Fair Trade bananas have been the subject of harsh debates between the "Fairness" and the "Tradeness" followers. The key issue: who should be entitled to be considered as a Fair Trader. Let's see a bit more...
|the banana plant flower. Photo by M.J. Almeida|
Bananas come from plants of the genus Musa, which is originary to south west Asia. It was first cultivated there some 7.000 years ago. The plant grows in tropical climates, up to 7,5 metres high and can render up to 40 kilograms of fruit per year (i.e., some 300 fruits) without needing fertilization.
Its leaves are really large, up to 3 metres, and can be used for decoration purposes. In spite of these dimensions, banana is not a real tree, but an herbaceous plant: the biggest of them all.
The fruits we eat are seedless and pertain to the 'Cavendish' cultivar. They are picked and shipped when still green, sent to the destination country in refrigerated containers (at 14ºC) and ripened afterwards using ethylene gas, their natural ripening agent. Some companies are developing alternative transport methods, without refrigeration; shipping of ripe bananas ends in large damages and loses.
It is this need for industrial infrastructure what lies behind the incorporation of unusual players to Fair Trade.
I guess that Fair Trade bananas were the first fresh produce to gain FLO certification. This came to alleviate the many ailments of banana plantation workers. In addition to the usual suffering present in the other colonial crops (exploitation, child labor, etc), already largely reported by watchdog groups, industrial banana cultivation had another one: workers were the victims of severe illnesses due to toxic chemicals, long forbidden in North countries but still heavily used in neo-colonial estates.
The most dangerous of them is DBCP, and there is a book fully devoted to analyze it (by now only available in spanish), and some others also mention it.
|Fair Trade bananas. Photo from Oké|
Contrary to coffee, where small producers could reach the market by themselves, bananas were mainly cultivated in large estates, served by hired labor, like tea. Due to this, FLO developed two types of standards: the one for small farmers and the one for bananas hired labor. With this certification, all the benefits of Fair Trade have arrived to estate workers.
There is a brilliant example of how a group of small-scale producers, selling their bananas through Fair Trade, could develop their community; using wisely their Premium: people from Dominica, one of the Windward Islands, have built new roads, water systems, schools and provided help for those in more need.
May be this is an unusual case, as they had great support from their government, but it is nice to know that these things really happen. You can read this beautiful story in full in Harriet Lamb's book "Fighting the banana wars and other Fairtrade battles"; it refers, from inside, the tensions, difficulties and successes of bringing bananas to main retailers.
But not everybody welcomes everyone. The term "banana republic" was coined to refer to those small central american countries where governments were managed by U.S. fruit corporations (mainly the United Fruit Company) just to keep their operations healthy. Some of those fruit corps have changed names but their direct descendants still operate today... and they are not yet 100% ethical.
Bananas are a perishable good, which requires a tight timing from the plantation to the supermarket shelf. As they are usually cultivated far from main consumer countries, it is needed a fine logistic infrastructure to do this, which is normally owned by large transnational companies.
|banana workers. Photo by A. Stephen|
Chiquita and Dole companies, once mentioned in Human Rights Watch reports as labor rights violators, can be found right now included on the FLO registered traders listing. This has stirred many. On October 2008, Reuters reported that Dole had got a 45,6 million euros fine from the European Union for agreeing prices with other companies from 2000 to 2002. Chiquita (formerly the United Fruit Co.) also took part in this but they could avoid the fine by providing information to the authorities (!).
Some say that to promote Fair Trade bananas you have to "swim with the sharks", i.e., work with those large transnationals which can co-opt Fair Trade principles but that also can bring money to thousands of poor workers. With this approach in mind, TransFair USA has led the effort to introduce Fair Trade bananas in the huge USA market. The controversy has arised when TransFair has tried to involve large these transnationals, like Dole and Chiquita, in the process.
Another issue arised when large retailers try to impose their usual market practices to Fair Trade producers, forcing them to asume the risks they are not willing to take. For example, retailers have not bought the amount of Fair Trade bananas that they promised to buy, causing extra costs to growers.
Fair Trade was conceived as a mean to get producers out of poverty, focusing much more on their needs than on the market. With large retailers now playing, using their "just-in-time" approach to vendors, avoiding any long-term commitment and focusing on customers more than on the poor producers they are supposed to serve, we may ask if this is the kind of trade that we can consider as Fair.
Well, enough for that complex issue, let's move on to the easy part.
|Fair Trade bananas. Photo by A. Fang|
The first Fair Trade bananas arrived to Europe back in 1996, brought by the dutch organization AgroFair under their own brand: Oké. AgroFair had a record of field work with disfavored producers, so they became Fair Traders quite naturally.
In the UK, the biggest sales boost came from Sainsbury's, a large retailer, who decided to switch their whole banana supply to Fair Trade sources. They sell some 20% of the seven billion bananas eaten in the UK.
In Switzerland Fair Trade bananas make an amazing 56 % of their national banana market, leading the pack of consumer countries. Here in Spain we don't eat much of them; I guess that we prefer our own breed, "locally" grown in the Canary Islands and backed both by consumers and the government (btw, they are really tasty).
It's nice to mention that in september 18th 2008, one million Fair Trade bananas were distributed, sold and eaten in a single day in Germany! This successful campaign was led by TransFair Germany and followed by some 6.500 shops around the country.
Finally, there are also a couple of books, besides H. Lamb's one, which have whole chapters devoted to Fair Trade bananas: "50 reasons to buy Fair Trade" and "The challenges of transforming globalization"; you may find their details listed in the references page.
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