latin American economy since the 1950s when rising prices and an increasing demand in Northern countries (nowadays North America and the European Union capture over 60 percent of world imports), led to a rapid expansion of production. They are a commodity, and as with almost all commodities produced in the South and consumed in the North, more than 90% of the price paid by the consumer stays in the North and never reaches the producer. World trade of bananas is almost controlled by three transnational corporations.

In Latin America, the main producers for export of this crop are Ecuador, followed by Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. However, other countries such as Brazil, the Caribbean states of Windward Islands (St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts-Nevis and St. Vincent), Jamaica, Belize, the Dominican Republic and Suriname are also important producers.

The bananas from the plantations of Latin America are cheaper than anywhere else –largely because the costs are ‘externalized’, which means they are paid by someone else; in this case by plantation workers and the environment. If these costs were ‘internalized’, decent wages paid and environmental damage eliminated, the difference would disappear.

Increased production has been achieved both by improving yields (through increasing the amount of inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides) and the areas under cultivation.

This had had huge negative impacts, both human and environmental.

Banana monoculture plantations have been placed in areas of decimated primary rainforest. A characteristic of these tropical soils is their dependency on the biomass of the overhanging forest. Once the protective forest cover is eliminated, the productivity and soil fertility per unit of area declines, diminishing sharply after the first two years. This is why banana producers require large areas of land -and subsequent expansion- in order to make up for the fall in production per hectare. Moreover, these low density soils are preferred by the banana companies because: a) they have a high organic content; and b) they require practically no alteration, disturbance or further attention.

Of over 300 different varieties of bananas, the Dwarf Cavendish is the best known and most profitable. This seedless variety must be propagated by cutting and rooting a section of the mature plant, making all generations genetically identical. Thousands of plantations throughout the region grow fruit on genetically homogenous plants making the plantations particularly vulnerable to disease and pests.

To control pest outbreaks in large-scale banana production -particularly for export where the market demands flawless appearance- plantations depend on high levels of pesticide use.

Pesticides are applied continuously throughout the ten-month growing season. Plantations are aerially sprayed with fungicides in up to 40-60 application cycles per season. Workers use backpack sprayers to apply nematicides two to four times a year, and herbicides such as paraquat and glyphosate -eight to twelve times a year. Fertilizers are continually applied throughout the growing season. Workers also place and remove plastic bags impregnated with the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos over the maturing banana bunch. In the packing plant, workers cut and wash bananas in pesticide-laden water, and apply more pesticides to prevent “crown rot” during transportation. Finally, workers package the bananas into boxes, frequently without wearing protective gloves. This intensive use of pesticides is extremely hazardous for workers.

Studies conducted by the National University in Heredia, Costa Rica, reveal that rates of pesticide poisonings are three times higher in banana regions than in the rest of the country. Increased incidence of sterility and cancers were also found among banana workers. Other common illnesses likely related to pesticide exposure are allergies and pulmonary ailments. In a well-documented case, thousands of Latin American banana workers were sterilized as a result of exposure to the nematicide Nemagon (dibromochloropropane — DBCP).

Aerial spraying and pesticide runoff contaminate water used by workers, their families and nearby communities. Pesticide use has been responsible for massive fish kills, destroying an important food source and devastating surrounding ecosystems. In some areas, soil has become so infused with pesticides that it is now unfit for agriculture.

As banana plantations have increased production, extensive forests, wildlife habitat and pasturelands have been razed to make way for bananas. In Costa Rica, the government has assisted this process by changing land use classifications to allow plantation production. From 1979 to 1992, banana expansion was responsible for deforestation of over 50,000 hectares of primary and secondary forest in Costa Rica’s Limon Province. A similar situation has happened in most banana producing countries.

Banana companies in the process of expansion pressure peasant farmers living on the plantation periphery to sell their lands. Farmers that resist are denied production supports such as credit, agricultural extension services and markets for their products. Farmers are also prohibited from producing traditional creole bananas in an attempt to avoid spread of the banana fungal disease Micosphaerella fijensis (Black Sigatoka). In these circumstances it is no surprise that many of these independent farmers become wage labourers on banana plantations. The same situation takes place with indigenous peoples who are displaced from their lands, and generally end up as plantations workers.

A shortage of jobs and weakened or non-existent unions foster a climate of insecurity on banana plantations, where workers are vulnerable to exploitation and afraid to participate in union organizing. Job insecurity is exacerbated by industry practices such as subcontracting day labourers, extending the work day, eliminating collective agreements, unjustified firings (including for suspicion of union sympathy), contracting by piecework to avoid minimum hourly wages, and laying off workers before the end of the three-month trial period after which employers must provide benefits. Workers are forced into a transient lifestyle where family stability is difficult to maintain. Job insecurity and poverty are frequently accompanied by malnutrition and poor health, which are exacerbated by a higher frequency of neurological and developmental problems among workers’ children –associated with exposures to pesticides in air, food and water. Poor health together with limited access to schools results in inadequate academic achievement among plantation children compared to their urban counterparts. In this way, future generations face the same fate as their parents and the cycle persists.

Banana expansion has meant –and still means- problems in Latin America. The well-documented invasions and US-supported coup d’etats and dictatorships in Central America have been almost invariably linked to US corporations’ banana interests in the region. So-called “Banana Republics” were the end result of those interventions, involving widespread human rights violations. Biodiverse forests have been destroyed and substituted with endless rows of genetically identical banana trees growing in a poisoned environment which poisons people and nature. That is what banana is all about.

Article based on information from: “Support Banana Workers: Bring Justice to the Table”, Global Pesticide Campaigner (Volume 14, Number 1), April 2004, written by Kate Mendenhall and Margaret Reeves. The full article can be accessed at: ; ; ; Banana Link, ; “The World Banana Economy 1985-2002” , ;
Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company