Local Organizations with Global Impact

19 04 2008

Whenever I take a political science course, I am always frustrated by all of the world’s seemingly irresolvable problems.  The conditions on banana plantations in Central America are so egregious that I often feel hopeless.  Here are these global issues that need to be remedied, but I am just a little American college student.  How is anyone ever going to fight the exploitative multinationals like Fresh Del Monte?  In my classes, however, there is some encouragement.  Community organizations can make a difference.  I believe in the concept of starting local for a global impact.

Local organizations in Costa Rica are not only speaking up but also enabling change.  Foro Emaus, founded in 1992, is a network of environmental, community, religious, and labor organizations that confront the social and environmental problems of conventional banana production in Costa Rica. Current production practices cause social and labor problems that the state does not control nor have any interest in controlling.  Limitations on economic development and infrastructure of public services result are hindrances to community development and unionization.

These are significant challenges in the banana industry.  But Foro Emaus is taking real action to make a difference.  They are developing alternative products to replace pesticides that will create a better equilibrium between humans and nature.  Experiements in various banana production methods have proved that alternatives are possible.  Minimum standards have been developed from the contributions of workers and organizations in the banana industry that dictate the socio-environmental conditions that should be respected on the banana plantations.   Organic production methods are another alternative, and Foro Emaus is consulting with campesinos (rural farmers) for information about natural pesticides from plants and providing support for alternative farms.  Finally, Foro Emaus is working to organize consumers and to educate and encourage them to buy smart in an effort to help their fellow Costa Ricans.

Foro Emaus provides a light of hope in a dark and depressing industry.  They have succeeded in kick-starting the wheels of positive change, and have managed to do so without state funding.  Social movements are strong.  I am optimistic that local organizations in Central America, combined with better buying decisions here in the United States, will put a stop to violations of human rights.                      


Central American Superwomen

18 04 2008

I’d like you to meet the superheroes of Costa Rica.  They fight social injustice and stand up for what they believe in, even against the toughest of challengers.  Welcome Ticas.

These women form two of the women’s cooperatives on Chira Island in Costa Rica.  They both have overcome incredible obstacles in their quest for personal empowerment and community development.  They have used their resources, their strength and their insights to build something of value.  The top group runs their own oyster farm, and they sell the oysters as a source of independent income for themselves and their families.  The bottom group works on an iguana farm where they raise iguanas in an effort to balance the ecoysystem of the island.  Both of these groups tell stories about their hardships.  The iguana cooperative has had to fight against problems with ants, funding and community anger.  They suffered verbal and emotional abuse from their husbands who still believe in the machismo of the past.  The women of the oyster cooperative speak of opposition from both women and men in their community.  They had to hire a nighttime security guard to protect their oyster nets from sabotage at the hands of their husbands and brothers.  There have stood up against society’s oppressive roles and brought new meaning to their lives.

Why do they do it?  To empower themselves and to inspire change.  But most importantly, to benefit the younger generations.  Each of these cooperatives sponsors youth programs and work days in an effort to educate their children about these programs.  They want their children to see that they can accomplish great things.  Education is essential for future success.

Here is their banner:

Translated, the points on the sun read:  easy, experience, support, we are one, fun, strength, communication, bad for one is bad for all, and happiness.

Outside the cooperatives of Chira Island exists another community of women who are in fact super.  They are the Bananeras:

These women play an active role both in the production of bananas and in their homes.  They are workers, mothers, wives, housekeepers and cooks.  They must work irregular schedules, extensive work days, and receive lower wages than men.  They suffer it all to make a life for themselves and their children.  It isn’t easy.  They know that their children are susceptible to disease on the plantation.  They know that they are being exploited and underpaid.  They know that their kids miss them while they are working 14-hour days.  However, they also know that they can do it.  They know that their sacrifice has its rewards.  They can provide for their families and put food on their tables at night.

Globalization has powerful implications for women in both the developed and developing world.  As industrialization occurs, women are forced to manage both their families and work.  It is challenging and empowering.  Even in the worst of conditions and with the biggest obstacles, women are discovering community and empowerment through their work.

