Have a Banana By
Had to do a bit of shopping the other day and found ourselves at a mall. Shocking, isn’t it? After overcoming our initial revulsion and wiping the scales from our eyes, we found ourselves browsing through some slacks at Banana Republic. And then we thought, “What a horrible name for a store!”
In 1904 William Porter, better known as O. Henry, released a book of short stories called Cabbages and Kings. O. Henry had been working at a bank and was charged with embezzlement, so he fled to Honduras to avoid prosecution. His experiences there were recounted in the stories, and it was in Cabbages and Kings that he coined the phrase “Banana Republic.” The term has become synonymous with any small country that finds itself exploited of its resources to the benefit of a foreign corporation.
That has sadly been the history of many of the small countries in Central and South America. The United Fruit Company was founded in 1899 by merging smaller fruit companies with operations in places like Columbia and Ecuador. The whole thing had started decades earlier with a railroad. Minor C. Keith was looking for something cheap that he could feed laborers, and found that bananas were plentiful. He soon discovered that he could make more money selling the fruit than he could by being in the railroad business. At one point United Fruit owned a railroad, a shipping line, and was the largest landholder in Central America. They held onto this land to maintain their dominance in the banana world, and used their influence to topple the regime of any leader that didn’t see things their way. In 1954 they helped to get rid of Colonel Jacobo Guzman, leader of Guatemala, because he seemed to think that Guatemalans should own Guatemala. Silly man. Heard of Dulles Airport? Named after John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Eisenhower. His brother, Allen Dulles, was Director of the CIA. Oh, and a board member for United Fruit. But that’s another conspiracy theory.
That all changed in 1984 when United Fruit became Chiquita Brands International and decided to clean up its act. Sort of.
In 1998 Chiquita was targeted by several activist groups for its failure to pay living wages to workers. It has also been criticized for environmental actions that led to heavy polluting, excessive pesticide use, and cutting down rainforest to grow more bananas. In 2007 they were fined $25 million by the United States Justice Department for funding terrorism. By growing bananas? No, but by paying Columbian paramilitary groups to protect their employees.
But they’re in good company.
In the 1800’s the islands of Hawaii were a peaceful kingdom ruled by a benevolent queen, Lili’uokalani. In 1894 she was overthrown, and it became the Republic of Hawaii, ruled by Sanford Dole, whose cousin James founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, later to become the Dole Food Company. By annexing Hawaii into the United States, the Dole clan was able to bypass millions of dollars in tariffs and taxes for bringing their tasty fruits and sugar into the country. They were sued in 2007 by workers in Nicaragua for using banned pesticides. They remain the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, and are the second biggest producer of bananas behind our friends at Chiquita.
So why is all of this history and government overthrowing important today? It’s a global economy, right? Well, sure it is, but our global food production isn’t really doing a whole lot to feed people. According to the United Nations, one out of every eight people in the world are malnourished. Part of this is the cost of food, but a bigger part is how we make it. You see, about 25% of our fellow earthlings consume 80% of our resources. And according to OxFam, an international organization fighting famine, over two thirds of the commercial agriculture in the world provides little to no benefits for the people who live on or near those farms. Big agriculture companies and organizations like Chiquita and Dole plant their seeds, reap their crops, and then send them to hungry shoppers at suburban malls in places like Richmond. It has become a big business. In Africa, a third of the arable land in Liberia belongs to large corporations. Over half of the farmland in Cambodia belongs to private companies.
And often times it isn’t even for food. The original Banana Republic, Honduras, is ripe for growing palm trees. Honduras is a small country with steep mountains that aren’t really suitable for growing food. Over the last 20 years they have plowed over acres and acres of land to grow palm trees for palm oil – a biofuel. Over the next decade the land used for biofuel in Honduras will be about the size of Iowa. And Honduras is about the size of Iowa.
Peel that and eat it.