The Tyranny of the Banana

The banana is an odd thing. It’s not a fruit and it doesn’t grow on trees. It is an herb and grows on a plant with a strong fibrous stem. Although the developed world loves ‘dessert’ bananas, it is the green non-sweet cooking banana or plantain that keeps many people alive during the ‘hunger season’ when one crop has finished and a new one is not ready for harvest. Bananas grow all year round and so are a vital staple to combat the bleak periods between crops. India is the largest producer of bananas, followed by China. These two countries consume most of their banana harvest internally.

It is when we look to the main exporting countries of bananas that we leave the realm of subsistence diets and important food crops and enter instead into the territory of big business, exploitation, environmental devastation, corporate greed and murder. The top four exporters of bananas are Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Philippines and Colombia. Of these big four only the Philippines escaped the malignant influence of the United Fruit Comapany.

The United Fruit Company was formed in 1899 and it would grow into a massive corporate empire that would last until 1975 when it’s CEO Eli M Black jumped out the 44th floor of the Pan Am Building in New York City. During that 76 year span The United Fruit Company ran Central America like its own personal fiefdom and gave a startling new meaning to O Henry’s phrase ‘banana republic’.

The company was behind several regime changes in countries such as Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica. Their boats were used during the botched counter revolution attempted at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. The famous massacre of strikers in Cienaga, Colombia on December 6th 1928 was the work of the United Fruit Company pulling the strings of the Colombian government. It seemed that there was no outrage, no political machination that the United Fruit Company couldn’t get away with. The company had powerful friends in the Boston elite who persuaded successive Presidents that the company’s interests were the same as the country’s. And striking workers were anarchists and communists who needed to be shown a firm hand.

Knowing this puts into perspective the current mistrust and dislike of the United Sates among many of Latin America’s leaders.

The United Fruit Company really pushed the banana. At home they aggressively advertised the miraculous benefits of the food and in Central America they monopolised the banana production. Often they managed to persuade Central American governments that not only should they be given vast areas of forest for free, but also that the aforementioned Central American governments should fund the building of extensive railway lines to help with the rapid movement of the banana harvest.

And what did the average plantation worker get? Something very much resembling the hell described by Steinbeck in his work The Grapes of Wrath. They worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, had no access to proper medical care and were paid in ‘scrip’ that could only be exchanged at the company shop. In short it was slavery for thousands. And the United States government turned a blind eye to it. And the American housewife who bought bananas had no idea of the blood and injustice perpetrated on the people in Central and South America in order to get bananas onto the shelves of supermarkets.

The environment was the other great loser. As the banana grew in popularity in the States so more and more of the Central American forests were cleared to keep up with demand. The land was subjected to harsher and harsher pesticides to keep disease at bay. This polluted vital water supplies and harmed the rest of the forest.

It is told excellently and in frightening detail by Peter Chapman in his book, Bananas – How the United Fruit Company shaped the World.

After reading the book I’m reluctant to buy another banana from a supermarket. Besides I much prefer the taste of bananas that have ripened naturally not in a hot room. So I will wait until I go on holiday to India or Thailand again to eat another banana in good conscience.