Bananas are the most popular fruit in the world, with more than 100 billion consumed annually. Bananas have been sold in North America since the late 1800s, although the popular variety at that time is not the one we enjoy today. In 1890, a disease spread throughout banana-growing regions of Latin America and the Caribbean and destroyed many banana farms. Research began in the early 1900s to develop a disease-resistant banana, which led to the introduction of the Cavendish banana—the kind we find in the produce department of grocery stores today.
Like many agricultural commodities, however, this seemingly wholesome food has a dark history. The production of bananas for export was part and parcel of 19th– and 20th-century U.S. and European colonialism, advertised as bringing “modernity” to tropical regions and making use of “useless” jungle. In the years since, sky-high North American and European demand for bananas has made them—like coffee, chocolate, and palm oil—an unsustainable monoculture crop, and the industry is embroiled in countless labor and environmental crises.
Bananas are often grown on large plantations, with workers living on site. In Central America, these are owned and operated by large multinational corporations that also manage the fruit’s preparation for the consumers as well as its distribution. These plantations, often developed on land obtained by corporations at an unusually low cost, “are effectively run as enclave economies.” This kind of structure—in which non-local, export-based industries control regional production—is rife with human rights abuses, which have been and continue to be widespread in the banana industry. In 2011–2012 alone, seven Guatemalan banana union members were murdered. Many of the countries that are the primary exporters of bananas—such as Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and others.—have poor records on the enforcement of labor laws, whether from lack of resources or political will.
Additionally, increases in profits for banana-producing companies are not reflected in the wages of plantation workers, who are estimated to receive a mere one to three percent of a banana’s retail value. In many areas, an abundance of desperately poor migrant workers makes jobs in the banana industry very insecure. Some employers continuously rehire employees on short-term contracts rather than grant them permanent employment, which allows them to avoid paying for otherwise legally-mandated benefits and prevents these employees from organizing and collectively bargaining for better working conditions and benefits. Hiring workers by way of a string of short-term contracts also makes it possible to dismiss them without breaking laws that forbid summary or anti-union layoffs—like temporary workers in other sectors, they are not technically fired; rather, their contracts are simply not renewed. In a drastic example of the wrongs perpetuated against banana plantation workers, both Del Monte and Dole have “released” thousands of employees, only to rehire them with new contracts—featuring reduced benefits, longer work hours, and dramatic pay reductions of 30 to 40 percent.
Time and time again, worker attempts to unionize have been repressed, sometimes using physical violence.  In the Philippines, workers on supply plantations for Dole-Stanfilco reported being harassed, intimidated, and held at gunpoint by the military because of their union activities.
Workers are also rarely paid overtime, and wages, even in those cases where they are in accordance with the legal minimum in the region, are not sufficient to cover the cost of basic needs. “At one Chiquita-owned plantation in particular, Finca Santa Rita, workers have suffered wage theft, anti-union retaliation, grueling labor conditions, and ‘have struggled for years to resolve conflicts with management and gain secure recognition of their membership,’ reports ILRF’s US Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP).” 
Banana producers and distributors Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita have not fully taken responsibility for the conditions on plantations from which they source their product; however, in 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty to making payments from 1997–2004 to the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (known as AUC in Spanish). They were made to pay US$25 million in fines. Chiquita stated that they were victims of extortion and “blackmailed into making the payments or risking violence against its workers.” In 2011, family members of thousands of Colombians who were murdered or who disappeared sued Chiquita for payments to these paramilitary groups. This case continues to go through the courts and is still pending, along with additional lawsuits against Chiquita, although in February of 2018 they settled one of these lawsuits with family members of five missionaries and a geologist killed by FARC, a Colombian rebel group that Chiquita had been making payments to during Colombia’s civil war.
As Juan Forero notes in The New York Times, “he existence of child labor on plantations is a product of simple arithmetic. Workers receive so little in part because the wholesalers and retailers abroad reap most of the profits, particularly with the recent consolidation of huge retail outlets like Wal-Mart, Costco and Carrefour. The monthly minimum earn falls short of the $220 the government says a poor family of four needs to meet basic needs, so children go to work.”
