Fruit Of The Future
issue 317 - October 1999
In the Dominican Republic a remarkable experiment is being turned
into a real alternative – for both producers and consumers.
The story really began in 1992, with a small environmental disaster. In the mountains that march westwards across the troubled border of the Dominican Republic with Haiti, there were 250 families living in a state of virtual destitution. They began to burn down the forest in which they lived, to make charcoal for sale.
‘We didn’t really want to do it,’ says Angel Custodio, a shrewd, articulate man who’s in the early years of a vigorous retirement. ‘The forest is a living thing, and we were killing it. We knew it couldn’t last long. Our environment is alive, and we want to protect it. But we had no choice, no other way of making a living. So we asked the Government for help.’
I suppose you could say they got lucky: the Government responded. On the coastal plain just outside the small town of Azua it built an entire village for Angel’s community, complete with utilities, paved roads, health centre, school, church and halfway decent homes. It also handed over a plot of fallow, fertile land large enough for every family to have its own ‘parcel’ of at least two hectares – sufficient to live from. So the erstwhile charcoal burners set to work growing maize, cassava, ground provisions – and a few bananas. They used no chemicals because, Angel Custodio freely admits, they simply didn’t have the money.
The people of Finca 6, as it was prosaically called, would doubtless have remained in much the same situation today, had it not been for two further strokes of good fortune. Well, in truth the first is a mixed blessing. I have never been anywhere quite so hot. Even inside the cab of an air-conditioned pickup, the thermometer registered well over 40º centigrade, though this is apparently exceptional. The heat is, however, relatively dry. That is bad news for plant diseases that need a good dose of humidity to flourish. But, with a high water table beneath them and irrigation, it is good news for bananas.
The second piece of good fortune was that, around the towns of Monte Cristi and Mao in the north of the country, two Dutch agencies were helping to develop better and fairer ways of producing bananas. Solidaridad and Max Havelaar – I have come across them before, as pioneers in the fair-trade coffee business (NI 271) – were making some headway across notoriously stony ground.
So too was a young Dutch woman called Jetta van den Berg. In 1994 she set up an export company in Azua called Savid SA – an elision of salud (‘health’) and vida (‘life’). Savid took on the tricky business of exporting an unconventional product: organic bananas. The company now exports to Europe, the US and Japan. This has helped to make the Dominican Republic the world’s largest producer of organic bananas, with over 80 per cent of the total. Though accounting for just 27,000 tons of exports in 1998, the world market has been expanding fast, at an average 30 per cent per year, and demand consistently exceeds supply.
So Savid had to go looking for new producers and approached Finca 6. ‘The market for organic bananas looked as if it was better than for our other produce,’ says Angel, ‘and so we began to develop our production for Savid. And now we do believe, one-hundred per cent, that organic production is better than conventional methods. I assure you, we’re not just thinking about our own lives, our own health, but the lives of consumers as well, and about how to develop our country. And why not others?’
A severe test came in September last year, when Hurricane George swept across the Dominican Republic and destroyed much of the country’s banana crop, including that of Finca 6. In marked contrast to the way the Big Three exploited Mitch in Guatemala, Savid continued to finance the growers through to recovery, and they are now returning to full production, their confidence shaken but intact.
Porfirio Acosta Gil, who is showing me around, has a mobile phone that never stops ringing. ‘One request after another!’ he sighs. ‘I should turn the damn thing off.’ But he can’t quite bring himself to do it. He’s the Production Manager for Savid, the head of a team of agronomists and evidently a revered figure. We are waved down by a young man on a moped. He hasn’t been paid, he says. Porfirio patiently explains that he’ll have to get his money from the person who owes it to him. We trundle along behind a man on another moped who has a machete slung across his back. Porfirio looks at his watch. ‘That man’s off to work, you know. He doesn’t have to go, because it’s lunch time. He’s doing it voluntarily. It’s incredible, the commitment of people here.’
After Guatemala and even Dominica I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing here – all around us are banana plants that seem to flourish without the aid of chemicals of any kind. Porfirio assures me that they’re real enough. Organic certification is by the German agency BCS, and tests are rigorous.
In truth, there’s nothing very mysterious about it, he explains. The prime requirement is for meticulous tending of the plants, cutting away dying leaves, keeping the topsoil clean, removing the flowers from the bunches at the right time, covering them with reusable, chemical-free plastic bags to encourage growth and prevent damage from birds and surrounding leaves.
