issue 317 - October 1999
ALL PHOTOS BY DAVID RANSOM UNLESS OTHERWISE CREDITED
The gloves are off and the unholy spat to gain control over
the world banana trade keeps getting bloodier by the
minute. David Ransom takes a ringside seat.
What do chandeliers, pecorino cheese, bed linen without embroidered borders, plastic-coated handbags, biscuits, cashmere sweaters, coffee- or tea-makers (excepting those from Italy), Carl H Lindner Jnr and truffles have in common? You’ve guessed it. Bananas.
All of these items – except bananas and Mr Lindner – are among European Union exports that have, at one time or another, been threatened by the US Government with punitive import tariffs worth about $500 million. This is where bananas and Mr Lindner come in. He heads the American Financial Group, which includes among its assets Chiquita Brands International of Cincinnati – a major banana-producing corporation. He says $500 million is what he’s owed on account of the European banana ‘regime’ (more on that in a minute), and he wants the US Government to get it back for him. Curious to find the US Government employed as a private debt collector for Mr Lindner, but there it is.
Evidently, Carl H Lindner Jnr is a man of substance. His personal wealth is estimated at $830 million, much of it dredged from the murky waters of Savings and Loans institutions in the US. A strict Baptist who never drinks, smokes or swears, he has a habit of handing out little white cards with gold-embossed aphorisms on them, such as: ‘I like to do my giving while I’m living so I know where it’s going.’ Though he prefers the Republicans and lent Robert Dole a corporate jet during the 1996 presidential campaign, when he saw the electoral tide flowing towards the Democrats he slipped Bill Clinton a quick $500,000.
A few days later the Banana War between the US Government and the European Union, that had been simmering away for years, duly boiled over. If, as a result of it, Mr Lindner gets even a small part of what he reckons he’s owed, he will have made a handsome return on his investment in Bill Clinton.1
JEREMY HORNER / PANOS PICTURES
Welcome, then, to the warped world of bananas. Or rather, to the bent business of international trade in bananas. There is a difference. For the Banana War is officially being waged between two regions – the US and Europe – that do not actually grow bananas. Brazil and India, on the other hand, where more bananas are grown than anywhere else, are scarcely involved in the international trade at all.
Almost everywhere in the tropics the fruit of the Earth’s largest herb has been adopted by small farmers as a prolific source of nutritious food. The banana, Musa sapiculum, is a remarkable plant that is structured like a giant leek. There are many varieties of it, which are grown in a myriad of settings, from a few plants for household consumption to plots for local markets. They grow fast; the stem dies back once the fruit is harvested, but already the next ‘follower’ shoot is preparing to take over. Carefully tended, on the right soil, in the right climate and with minimal inputs, a plot of a couple of acres can produce several bunches, with 100 to 200 bananas on each of them, every week, all year round, for 30 years.
Less than a quarter of all the world’s bananas ever get mixed up in international trade, and it’s only when they do that they encounter the banana business, where things can get a bit bent. Just one variety, Dwarf Cavendish or Gran Enano, is currently preferred. On plantations across Central America, Ecuador and Colombia, Africa and parts of Asia, vast numbers of clones are planted out on flat land swept by hurricanes which frequently blow them over. The deforested ground on which they grow is drained and degraded. They are subjected to ceaseless treatment by toxic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides sprayed from the air by daredevil pilots. Their unripe fruit are cut green, fragile and inedible, from the stem, the bunches strung like slaughtered animals on cableways that carry them off for scrubbing and spraying with more chemicals. Graded and packed into boxes, dispatched in refrigerated (reefer) ships to Europe and North America, the hapless, unblemished, tasteless, erotic fruit is then ripened for superstores and conjured into an image of ‘quality’ that, the record shows, people in blissful ignorance of the truth wish to consume in ever-increasing billions.