In the Philippines, child labor exploitation continues to worsen and has been documented on banana plantations, and in a 2002 Human Rights Watch report on the banana industry, they found widespread child labor on plantations in Ecuador, the center of Dole’s production and trade. Those Ecuadorian children who were interviewed worked 12-hour days, on average, and completed many dangerous and physically demanding tasks. These children, some as young as eight, wielded sharp tools, pulled loads of bananas from place to place on the plantation, and lacked adequate access to drinking water and bathrooms. Well below half were attending school, and yet all they earned for this sacrifice was a little more than half the legal minimum wage. Additionally, three young girls reported being sexually harassed.  According to a U.S. Department of Labor report from 2016, Ecuador remains one of the countries where child labor can be found on banana plantations.
Child laborers are also regularly exposed to agrochemicals, usually without protective equipment—handling the pesticide-coated sheets of plastic that cover bananas still on the stalk, applying fungicides before shipping, or even working while pesticides are sprayed aerially over the plantation. Shortly after being exposed to these chemicals, they experienced a long list of negative reactions “including headaches, fever, dizziness, red eyes, stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, trembling and shaking, itching, burning nostrils, fatigue, and aching bones.” It can be presumed that these working conditions have long-term, unfavorable health effects.
Global trade and impact on women farmers
Back in 1993, the European Union imposed a 25 percent tariff on Central American bananas, which better enabled African and Caribbean farmers to compete with U.S. multinational corporations. The World Trade Organization determined that the tariff was illegal, and when it was discontinued in 2009, it obviously affected already-struggling banana farmers outside of Central America.
In the Windward Islands of the West Indies, this has had a disproportionate impact on women, who make up the majority of banana farmers there. The decline in the price of bananas in the region over the past decade, and a corresponding reduction in banana cultivation, has already increased poverty and unemployment and worsened living conditions among rural women. Single women head almost 40 percent of Caribbean households, meaning that for many banana farmers, there is no second income to buffer the effects of the banana industry’s decline. In banana plantations throughout the world, women are often employed in contingent and unskilled positions in which their salaries are not always commensurate with those of male laborers and where a lack of access to on-site child care, combined with their traditional role as food providers for their families, puts full-time employment out of reach.
Environmental impacts: Clear-cutting and chemical use
The process of producing bananas to feed worldwide demand has been, and continues to be, environmentally destructive. In the late 1800s, entrepreneurs from Britain and the United States, using morally dubious means, obtained vast areas of largely unpopulated but rich and biodiverse coastal rainforest. From this time forward, banana cultivation has involved clear-cutting tracts of primary rainforest in favor of banana monoculture. These plantations are abandoned, and the process repeated, once factors such as soil depletion or pest infestation begin to lower yields.
Vast quantities of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers are required to maintain a banana monoculture. “Most plantation owners will spend more money on agrochemicals than on paying their workers.” These are usually applied by aerial application or crop dusting—spraying agrochemicals from an aircraft. It is estimated that only 15% of these agrochemicals actually land on the crop, while the other 85% lands on the workers, their homes, and their food. This process poses a threat to workers, who may lack proper safety equipment, and the surrounding environment.
The agrochemicals used in banana cultivation can damage the rainforests that border plantations. A study of spectacled caimans living near plantations in Costa Rica found traces of pesticides in their blood—several of which, like DDT, have not been used in the region for years. This is just one of the ways in which aggressive farming practices can have a far-reaching and difficult-to-reverse impact on the environment. Since these alligator-like reptiles are at the top of the food chain in their ecosystem, the pesticide build-up in their bodies also reflects the persistence of these chemicals throughout other trophic levels. While the spectacled caimans in Costa Rica are not immediately threatened by the level of pesticides found in their blood, the study also found that living near plantations, as opposed to living in the remote and relatively uncontaminated areas also surveyed, had a negative impact on the caimans’ health.
