Keeping it Personal

9 05 2008

Here are 2 more stories from real banana workers.

“My name is Eduardo Hernandez.  During one of the union strikes that we had I was imprisoned for 16 days, and they accused me of being the union leader.  The imprisoned me together with a colleague, and I was in prison, in San Jose, for 16 days.  They tortured me there, asking me where we had the weapons, which was a pure fabrication.  They struck me and crushed my fingers.”

“My name is Angelita. I have eight children and am a single mother. I have worked for more than twenty years in the banana plantations of Chinandega, Nicaragua. One day I was fired and given minimal compensation of about $10 because they said I was a “trouble maker”. I was then put on a “black list” so none of the other farms would employ me. The reason for this? Simply that some time ago I had decided that I would join a local trade union, the Association of Farm Workers, to fight for my own and other workers’ labor rights. I do not feel well these days. I suspect that, like my friends, I am suffering from the effects of pesticides that were used by the Dole in the 1980s in my home country.”


100th Monkey

22 04 2008

Social change.  It takes time at first.  But then, all of a sudden, after what seems like years of hopeless efforts, something happens and everything shifts all at once.  Society reaches its breaking point.  It can’t hold onto the madness of the current situation.  It all comes crashing down.

So it the story of the 100th monkey.

The Japanese monkey, Macaca fuscata, was observed in the wild for a period of about 30 years.  In 1952, on Koshima island, scientists conducted an experiment where they gave the monkeys sweet potatoes that were covered in sand.  The monkeys liked the sweet potatoes, but they didn’t like the sand.  An 18-month-old female monkey named Imo found the solution by washing her potatoes in a nearby stream before eating them.  She taught the trick to her mother.  Soon, her playmates learned the trick too, and they also taught their mothers.  Between 1952 and 1958, all the young monkeys learned to wash the sweet potatoes.  The adult monkeys who imitated their children also learned the trick, but other adults kept eating the sandy potatoes.

As the story goes, in the morning on a fall day in 1958, 99 monkeys were washing sweet potatoes.  Then that afternoon, the 100th monkey learned to wash her potatoes.  And by night fall, all the monkeys in the tribe were washing their sweet potatoes.  The added energy of the 100th monkey had tipped the scale and created an ideological breakthrough.

But the most stunning part was that not only did the entire tribe on Koshima island start washing its potatoes, but also did Japanese monkeys worldwide begin washing their potatoes.

This story demonstrates the power of one in the process of social change.  I have always enjoyed this tale.  I often feel that my actions do not have global reach, that I cannot make a difference in the world.  However, the 100th monkey inspires me to keep speaking up and acting out on behalf of my beliefs.  I have stopped buying bananas.  I have told my friends about my banana crusade, and I will continue to spread the word.  Maybe my friends and readers will tell their friends.  The movement will expand outward.  It is my hope, that one day, we will reach critical mass.  We will all be so strong in our beliefs that the world will shift.  Our cause will achieve global reach.  The big multinationals, like Fresh Del Monte, will be forced to change their ways or perish.

Social change, while sometimes slow and frustrating, can also be impacting and even irresistible.  Ideological movements have force behind them.  Don’t believe me?  Think Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez or Ghandi.  These are real examples.  I am no Ghandi.  I would never make that claim.  But people have power.  We can make a difference.  So please spread the word and keep fighting for the rights of the banana workers.  Perhaps you are the 100th monkey.

Banana Ballet

21 04 2008

This video is a quintessential example of America’s treatment of information about banana plantations and human rights violations.  If you were to close your eyes and listen solely to the music, you might assume that you were watching a happy, Latin ballet.  The opening welcomes amigos (friends) to the banana plantation.  But when you open your eyes, no one is dancing.  With sound off, it almost seems like the video is recorded in fast forward.  That’s how quickly to workers are moving, especially when they begin sorting and packing.  This is not rapid time.  This is the real pace of work.  The video is almost 4 minutes.  The workers do this for 14 hours a day.  The ending of the video is the most significant part.  The packer in the front keeps smiling at the camera.  While I don’t know him firsthand, I can bet that he isn’t actually glad to be there.  Workers are trained to appear happy when inspectors or reporters come to the plantations.  They are educated on how to answer questions and especially on how to lie.  If they tell the truth about their work conditions and treatment, they are fired.  So of course this worker is smiling for the camera.  Besides, it’s his Youtube debut.  He wants to make a good impression.

We’ve had our eyes closed on the banana industry for years.  We don’t want to see the truth about our beloved fruit.  And even when we do see it, we mask it with happy music and fake smiles.  But this is the reality: 

Banana plantations are exploitative.

They violate workers’ rights.

They cause cancer and disease.

They abuse, pollute, oppress and beat down. 

Open your eyes and turn off that happy music.  It is time we knew the truth.


Trapped in Banana Hell

19 04 2008

For people living in the banana regions of Costa Rica, the banana industry is practically the only option for work.  Many youths who have not graduated from high school begin working in the banana fields and continue to work on the plantations for the rest of their lives.  Because the plantations are owned by multinationals, like Del Monte in the United States, the local government does not see the tax revenues of the industry.  Due to a lack of funding and support, there is minimal investment in health, education, transportation and even electricity in the banana communities.

People working in the banana fields are usually driven to their work by a lack of economic choice.  They must work in the fields or let their families starve.  The majority of banana workers are made up of a migrant population that has been oppressed by a volatile combination of harsh government policies, insufficient income, and lack of opportunities.  They have been forced to leave their home countries and their farms due to a lack of livable income, only to find miserable conditions and mistreatment on the banana plantations.  The work conditions have caused the workers to feel a profound loss of their identity and an absence of sustainable life to call their own. 

The workers are suffering from an identity crisis.  They are simply numbers on the white board controlled by the inspectors.  They are nameless, replaceable, exploited, trapped, demeaned, guilty and impotent.  They are out of hope.  Mothers are making their children susceptible to illnesses caused by pesticides in an effort to put food on the table at night.  Husbands are so exhausted from 14-hours in the field that they have no energy for their wives.  Youth spend their days in the packing rooms, hidden away from social interaction and high school educations.  The banana plantations are all these people know.  Their entire lives are defined by an individual and collective sense of desperation.

Welcome to hell.

Day in and day out, this is their reality.

This is their home sweet home.


This is their final judgment.

This is their God, the oppressor.

Photos courtesy of Rhi Gutierrez


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.                      

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!