This is the ‘dollar’ banana that accounts for 80 per cent of the fruit we eat in the North and is controlled by just three companies; Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte. They in turn are subsidiaries of conglomerates, like Mr Lindner’s American Financial Group. Together, the ‘Big Three’ constitute an oligopoly that controls the supply of bananas, fixes prices – there is no ‘world price’ – and has an inordinate love of secrecy.
When, in May 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer had the temerity to publish an exposé of how Chiquita actually operates, the company sued. The newspaper issued an abject apology, paid Chiquita an undisclosed sum, a journalist was sacked and prosecuted and the reports removed from the Enquirer’s website.2 You bet, the ‘Big Three’ are not to be messed with.
On the other side of the Banana War is Europe and its import ‘regime’. In a Byzantine web of quotas, licences and tariffs, the European Union – the world’s largest importer – still protects the banana industries of its former colonies. These are grouped into the ACP (Africa, Caribbean, Pacific) countries to which Europe made firm commitments in the Lomé Convention of 1975, subsequently renewed three times and due for another review in 2000. Though a small proportion of European imports, banana exports are critical to a number of ACP economies, and particularly to the Windward Islands of Dominica, St Lucia and St Vincent, in the East Caribbean. Growers here are paid roughly double the price, and incur roughly three times the production costs, of the ‘dollar’ banana.
The Banana War is an attempt by the Big Three, and Chiquita in particular, to get their hands on this lucrative business; to remove quota restrictions and cut the tariffs they must pay, thereby cutting the price paid to ACP producers and putting them out of business. Those $500 million in punitive tariffs are what Mr Lindner reckons he has lost because he hasn’t quite managed this yet – or, to put it another way, the profits he would have made if he had.
In 1995 the brand-new World Trade Organization (WTO) began to implement the no-less Byzantine rules that emerged from the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The WTO is empowered not merely to oversee the new rules, but to enforce them. In principle these favour free trade, though in practice – and short of self-interest – no-one quite knows what this means. The ‘protectionist’ European banana regime could, however, be made to look silly by even the dumbest of lawyers. So, with the US and ‘dollar’ banana governments in tow, Chiquita seized its chance and went into battle.
However, the Banana War is not just about bananas. Much bigger fish are frying: the relative power of governments, nations, trading blocks and corporations; the structure, control and profitability of industrial agriculture; the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union; the fate of small-island economies; the booty of ‘free trade’. In the form of the Banana War the WTO has merely been given its first trial as the High Court of Globalization. If this means anything other than the interests of corporate oligopolies like the Big Three, then the deliberations of the WTO have yet to suggest what it might be.
In the meantime, and in the truly dreadful plantations of Central America, or on the precipitate slopes of Caribbean islands, the lives of many thousands of people who work for bananas hang in the balance. They have been here before. In fact, they have rarely been anywhere else. What do they think? How do they feel?
This is the story of a journey I made to find out. Along the way, in three very distinctive places, I discovered something I would not otherwise have known. It became clear to me that the Banana War is being waged between two equally discredited protagonists. On the one hand, in the form of the European regime, colonialism; on the other, in the form of the ‘dollar’ regime, plantation slavery and florid ecological insanity.
The fact that the rulings of the WTO have favoured the latter over the former, the insane over the historically outdated, is regrettable and possibly catastrophic in its effect. But neither of these two relics has anything useful to tell us about the century – let alone millennium – that is now upon us, which they cannot conceivably survive. So what will replace them? Is there any trace, somewhere in the Byzantine regulations and toxic clouds, of a sustainable future? Well yes, as a matter of fact there is – and I’ve tasted it.
Bananaland and the Yellow-Skin Road. The journey I'm taking hoes from Guatemala to Dominica and the Dominican Republic.
1 The Guardian, 7 March 1999; Cincinnati Enquirer, 18 January 1999; Frontline, http://www2.pbs.org
2 The reports made use of the company’s internal voice-mail, which was ruled illegal in the US. The remarkable work of Mike Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter should still be accessible on http://members.xoom.com/elmsford/chiquita.txt and doubtless elsewhere too.