by KATHERINE NAGASAWA and LEAH VARJACQUES
If you’re like us, most of what you know comes from a colorful sticker. But brand logo and country name only give us a glimpse into a banana’s life before the supermarket. We ventured to Ecuador to learn more and discovered that the story we get from our banana stickers isn’t so simple. There, and throughout Latin America, bananas define the lives of countless people who bring spotless yellow bananas to our kitchen tables year-round for half the price of apples.
This is the story of the small farmers striving to change the way American consumers view and eat bananas.
This is the story of a group of small farmers—and the activists and visionaries behind them—striving to change the banana industry as we know it. Through a model of business called Fair Trade, these producers are building a more just supply chain, one that prioritizes their health, their families and their community.
Put on your headphones.
long South America's northwest coast lies Ecuador, the banana capital of the world. Each year, around 5 million tons of bananas pass through its ports. Every September, Ecuador hosts the annual International Banana Festival, where local farmers compete for the largest banana stalk while women from banana-producing Latin American countries compete for the title of Reina del Banano, or Banana Queen.
Ecuador is the banana capital of the world.
On a drive through the countryside, banana plants blanket all land in sight. Massive leaves and blue protective bags blur together in endless fields lining the roadways. Beneath the trees, day laborers whack at banana stalks, catching and carrying them on their shoulders to a cable system that pulls them through the plantation. At the end of the line is a packing station, where other workers rapidly cut bananas into bunches, wash and adorn them with stickers, and pack them away by the truckload.
Above the fields, the air is quiet until a plane rumbles into view, descending over the rows in sweeping arcs. Jorge Acosta knows this scene well—a trained pilot, he spent 17 years fumigating similar banana plantations throughout Ecuador. One day after feeling sick from his plane’s fumes, Acosta looked into the chemical he had been handling for so long. Its name was Mancozeb, a known carcinogen banned in the U.S. and Europe but commonly used as a pesticide throughout Latin America.
“Despite working in a rich industry, thousands of banana workers live in absolute poverty.”-Jorge Acosta, worker activist
Outraged, Acosta abandoned the comfortable life of a pilot and turned to defend the workers in the fields below. Today he organizes banana workers to fight violations like below-minimum pay, impediments to unionizing and lack of protective equipment.
Two years ago, Acosta met with workers from El Empalme, a town in the province of Los Rios, Ecuador's number-one banana producing region. His message stuck with Javier Burgos, a plantation worker with a ready smile and emphatic handshake. Burgos started out selling ice cream at highway intersections. After his parents died in a car accident 15 years ago, he sought work in the fields to support himself. While his income was higher than that of a street vendor, he suffered long hours, inadequate pay, and mistreatment from supervisors.
Burgos partnered with Acosta for seven years to bring awareness of the rights entitled to workers by international and local law, and ultimately build collective power to demand change in his community. His work came to an end in October 2014 when plantation authorities fired him and several others after learning of their involvement in organizing. He had no choice but to return to the life of a hawker.
While the lives of plantation workers across Latin America resemble Javier and Siguerto’s stories, Ecuador’s industry also supports a large population of small farmers. Small farmers represent an important political constituency: numbering more than 5,000, they make up 71 percent of the nation’s banana producers.
“You can’t understand the history of Ecuador’s banana industry without taking into account small producers.”
-Rafael Guerrero, Consultant to Ministry of Agriculture
But over a quarter of small Ecuadorian producers are subject to fluctuations in the prices set by middlemen traders. Jimena Cundolle, a small baby banana producer from the province of Cotopaxi, suffers when prices per box drop to $2 or $3 per box in the low season. However, she says small producers hesitate to protest because they fear isolation from the intermediaries they depend on.
ocals call the southern coastal province of El Oro "the land of green gold" for its banana production. A little inland, the town of El Guabo stands out like an island in a sea of green. El Guabo is a city of unpainted buildings, motorbike exhaust and grimy Chinese restaurants.
This concrete oasis breaking the leafy horizon is home to the world’s first Fair Trade banana organization.
Through the Association of Small Producers of El Guabo (Asoguabo), 135 organized small farmers harvest and ship ten tons of Fair Trade bananas every week to the U.S. and Europe. They are living out the vision of 14 Ecuadorian farmers from the late 1990s to build a fairer market and carve a place for small producers within the global banana industry.
The Fair Trade movement aims to address the failings and injustices of international trade for workers like Javier and small farmers like Jimena. It seeks to give them access to lucrative global markets, the opportunity to receive a fair wage for their labor, a continuity of income and decent living and working conditions. The standard stabilizes business for small producers by fixing a year-round price that allows them to invest in their crops and budget their operation.