The same ‘one-follower’ system is used here as elsewhere: successive shoots are named ‘mother’, ‘daughter’, ‘granddaughter’ and others are prevented from growing. Because of the aridity, the lower stem of the ‘mother’ is preserved after cutting, to allow its large water content to drain into the follower. There are irrigation channels that use groundwater pumped from wells. Spraying is with citrus oil which controls most, if not all, of the banana diseases. Organic fertilizer is still imported from Costa Rica, though production is now being developed here. We visit the fertilizer factory, where large piles of animal droppings and compost attract the most gigantic mosquitoes, and I am bitten at last. Who knows? I might come across the big hairy spiders from the fables of my childhood, lurking in a bunch of bananas and hitching a ride from the Caribbean, before the chemical holocaust.
Porfirio has the air of someone who is making good use of his talents. I imagine that his skills would command very much better financial rewards from ordinary commercial companies.
‘Possibly,’ he says. ‘I don’t really know. And I’m not that interested. You know, for all the bother of this job, I get tremendous satisfaction from it. It satisfies me, it really does, to be involved in something that people are committed to, with people who are overcoming their poverty, who are building something good. At this moment, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.’
He is at pains to point out that not all Savid’s organic farmers are small growers who own their own land, like Finca 6. Down the road is Seferino Corporán, who owns 32 hectares and employs upwards of 20 labourers. When we arrive, they are constructing a new packing plant for him without, I have to say, much evident enthusiasm – the sun is high in the midday sky. This is a salutary reminder. Around Azua there are also small shacks where landless rural labourers still live in absolute poverty. I have seen them everywhere, strung along the road from the capital, Santo Domingo, which passes through sugarcane fields resembling the banana plantations of Guatemala.
Finca 6 is different. At first, they weren’t sure quite how to sort themselves out. Jetta van den Berg and Savid were insistent that they should make up their minds: dealing with each one of them individually would be impossible. ‘We thought about forming a co-operative,’ says Angel Custodio. ‘But, well, our experience of rural co-operatives hasn’t always been very positive. Too much cheating, I’m afraid. So we decided to set up an Association. Each of us still owns our “parcel”, but we all belong to the Association, which meets regularly, elects officers to deal with Savid and things that affect us all. For example, if one parcelero doesn’t tend the plants properly there’s a risk of disease spreading to all of us.’
So pervasive is the influence of Savid that I wonder whether it doesn’t sometimes feel like their employer. Angel doesn’t think so. ‘Would that there were more companies like Savid!’ he says. ‘But our interests have to come above those of the company. Because the company can withdraw from us whenever it wants to. So I think we have to remain organized. We shouldn’t think as if the Association won’t last long, for just ten years, say. We want it to last much longer than that, and to develop.’
Building on success
Angel takes some satisfaction from the fact that neighbouring growers now want to join Finca 6. That, he believes, is a good measure of its success. The best advice he can give them is to form their own association, and Finca 6 will help them as much as they can. ‘We want people, especially poor people, to be united. Well, if you have money, very very large quantities of money, then you can live as you want. But if, like us, you don’t, then sometimes you’re going to need a service from somebody that isn’t money, a service given individually, in person. By being organized we can achieve this.’
And so, in 1997, Finca 6 was certified as a fair-trade producer by Max Havelaar in the Netherlands, still the largest market for fair-trade bananas. As we talk, Angel and I are sitting beneath the roof of a new comedor (diner) for the growers – one product of the fair-trade premium they get paid. There are plans to build much-needed warehousing facilities as well.
So Finca 6 has achieved something very, very rare: an organic and fairly traded product. I try thinking of this extraordinary achievement as the result of mere good fortune. But is it just a matter of luck that a government should justify its existence from time to time, and assist the people it claims to represent? Is it coincidence that, in the face of such an obsolete trade, people everywhere should defy bleak orthodoxy and search for something better? Is it mere chance that has given them the skill, inventiveness, determination and commitment to make it happen? Of course not. It is possible.
Still, I have to have my doubts about Finca 6, if only because I know what they’re up against, and there is still such a long way to go. For a start, the members of Finca 6 have turned over their plots almost entirely to the production of bananas, creating dependency on a single export crop. Quite apart from hurricanes, the risks they face are daunting. Organic methods are not completely effective against Black Sigatoga – the worst banana disease – or fungus. Sooner or later, the market for organic bananas will prove as treacherous as any other. The packing and refrigerated transport operation is contracted out, so at the heart of the plantation you find low-paid labourers at work. Savid SA itself has just one shareholder: Jetta van den Berg. A great deal seems to depend on her.
