The banana industry has long been the center of controversy. In some instances, the banana has been the necessary means for countries to become economically and politically powerful; however, in other instances it has been a hindrance leading to complete dependency and the decline in other industries. Since the banana has turned into a leading crop for a number of countries, the struggle to control production and distribution is at an all-time rise, thus creating the “banana wars.” Although bananas may only look like a fruit, they represent a wide variety of environmental, economic, social, and political problems. The banana trade symbolizes economic imperialism, injustices in the global trade market, and the globalization of the agricultural economy. Bananas are also number four on the list of staple crops in the world and one of the biggest profit makers in supermarkets, making them critical for economic and global food security. As one of the first tropical fruits to be exported, bananas were a cheap way to bring ‘the tropics’ to North America and Europe. Bananas have become such a common, inexpensive grocery item that we often forget where they come from and how they got here. (Cohen)
Starting in the 1990s, the United States and the European Union (EU) began disputing over the standards and regulations in the exportation of bananas to markets. Some core issues underlying this argument include tariffs, free trade, determining which countries have the authority to export to certain markets, and the strenuous impact the banana trade has on the workers and environment. Although the World Trade Organization (WTO) has made great progress in recognizing political, economic, social, and environmental issues caused by the banana trade, it has neglected to strictly enforce regulations previously set forth. Politically, the United States and the EU endorse views from different ends of the spectrum. The United States favors low tariffs, low prices, and free trade; whereas, the EU prefers high tariffs and import licenses.
This extreme difference in vision has created conflict among the two and led to ongoing and detrimental problems. In an effort to produce a solution, the WTO has organized “international banana conferences” between both producing and exporting countries, where a framework for solutions has been established, yet very little follow through has taken place. There still exists great tension between the EU and the ACP (African, Caribbean, and Pacific) countries in regards to the exportation of bananas and import duties (Gowland 98-100). Large companies dominate the banana industry for several reasons: only a large-volume operation handled with great efficiency can make a profit on the easily spoiled fruit. Cutting, shipping, and marketing must be well coordinated to bring bananas to the table at a desirable stage of ripeness. There are many risks: floods, hurricanes, blights, delays in loading, and strikes. Because the demand is relatively inelastic, the amount shipped must be carefully controlled. (Biesanz 44)
Banana producing colonies including Jamaica, the Canary Islands, and the French West Indies to name a few cannot financially keep up with leading corporations like Chiquita Brands International. Unlike the corporations, African and Caribbean farmers are unable to generate the same amount of product and produce enough funds to cover the costs of manufacture and exportation. Consequently, international standards have been created in order to help regulate the banana trade and reduce further disagreement, but WTO lacks enforcing companies to follow those (Bounds).
Similarly, the economic consequences from the banana trade have deeply impacted underdeveloped and dependent countries. Countries like Costa Rica who has become so dependent on the banana industry that if importers drastically decrease or completely stop purchasing bananas, the country will experience “severe economic shock.” For example, whereas in 1975 Costa Rica had the second largest volume of banana exports to that of Ecuador, from 1999 to 2000 its banana exports declined seventy million dollars. Furthermore, economic fluctuations like this not only affect the country financially, but also lead to dramatic social problems (Bounds).
The thirst for control over the production and distribution of the banana trade has dramatically affected countries socially. The members enduring the brunt of the effects are the plantation owners and workers. Banana production is both physically and mentally demanding. Most workers are forced to work ten to twelve hour shifts, yet are only paid for eight; the pay rate in which a worker receives fluctuates with both the country and the selling price of the banana. In addition, workers are at a high risk of developing medical conditions such as cancer and infertility because of the exposure to toxic pesticides. Studies reveal, “Over 400 types of agrochemicals are used in an attempt to meet the demand for aesthetically perfect bananas” (Cohen). Also, “it is estimated that 30 kilograms of pesticides are used per hectare per year on a banana plantation, whereas only 2.7 kilograms are used for the average European cereal crop” (Cohen). Despite the dangerous risks associated with this job, workers receive absolutely no medical treatment or compensation in an event of an accident. Furthermore, there is little to no job security and often time’s workers must endure discrimination; women in particular face sexual harassment and receive lower pay rates (Cohen).
Recently, in addition to working on the banana plantations farmers have begun producing marijuana. Although this kind of activity is illegal and often frowned upon, many farmers feel that it is necessary in order “to make ends meet.” Individuals from the Caribbean state, “if the trade war goes ahead and the United States gets the upper hand, then [one] can expect more drug production in the Caribbean” (Journeyman Pictures). This new source of income not only increases the complexity of the ongoing drug war, but will also heighten the risks of global trade.
The banana industry not only affects the people of a country, but also the environment. Many do not realize how demanding the manufacturing of the banana really is on the environment. The production of the banana “pollutes the air, water, and land” and has everlasting effects on the species of the area. For example, the “deforestation and unhealthy soil cause erosion, and the runoff causes frequent flooding and damage from sedimentation” (Cohen). Similarly, the numerous types and amounts of toxic pesticides used “affect mammals, birds, and plants” causing a drastic change in biodiversity of species. In addition, the ways in which bananas are exported, usually on freighters with refrigerated units “accounts of five percent of world carbon dioxide emissions” (Cohen). Accordingly, the banana industry is detrimental to both the country’s people and its environment; certainly a high price for individual countries to pay in order to compete with international corporations.
As of recently, the EU and the ACP countries continue to dispute over the banana import duties set; whereas, the WTO continues to face challenges in getting countries to follow the international regulations set forth at the banana conferences. Currently, the World Trade Organization rules state, “importing countries may not refuse to buy bananas based on the way exporters treat their workers or oversee environmental practices” (Cohen). Until the WTO changes these rules and enforces the standards established at the banana conferences, ACP countries like Jamaica, Belize, Grenada, Somalia, and Madagascar will continue to experience the detrimental problems discussed earlier. Correspondingly, as a means of resolving the dispute concerning the banana import duties, “the EU proposed, in March, to lower these taxes gradually from 176 euro to 114 euro a ton in 2019, rather than 2016 as initially planned” (Banana War Continues). This proposal though has caused even more dissatisfaction on behalf of the ACP countries simply because they predict “at least a three-hundred fifty million euro” loss in income (Banana War Continues).
Although the banana trade continues to be a major debate topic, the results of these disputes thus far are quite intriguing. Up until this point, these wars demonstrate not only the importance that a single trade item holds, but also the power of the American corporation and its influence on trade policies. Even though the American corporation can be seen as a precedent from a production standpoint, it is unfortunate that these corporations, mostly found in developed countries neglect to guide and support workers in developing countries and to encourage fair trade. It is in this instance that American corporations are viewed as both threatening and corrupt.
“Banana War Continues.” Europolitique 7 Apr. 2009, Daily ed.: Document 24. Lexis Nexis. Web. 13 Oct. 2009.http://www.lexisnexis.com/us/lnacademic/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T7604008138&cisb=22_T7604008137&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=167748&docNo=24. Biesanz, Mavis Hiltunen, Richard Biesanz, and Karen Zubris Biesanz. The Ticos. Boulder: Lynne Rienner