“It’s not just a label - it’s a way of being and living.”
-Lianne Zoeteweij, Asoguabo General manager
The concept of Fair Trade gained ground in the American food industry primarily with coffee. The 1970s and 1980s saw a surge in the creation of economic and political Fair Trade Organizations in response to the exploitation and US-instigated civil wars raging in Latin American nations. In 1986, Boston-based worker cooperative Equal Exchange became the first U.S. Fair Trade coffee company.
In 1997, 14 small farmers in the town of El Guabo realized they could bypass middlemen and trade directly with consumers as a united, co-operative entity. A year later, after forming the association Asoguabo and linking up with a Dutch NGO named Solidaridad, the farmers sold their first container. Since then, Asoguabo has grown to 135 member farmers and exports 10 to 15 containers a week (about 10,000 boxes) of bananas to Europe and the United States through Fair trade importers Agrofair and Equal Exchange.
Anibal Cabrera is one of those farmers. His eyes shine with pride as he talks about his organic agroforestry farm, three hectares of banana and cacao plants on a steep mountain slope he inherited from his parents. Cabrera wakes up before dawn and works extra jobs to supplement his farm’s income. But he says he will have it no other way – running his own business has allowed him to accomplish childhood goals, like purchasing a truck before age 35 and supporting his two daughters’ education.
Anibal and his family are not the only ones to benefit from Fair Trade. Asoguabo reinvests in the town of El Guabo through its social projects budget. The money comes from the extra social premium dollar pegged to every box of Fair Trade bananas sold. Asoguabo producer members control this community fund and vote during quarterly general assemblies on how to allocate it.
“This is our way of paying more for this fruit so that the coop can democratically decide how to spend it. How else is this going to happen except through a loan or charity?”
---Nicole Vitello, CEO of Oke USA
Through the social premium, Asoguabo has supported a local health clinic and two schools for marginalized students. Asoguabo logistics coordinator Vicente Ramirez experiences the impact of the social premium very personally, through what it brings to his youngest daughter Adriana.
n the other side of the hemisphere from Asoguabo, Equal Exchange imports Fair Trade bananas. Equal Exchange's vision for Fair Trade sought to remedy a contentious history of banana trade that transformed Ecuador into the fruit’s number one exporter, providing 32 percent of the world’s bananas today. The rise of multinationals at the turn of the 20th century converted much of Latin America into what Esquire Magazine in 1935 termed “banana republics,” or countries whose economies are largely dependent on exporting limited-resource products like bananas. Today, five major multinationals dominate 80 percent of the banana market: Chiquita, Dole Fruit Company, Del Monte Fresh Produce, Noboa and Fyffes.
Today, Ecuador exports 32 percent of the world's bananas.
Beyond unstable economies, banana republics suffered rampant labor, human and environmental rights violations to workers on large plantations. Dan Koeppel, author of Bananas: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, calls these farms “Cavendish factories” since every commercial banana is a near perfect clone of a single variety called the Cavendish.
qual Exchange started as a fair trade coffee company in the late 1980s but has since expanded to products like tea, chocolate, avocados and bananas. As a “model for how things can be different,” in the words of co-founder Rink Dickinson, Equal Exchange is a mission rather than profit-driven business.
“Ultimately I think your most effective social change organizations, if they’re patiently nurtured and lucky, will be cooperatives.” -Rink Dickinson, co-founder and CEO of Equal Exchange
Founded by three food co-operative workers in Boston, Equal Exchange has grown into a business whose sales exceed $60 million every year. The company is 100 percent employee owned and governed on a one-person/one-share/one-vote basis, and up to 10 percent of its net profit is donated to non-profit organizations and small-farmer co-ops. Their goal is to show that a radically different model of trade can be fair and profitable to all players in a supply chain.
Although hugely successful in coffee, EE has struggled with bananas. Because bananas are the most popular fruit, supermarkets make up for their cheap price point through volume sold. Bananas have become known as the lost leader in the food industry and supermarkets continue to keep prices artificially low due to fear that raising the price for this staple item would drive consumers away.
“Is there another way do this at all, or is 39 cents a pound the only way we can have a banana here in 2014?”
-Nicole Vitello, CEO of Oke USA
Fair Trade bananas have been around in Europe since the late 1990s and make up nearly one third of the total banana business there. Fair Trade roots in Europe make it much more of an easy market, in addition to the general culture around food in Europe; smaller scale agriculture, banned GMOs, and greater organic practices. Asoguabo exported its first container of bananas to the U.S. in 2005. Ten years later, Fair Trade bananas still only make up less than one percent of the total bananas consumed in the U.S. In spite of this, Equal Exchange is determined to bring bananas to American consumers.