I walk with Porfirio through the parcel of Heriberto Custodio, another member of the Custodio clan who is currently President of the Finca 6 Association. My doubts begin to recede into perspective. Just as I had been told they would, other parceleros arrive to give Heriberto a hand. Today they are going to clean up his parcel – tomorrow it will be the turn of someone else. They work with their machetes in an easy rhythm, cutting back surplus shoots, cleaning the irrigation channels, lopping off unhealthy leaves, chatting and joking among themselves. They do not have the driven, mechanical movements of rural labourers, though the work is no less strenuous in the tremendous heat. Porfirio looks around with sharp eyes, pointing from time to time to a leaf here that needs pruning, a flower there that needs plucking, the first evidence of leaf spot; coaxing, teaching, encouraging.
‘These plants are so productive,’ he says. ‘You know, they are just as productive as on the big plantations. All it takes is knowledge, care and skill. And a lot of hard work, of course.’
I ask him how much a parcelero can earn. ‘I don’t really know, and I don’t ask. But I’ve been told it’s about $1,000 a month, and can be as much as $2,000.’
We are invited to Heriberto’s house. There are flowers and trimmed hedges leading up to a white front door. Inside, two handsome teenage girls, Heriberto’s daughters, are sitting in comfortable armchairs watching TV. There’s a son, too, studying electrical engineering at university in Santo Domingo, and a small niece fussing around about something. Behind the chairs is a dining room and, though we have arrived unannounced, a meal of fresh vegetables, rice and chicken is being laid out. There is iced tap water laced with fresh limes.
Heriberto gently complains about the unpaid work he has to put in at the Association, the constant disputes he must resolve, the burden of responsibility he has to carry.
‘But you know,’ I say to him, ‘I don’t think the plantation workers in Guatemala would credit this. I mean, I don’t think I can quite credit this – that there’s a halfway decent living to be had from growing bananas. You must be proud of what you have achieved.’
‘Oh yes we are,’ intervenes Heriberto’s wife. ‘You should have seen how we lived in the mountains, what this place was like when we first arrived. There’s no comparison. No comparison! Now we can live with dignity. Here there is a future for our children.’
And then she brings in the bananas.
‘You eat bananas!’ I say
‘Of course!’ she says. ‘They are very good for you, you know. Very nourishing. Very tasty. Don’t you think it would be a little strange if we didn’t eat them?’
‘Very strange indeed,’ I say.
I peel back the skin, place the naked fruit on my plate, cut a delicate slice, spear it with a fork and slip it into my mouth.
‘Well, what do you think?’ she asks.
‘Perfect,’ I say. ‘Absolutely perfect.’
Dominican Republic snapshot
Sources: World Bank Country Data; FAO data. All figures are for 1997
Fair-trade and organic bananas
Organic bananas are not necessarily fair-trade, however. For fair-trade bananas the situation is more complex. The criteria include direct links between consumers and producers, a guaranteed minimum price and price premium for producers, favourable financing and long-term commitments. The main suppliers are farmers’ co-operatives in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, as well as a plantation in Ghana. The price premium at retail level averages 20 per cent.
Total imports of fair-trade bananas into Western Europe rose from 12,500 tons in 1997 to 17,366 tons in 1998. The leading importer is Agrofair, a joint venture formed by the Dutch NGO Solidaridad and producers in developing countries. Agrofair pioneered the Dutch market and accounts for more than 60 per cent of imports into Europe. Their launch in the Netherlands in 1996 brought a market share of ten per cent within a few months and still averages five per cent – the highest share for a fair-trade product.
AlterTrade Japan has been importing fair-trade bananas from Negros in the Philippines since 1989. The Transfair Foundation plans to launch in the US this year, while in Canada the Sustainable Development Institute and Oxfam Canada are looking to introduce the product into British Colombia under the Fair Fruit Initiative.
In 1997 the Fair Trade Labelling Organization International (FLO), an NGO which holds the register of certified producers across a growing range of products, was established in Bonn. Surveys suggest that 7.5 per cent of European consumers would buy fair-trade bananas at a price premium of ten per cent, which translates into 300,000 tons a year. The need to buy import licenses as ‘newcomers’ under the European banana regime is the biggest constraint – in 1999 the allocation was limited to 276 tons per ‘newcomer’. Large premiums therefore have to be paid to buy licences from other holders, inflating the retail price to consumers and reducing payments to producers.
Source: The Market for ‘Organic’ and ‘Fair-trade’ Bananas, FAO Committee on Commodity Problems, Intergovernmental Group on Bananas and Tropical Fruits, Gold Coast, Australia, May 1999.