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.


Unions Banned

21 04 2008

On the banana plantations, transnational companies violate the rights of workers to freely organize unions and to use collective bargaining to negotiate work conditions.  By hiring workers for less than 3 months, the companies bend and violate the Costa Rican law that gives long-term workers the right to unionize.  It takes 3 months of employment to be considered a long-term worker.  Further, because banana plantations provide employment for migrant workers, the Costa Rican government has restricted investigations into illegal union-blocking policies.

Solidarismo, a business-sponsored labor movement aimed at replacing traditional unions, is another hindrance to workers’ right to unionize.  The movement emphasizes cooperation between workers and employers, with membership open on both sides.  Because solidarismos are funded and managed by the companies, they support only company interests.

However, the biggest obstacle to forming unions is blacklists.  Thousands of migrant workers roam the plantations of Costa Rica but are unable to find work anywhere because they have been blacklisted in the banana industry.  The easiest way for a worker to be put on the black list is to call for improved working conditions or to have a history of unionization attempts.  When a person has grown up working on the banana plantations, plantation work is all they know.  They cannot afford to fight for labor rights and be put on the blacklist because it will likely mean permanent unemployment, extreme poverty or starvation.

Fear.  This is a driving force behind the success of multinational banana plantations.  Workers are afraid to speak out, afraid to fight for their rights, afraid to tell the truth.  The workers cannot afford to lose their jobs.  Del Monte can afford to fire them.  There are thousands of replacements available.  Job security can’t be found in the banana plantation dictionary.  It doesn’t exist. 

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.                      

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.