Ramón Sánchez is one of Asoguabo’s most productive farmers. His secret? Planting two different banana varieties in tighter rows. But Sanchez, who has been a member of Asoguabo for eight years, cannot sell a lot of his fruit because he is not certified organic.
Sánchez's three-hectare farm neighbors two large haciendas that regularly use aerial pesticide fumigation. While his own practices are organic, his plot’s proximity to pesticides makes it impossible for him to obtain the certification. As consumer demand for Fair Trade coincides with demand for organic, many small farmers who can only afford to grow conventional fruit risk losing their livelihoods.
The niche Fair Trade market is growing and large multinationals are noticing. Dole was the first U.S. multinational to get involved when it began its Fair Trade program in 2003. Four years later, Fair Trade USA certified two Dole plantations in Costa Rica. Meanwhile, Chiquita certified all its company-owned farms to Rainforest Alliance standards by 2012. While this indicates that big players are willing to set higher industry standards, Equal Exchange and Asoguabo believe the plantation model threatens Fair Trade's original purpose.
“[Fair Trade plantations] are a wolf in sheep’s clothes.”
-Lianne Zoeteweij, General Manager of Asoguabo
“It isn't fair because they are pushing us out of the scene as small producers,” Asoguabo President Fabiola Ramon said, noting that Asoguabo's membership has dropped from 400 to 135 in the last three years. “One day we might have to sell our business and farms because we won’t be competitive in comparison with large plantations and companies." Since certifier Fair Trade USA proposed to accept plantations within Fair Trade international standards in 2003, Equal Exchange has boycotted and decried Fair Trade USA's certification. (continued)
Fair Trade USA proposed allowing large plantations into the Fair Trade system primarily to benefit plantation laborers. In the face of low wages and chronic exploitation, workers gain power, respect and development funds through Fair Trade pricing and the premium.
“Fair Trade is about addressing rural poverty around the world,” explains Hannah Freeman, director of floral and produce at Fair Trade USA. “If the idea is that there’s only a fixed pie, we’re only going to be able to sell one million pounds of Fair Trade bananas every year...The question is, 'Can we grow this market to fit everyone?'”
For Equal Exchange, changing the structure of the market means shifting where supply is sourced rather than polishing the status quo.
As Nicole Vitello puts it, the primary function of Fair Trade is not labor advocacy or union organizing. Through creating alternative systems, the small producer Fair Trade model has a compelling potential to reach workers and renegotiate their place within the supply chain. At the end of the day Asoguabo is a business, and plantations and smoother supply chains entering its domain is naturally threatening. They will adapt to the market as it evolves, but it’s up to consumers to decide what they want Fair Trade to mean.
Regardless of certification or size, banana farms are up against a biological threat ravaging banana plants worldwide. Panama Disease, a fungus that decimated the dominant Gros Michel commercial banana in the 1960s, has re-emerged, and a potent new strain is already destroying Cavendish plantations across the world.
“The question is, is it going to come to Latin America? And the answer is yes." -Dan Koeppel, author and banana expert
“It could be tomorrow, it could be five years,” says Koeppel, who has been tracking the march of Panama Disease since the 1990s. “This fungus will wipe out the Cavendish eventually. So the real answer is to stop putting all your bananas in one basket.” For Koeppel this means Fair Trade should use its niche aspect to introduce some of the thousands of varieties of bananas to the U.S. market rather than continue trading Cavendish fruit. For Asoguabo and small producers, how to respond to the looming threat of Panama Disease is all but unclear.
ou’ve followed bananas from the farm to the grocery store. You’ve heard from plantation workers, small producers and business visionaries driving the Fair Trade movement to build a better supply chain. And the last crucial player is you--the consumer.
What's the role of consumers in the Fair Trade supply chain?
If there’s anything we learned in the fields, it’s that the split second choices we make in the store affect people all along the supply chain, across oceans and back. We saw that with workers like Javier, who risked his job to demand his rights and lost, because cheap prices perpetuate a system predicated upon labor rights violations. We also saw that with farmers like Anibal, who is able to provide education to his children thanks to Fair Trade. After getting to know these stories, it’s hard to look at a banana sticker the same way again.
Now that you’ve taken this journey with us, listen to characters across the Fair Trade supply chain share their thoughts about your role in making this social business model work.