The vigor of women in overcoming their oppressor, be it machismo or Del Monte, is incredible.  If only we were to fight half as hard for what we believe in, we would surely effect colossal programs for good.


Better Banana Project

18 04 2008

In collaboration with nine partner organizations in the Sustainable Agriculture Network, the Rainforest Alliance has instituted the Better Banana Project.  This program addresses environmental and social issues on plantations while also increasing farm efficiency and maintaining high production levels.  The ultimate goal of the project is sustainability.  It’s a win-win solution, because the work conditions are improved and the plantations are more productive.  In 1991, the Rainforest Alliance and its partners established the first standards for responsible banana production.  Today, more than 15% of bananas in international trade come for Rainforest Alliance Certified farms.  The certified plantations have better water quality, decreased pesticide use and higher quality of life for workers and their families.

Chiquita, one of the big three banana multinationals, has achieved 100% certification of all of its plantations.  Del Monte has not.  In fact, on the list of Rainforest Alliance Certified farms, Del Monte does not appear once.  However, according to its Environmental Policy, Del Monte Fresh Produce Company states that it “recognizes its obligation and responsibility to protect the environment…and worker health, safety and welfare.” They may recognize that they are obligated, but they certainly aren’t doing anything to make their environmental and labor policies better.  It is one thing to recognize a responsibility and quite another to actually act in an effort to fulfill one’s obligations.

Fresh Del Monte, you must change your labor and environmental policies.  Meeting the minimum requirements or simply lying to inspectors is not sufficient.  Take Chiquita as an example.  They are a highly successful company, and they are also environmentally responsible.  It’s time you take responisibility, not just recongnize it, and do something about the miserable conditions on your plantations.

Fair Trade

17 04 2008

Fair trade is an organized social movement and market-based approach to alleviating global poverty and promoting sustainability.  The fair trade movement advocates the payment of fair prices and improves social and environmental standards.  The focus is placed on products that are exported by the developing world to the developed world.  Fair trade’s deliberate intent is to work with marginalized producers and workers in order to help them move from positions of vulnerability to those of security and economic self-sufficiency.  Ideally, the workers are empowered to take a stronger stake in their organizations and to achiever greater equity in international trade.

Fair Trade Certificationentitles farmers to a variety of benefits.  First is a fair price, in which democratically organized farmers receive a guaranteed minimum price as well as premiums for organic products.  Second, fair labor conditions ensure that workers are free to associate, to be safe on the job, and to receive living wages for their work.  Further, direct trade encourages importers to buy directly from the farm, empowering farmers to develop the business know-how for global trade.  The fourth benefit is community development in which farmers are required to invest in social and business programs like scholarships, education, job training and organic certification.  Finally, environmental sustainability is emphasized because agrochemicals and pesticides are strictly prohibited in order to protect farmers’ health and to preserve ecosystems for future generations.

For consumers in the United States, making the choice to buy fair trade certified products and produce is a great way to fight back against the exploitative practices of multinationals like Del Monte.  Buying fair trade shows that you are in support of environmental protection and workers’ rights.  In today’s free market world, capital is king.  Voting with your dollar is the most effective way to influence change.  Whenever possible, my dollars support local farmers and sustainable development.

Not only does fair trade help workers and communities in the developing world, but it just tastes better.  The fruit isn’t tainted by desperation, but instead is raised in an environment of hope.

Check out Transfair USA for a directory of stores that carry fair trade certified products, or you can search by zip code to find retailers in your area.

Look for this label:

Pocket Change

17 04 2008

Approximately 85% of bananas grown in Central America are exported to industrialized countries.  The United States is the largest banana consumer, importing an average of 3.7 million tons of bananas each year.  Many of the plantations that are located in Central America are owned by multinational fruit companies like Fresh Del Monte.  Finca Perdiz in Limon, Costa Rica is one of these plantations. The problem with non-locals owning the plantations is that they don’t have a stake in the livelihood of the locals.  Multinationals are concerned with their stakeholders back home: New York stockbrokers, Wal-Mart chains and demanding consumers.  When your commands come from people who are concerned with prices and profits alone, there is no room for human rights concerns.