One of the agrochemicals commonly used in banana cultivation, dibromochloropropane (DBCP), was classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen and has been banned in the U.S. since 1979; however, it continues to be used extensively in Latin America. Numerous lawsuits have been brought against banana giants Dole and Del Monte over the use of DBCP, with workers claiming to have suffered serious health effects. They also claim they weren’t given protective equipment or even made aware of the potential risks of exposure.
Impacts on water resources and animal life
Bananas also account for a huge amount of water use and contamination. Since they require a constant level of moisture—neither too much nor too little—banana fields are interlaced with channels for irrigation and drainage, vastly increasing soil erosion. As a result, agrochemicals and silt are delivered into adjacent waterways.
In the Caribbean, where plantations are located along the coasts, this kind of runoff has caused considerable damage to estuaries and coral reefs. Furthermore, a large portion of the bananas produced—sometimes up to a third—are deemed unfit for sale, mostly for aesthetic reasons, and the total volume of plant waste, including stalks and stems, produced in banana harvesting is estimated to be about the same as the volume of fruit that actually gets shipped. This waste is sometimes disposed of in nearby streams, and as it decomposes, it depletes the water of oxygen, threatening fish and microorganisms.
The many detrimental effects of these large banana plantations on workers and the environment are typically overlooked by the corporations fixated on making a profit, while marketing this fruit as healthy and wholesome. This is not surprising when you consider the marketing strategies that were used decades ago.
A history of colonialism, racism, and sexism
Companies have long used racist and colonialist stereotypes to market bananas in the United States. Chiquita, the number-one banana distributor in the U.S., is a prime example.
The original iteration of the logo was a sexy female banana, perpetuating a widespread association between images of women and food that paints the former as passive and consumable. The character was first introduced to U.S. consumers in the 1940s by way of a blatantly racist short, Chiquita Banana and the Cannibals (which can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5YNlCxo43E). In the animated film, a cartoonish stereotype of an indigenous African man is shown cooking an Englishman over a fire. Chiquita Banana interrupts, singing: “f you’d like to be refined and civilized, then your eating habits really ought to be revised,” to the tune of the company’s famous jingle, and suggesting a recipe for banana scallops as an alternative. Incredibly, the Chiquita company website nostalgically presents an image from one of these early ads while completely erasing its racism—the accompanying text states that “…Miss Chiquita put a personal face on the Chiquita Bananas. She showcased a festive and fun personality as the resident expert for everything you ever wanted to know about bananas.”
Whether portrayed as a banana-woman in the original logo, or a human woman in the modern logo, Chiquita Banana presents sexualized and exoticized visions of Latin American women, and perpetuates stereotypical images of Latin America and the people who live there. Like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, Chiquita’s logo is another way in which non-white bodies have been objectified and exploited.
Chiquita Banana personifies a colonialist idea of the tropics as a place of simplicity and abundance, and her characterization as fun and carefree is particularly insulting considering the realities of banana production, which are anything but. Purchasing from brands like Chiquita tells companies that they can get away with exploiting harmful stereotypes for financial gain.
Food Empowerment Project strives to inform people about where their food comes from so they can make the most ethical choices possible. And, we admit, bananas are tough. For many, it is a reasonably priced fruit that contains many beneficial nutrients, but buying conventional bananas contributes to both environmental and human rights abuses.
Organic bananas may mean workers are not exposed to horrific chemicals, but they do not typically improve wages or other working conditions for those laboring on the plantations. And, unfortunately, it seems there are some issues with fair trade and third-party certifications, as well. For instance, some prominent certification systems consider workers’ rights to be “voluntary elements” on the part of the company, not basic standards that need to be upheld.
We recommend you purchase bananas from: Equal Exchange
Unfortunately, bananas that we feel comfortable recommending (those from small, farmer-owned cooperatives) are not available all over the U.S.
Because of this we are also recommending the following:
If your grocery stores do not carry these brands of bananas, we encourage you to ask them to.
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