Thursday, September 19, 2013

How Bananas are Made (and Why you Should Care)

We wiped sweat off our foreheads as we stood in the muggy jungle, banana plants as far as we could see in every direction. Wiping his own face, the banana worker lowered his machete, dripping with a thick, red liquid.

“It’s disinfectant,” our professor translated, “So bacteria can’t spread from tree to tree."

I’ve eaten bananas my whole life without thinking about where they come from. Now, standing in the Chiquita banana fields in the North coast of Honduras, I’m surprised at how basic the system is. Bananas come from supermarkets, right? With linoleum floors and fluorescent lights. They’re certainly not hacked off with machetes in some humid farm in Central America. Except… of course they are.

We walked over planks across drainage ditches into a forest of bananas, green bunches covered in white bags hanging one from every plant. (Bananas don’t grow on trees, but on stalks that are 80% water, more similar to 10-foot-tall grass shoots.) A zip-line type wire ran down the rows of trees and a man zoomed by us, pulling bunches of bananas. Our guide pointed out men who lopped diseased leaves off trees. Then he introduced us to two men who were harvesting the bunches.

One man jabbed the banana plant with a machete, causing it to bend over far enough for the second man to catch the large banana bunch. The first man then cut the tree all the way through and the 10-foot giant fell to the ground. The second ran off with the bananas on his shoulder and took it on the zip-line to the main processing center, while the first lowered his machete, dripping disinfectant like blood.

At the end of the wire line was a storage area, where the bananas are checked for size and appearance. They’re wheeled past workers – mainly women – who separate the banana bunches with curved knives into batches of small, medium, and large bananas. These are processed separately to ensure an equal amount in each box. Then they’re checked for quality. Only the best go on to be Chiquita bananas. The company has two separate brands for sub-standard bananas. The lowest level of all ends up in the local market.

The selected bananas are then laid out on trays on a conveyer belt, where another woman affixes a sticker to each bunch. This is also where specialty bananas, like pre-weighed or individually wrapped, are processed. At the end of the conveyer belt, the finished bananas are boxed up, the boxes stacked into pallets, and the pallets into a waiting truck. It’s possible to imagine a banana going from tree to truck in about 2 hours.

But this is more than just interesting information to tuck away in the back of your mind. Not only are bananas a big part of Honduran economy, but the majority are shipped to the United States; which means that this entire industry exists so you can bring a fruit along with your lunch.

And what kind of industry are we supporting? Chiquita Banana Company was formed in 1913; and along with Dole, has been a big part of the Honduran economy since then. For the first few decades, the two American-owned banana companies operated with impunity, and the conditions for workers were terrible, with low wages and no unions. In 1954, workers finally organized the famous banana strike that won workers the right to unionize and made the Banana industry one of the best places to work in Honduras. Unfortunately, ever since then, unions have struggled to keep what rights they won.

We met the banana union, and they shared their concerns for their workers. The biggest issues the union fights for are pay, health care, and working conditions. Every year, Chiquita negotiates to take health insurance away from its workers and every year the union has to fight to keep it. Dole has already removed its workers’ health insurance, which puts a lot of pressure on Chiquita to lower its own production costs.

“The consumer is demanding more and more specialty things, but they’re not willing to pay extra for it, so the company doesn’t want to pay more for the extra work,” the union workers said. New demands like individually wrapped bananas are much more time-consuming, but the workers are expected to produce the same amount for the same pay.

The banana union also hasn’t been able to get pay increases to keep up with the rate of inflation, meaning that they actually make a smaller percentage of a living wage now than they used to.

“So, should we buy bananas?” we asked, half expecting to start a boycott when we returned to the states. But the workers were all in agreement. “We live from these bananas,” they said together.

“No, we want you to buy our bananas; but as consumers, we wish you would pressure the company so they would treat us better.”

Chiquita bananas are now “rainforest certified,” which means that their production meets a certain environmental standard. This is not something that the company did because of its conscience, but because of pressure from groups of consumers. Companies are completely dependent on those who buy their products. If people stopped buying bananas that were produced by people who weren’t given a living wage, banana companies would be forced to start paying that.

Ignorance is easier. So is ignoring what we’ve learned. But with every place I visit and every person I talk to, I realize how much more responsible I should be. What does it look like to be a proactive consumer? I’m still figuring this out. But next time I see that Chiquita sticker, I’ll remember the woman who stands 12 hours a day applying thousands of stickers and wonder if she’s making enough to live and live well…

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