On April 15, 2008, the German newspaper Spiegel International published an article titled “Oxfam Claims Low Prices for Laborers.”  Oxfam International is a cooperative organization that seeks to increase global public awareness of poverty and injustice that are a result of unsustainable development.  They work with poor people and aim to influence powerful people in order to make the strive for equity equally as important as economic growth.  According to the article, discount supermarkets contribute to the poor treatment of fruit-farm workers in developing nations.  These low-price supermarket chains are responsible for setting the prices on tropical fruits, and they pressure suppliers to drive their prices down.  The result is the underpayment and mistreatment of workers in every part of the supply chain. 

The pickers are exposed to harmful chemicals and physically exhausting work, and they must reach a daily quota of 200 bunches picked to be considered productive.  They don’t have time to stop moving.

The sorters spend 12-hour days, 6 to 7 days-a-week on their feet and are unable to take longer than 10 minute breaks or even speak because any decrease in production leads to less profitability and usually a firing.

Even the packers don’t have time for rest.  Their life on the job consists of preparing boxes to be shipped to the multinational supermarkets of the developed world.  Any packing error can be traced back to the individual worker who last touched the box, and mistakes result in immediate termination.


Sound familiar?  Wal-Mart comes first to my mind.  Globalization is sometimes described at Wal-Martization because price wars in the consumer product category, especially in produce sales, are occurring across the globe.  It’s a race to the bottom, and Wal-Mart is currently in the lead.  But where does this need for low prices come from?

The consumers.  As the economy suffers and the value of the dollar continues to drop, we want low prices.  I can relate.  I am a college student strapped for cash, and I like buying smart and finding a good deal.  But as a college student I am also idealistic.  I believe in my ability, our ability, to make change.  I will not stand for human rights violations.  With each banana we buy for $0.19 instead of $0.45, workers’ wages drop.  Every action has a reaction.  Each penny we save results in poorer treatment of Central American plantation workers.

It’s just one banana.  $0.19.  It could be purchased organically for $0.45.  Or better yet, it could be fair trade certified and sold for $0.69.  Just $0.50 more.  2 Quarters.  Pocket Change.  The cost of quality of life.

One fair trade banana.  $0.69.  Better treatment for one worker.

I will proudly pay more.

Let’s all buy that one banana every time we shop.  We can make a change.  We can stop the race to the bottom.  We can say “NO!” to the Wal-Marts of the world.  Human life is too important.

One banana…

Photos courtesy of Rhi Gutierrez

Exploitation video

13 03 2008

This video sums up many of the problems on banana plantations in Central America.  Let me know if you want clarification on any of the issues that are presented in the film.  The angry music is a little intense, but the images and descriptions are great.  Maybe watch it without sound.  Thanks for reading and watching!

Not just Del Monte in Costa Rica

12 03 2008

According to an article by Campaign for Labor Rights, on March 18, 2002, 120 banana workers were fired in Ecuador after they participated in a daylong, work-stopping strike.  They were protesting the policies of Ecuador’s largest banana exporter, the Noboa Company.  The workers were on strike in a effort to gain basic labor rights and the recognition of a union.

The owner of the Noboa Company, Alvaro Noboa Ponton, is expected to make his fourth attempt at the presidency in Ecuador in the next election.  With over 220,000 banana workers in Ecuador, it is scary to think that such a man could have power over Ecuadorian law.  Noboa is the world’s fourth largest banana company after Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte.  Noboa owns the Bonita brand.

Fortunately, Ponton was defeated in 2006 at his third attempt for the presidency.  However, he received 27% of the primary votes.  Banana company owners receiving support as presidential candidates in Central American countries?  Workers rights are already being exploited without company representatives serving as strong political leaders.  Banana company owners and CEOs cannot be given any more power to abuse the banana workers.  They have already caused egregious psychological and physical harm to thousands of workers.