Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Fair Traders Go Bananas!

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, February 9 / 15

Zack Gross

Canadian consumers find bananas to be quite “a-peeling”!  In fact, even though Canada is home to many varieties of apples and bins-full in every supermarket, bananas are actually our most popular fruit, and one of the most popular worldwide (interestingly, tomatoes are the number one fruit on the planet!).  The story behind conventional banana production, however, is one of an industry fraught with human oppression and environmental degradation.

The banana is thought to have originated in the jungles of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, still the home to many varieties.  It was spread westward across Asia and over to Africa by travelers and traders, and ultimately to Latin America.  The word “banana” comes from the Arabic word for “finger.”  Bananas grow well in moist soil with good drainage in tropical regions with 27 degrees average temperatures and 200+ cm. of annual rainfall.

Banana production is labour intensive work and the conventional model is of large plantations with sizable investment in technology and infrastructure for transport, irrigation, packing facilities and more.  High volumes mean economy of scale lower costs per unit, but cost cutting has also meant shortcuts around human rights:  poverty-level wages that don’t cover the basic living costs of food, clothing, housing and education.  Other concerns raised include 10 to 12 hour workdays six days per week and a lack of job security. 

Small-scale operations can’t compete with large plantations as they don’t have the capital to gain access to new technologies.  They also aren’t vertically integrated into the globalized system run by multinational corporations that controls banana distribution from the green plant in the jungle to supermarkets around the world.  Smaller operations are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which in the tropics means storms, erratic rain/drought patterns, and new plant diseases to battle.

The Fair Trade system for bananas was set up by consumer groups and human rights activists to offer an alternative to small producer cooperatives in the way of better wages for workers and returns on their product, better working conditions and more environmentally friendly production methods.  Banana workers are able to associate through unions and negotiate for fair wages. 

Premiums are available to reward fair trade and organic production, putting cash or employment benefits in the hands of workers or helping them with the building of schools and clinics, or access to training or new equipment in their communities.  98% of banana farmers involved in the fair trade system have testified that their quality of life has improved, 52% specifically that their housing has improved, with household income increasing by 34%.

Despite the efforts of the fair trade movement, the market price of bananas has been reduced by almost 50% by retailers over the past ten years while the cost of production has increased by the same amount.  Thus, workers and farm families in the banana industry are being squeezed economically and falling further into poverty. 

The large fruit companies – Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole operating in Latin American countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru – control 99% of global banana sales.  They have been found guilty of opposing unions with violence and allowing their workers to be exposed to numerous toxic chemicals banned in North America, leading to birth defects, cancers, diabetes and strokes.  In recent years, Chiquita and Dole have been posting annual revenues of well over $3 billion each.

What’s needed is consumers in the rich world demanding fair trade bananas from their retail grocers.  The two main fair trade fruit companies in Canada – Equifruit in Montreal and Discovery Organics in Vancouver – are looking for new opportunities to supply their product.  In England, 25% of all bananas sold are Fair Trade, thanks to the commitment of the Sainsbury chain.  In Switzerland, 50% of bananas sold are fair trade.

Beyond bananas, other fruits and vegetables are available through the fair trade system, including avocados, mangoes, pineapples, grapefruit and grapes.  One challenge is to penetrate Canadian markets outside the largest cities.  Another is for fair trade to get beyond the odd special sales event and beyond the specialty stores.  There is a leadership role to be played by schools, faith-based groups, not-for-profits and others with value-based philosophies.

The basic necessities of banana farmers in Central America – food, housing, children’s education, medicine – cost more per day than what they are paid for a ten to twelve hour day of labour in the fields.  We as consumers can change this equation.  What is “a-peeling” is that the banana story is easy to understand and sympathize with, and the fruits of our labour for justice ultimately taste good too!

Zack Gross is a fair trade advocate and a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.

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