Going Bananas: the banana industry's economic, social, and environmental consequences

This topic submitted by Nick Delphia ( delphinj@miamioh.edu) at 4:45 PM on 5/5/04.

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I chose to research the topic of bananas. I am interested in both how the banana market became what it is today and what the environmental and social implications are for the production of bananas. Bananas are very interesting because the issue of their mass production is somewhat contentious. On the one hand there are huge environmental consequences that result from this enormous mono-crop industry. On the other hand, however, the job market in Costa Rica combined with the size of the banana industry leaves little else for the workers to do. I decided that, as someone who eats a lot of bananas, I should research them so that I am a little more aware of all that has gone into the snack I have every day.

I.Bananas, a little history
A.United Fruit and Standard fruit compete
B.Reasons for large scale forest destruction
a.intercropping not economically feasible
b.need for virgin soil/ fleeing from disease
C.The marketing of the Banana
a.Ňthe first fast foodÓ
b.Encouraged by doctors/ cookbooks
c.Carmen Miranda
D.Some numbers- export info, then and now
II.Pseudo sustainability
A.return to abandoned land prompted by new breeds and massive pesticide use
III.Agro-chemical uses
A.Pesticides/ Fertilizers
a.PLA plastic films
b.Herbicides, Fungicides, Nematocides, and insecticides
IV.Banana plantation effects
A.Increased cancer rates from agro-chemicals
B.Ecosystem consequences of agro-chemicals
a.water table pollution
b.PLA plastic bags washed into rivers/oceans
c.Dead fish in canals
A.labor laws (90 day probationary period = no job security)
a. continual relocation of workers (effects on family life)
B.Contractor system (unionization is difficult
C.Balance of resources (who has the land and where the profits go)
D.Legal fighting for rights

Going Bananas: an overview of the banana industry's history and economic, social, and environmental consequences

Bananas are a very common food today. All one has to do is walk into any grocery store, cafeteria, or dining hall, and they will probably see bananas. Although they seem to be practically everywhere today, the wide-spread trade of bananas is a relatively new thing. The biggest player in the mass-circulation of the banana was United Fruit Company. United Fruit Company was formed in 1899 by a merger between two earlier American companies that were operating in the Caribbean Basin. United Fruit CompanyŐs main rival was the Standard Fruit Company. For the first half of the twentieth century, both of these companies centered their operations in Central America. (Tucker, 2002)

The process of growing bananas in Central America has caused a deforestation disaster in Central America. Until the onslaught of massive agro-chemical use in the 1960s, banana plantations had to have virgin soil from mostly rainforest areas to be profitable. The growing of a mono-crop virtually guarantees attacks by pathogens, and with no genetic diversity, the results can be catastrophic. This was true for the banana industry in the early 1900s. In the 1910s, Panama disease began to take out entire plantations. Not long after that, Sigatoka disease began to take down crops as well. These two diseases were both caused by microorganisms. Neither of them were a problem until the fruit companies started mass-producing bananas. The onslaught of these two diseases caused the plantations to have to pick up and move every ten years or so. Moving the plantations meant clearing even more rainforest for the virgin soil. (Tucker, 2002).

Bananas, like all living things, do not naturally occur in a mono-crop setting. Before the big fruit companies moved in, local farmers grew bananas along with a variety of other crops. The bananas and other crops were used as food, and distributed locally and internationally. The large fruit companies, however, needed huge monocrop plantations. Only by mass production could their business ventures be profitable. It wasnŐt just a matter of clearing forests, labor was needed too. Entire towns and ports were created solely for the banana industry. (Tucker, 2002).

The passage of the banana from an exotic curiosity to a staple food is an interesting one. The first banana reached New York from Cuba in 1804. The importing of bananas into the US steadily rose through the next several decades. In 1884, the US government canceled tariffs on bananas. Although the US probably didnŐt intend it as such, the cancellation of banana tariffs furthered the habitat and ecological destruction in Central America. (Tucker, 2002).

Also in the late 1800s came steam ships and the railroads across America. These two innovations made speedy delivery of bananas possible pretty much anywhere in the US. It is also at this time, historians say, that many other fresh fruits began to be widely available for American consumers. Cookbooks began to include recipes that called for bananas, and doctors began to recommend them as important parts of a healthy diet. The wide availability of the banana coincided with the widespread industrial expansion in the United States. As homemakers began to scramble to feed their families returning from work, bananas became one of the first fast foods. (Tucker, 2002).
Another tool for United Fruit CompanyŐs marketing of the banana was a woman who eventually came to be called Chiquita Banana. Carmen Miranda began advertising for United Fruit in 1944, and continued until her death in 1955 (Tucker, 2002).

To truly appreciate the sheer volume of bananas that are exported from Central America, it is best to look at how the numbers have changed over time. In 1892, 12 million stems of bananas were imported into the United States. By 1955, this number rose to 1,389,000 tons of bananas. 290,000 tons of these bananas came from Costa Rica. (Tucker, 2002).

When the history of banana plantations is examined, there is a slight silver lining. The development of new varieties of bananas, such as the Cavendish allowed the big fruit companies to return to some of their old abandoned plantations in the 1950s. The new varieties were not susceptible to the diseases that had caused the fruit companies to abandon the plantations decades earlier. (Tucker 2002).

An additional factor that led to a decrease in the need to continually relocate the plantations was the use of numerous chemicals. The banana industry in Costa Rica is responsible for 25 to 30 percent of all of the countryŐs pesticide imports (vanArsdale, 1991). On a typical banana plantation, pesticides account for 50 to 55 percent of the money spent on material inputs (vanArsdale, 1991). Polyactic acid (PLA) plastic bags are impregnated with numerous insecticide chemicals and then placed over the budding fingers of the banana plants (Ho et al. 1999). These chemicals are typically of the chlorpyrifos variety, and are used to control insects that might scar the fruit, as well as any insects that importing countries might not want introduced (Matlock & De La Cruz, 2003). Other chemicals that are used on banana plantations in large quantities include herbicides, nematocides, and fungicides (Matlock & De La Cruz, 2003). These are used to control weeds, parasitic nematodes, and fungal diseases such as the Sigatoka leaf-spot disease that is caused by the fungi Mycosphaerella fijiensis (Matlock & De La Cruz, 2003). Use of pesticides can be as high as 40 kilograms per hectare per year. In 1995 Costa Rican banana plantations used between 13,872 and 32,640 tons of nematocides alone. (Emaœs, 1998).

It is clear from the preceding information which I have discussed that the large-scale production of bananas is anything but natural. The reader will probably not find it surprising when I say that effects of banana plantations on their ecosystems and workers are anything but natural as well. Although it isnŐt supposed to be used anymore, DDT was used in the past. A study of workers exposed to DDT showed that their neurobehavioral performance significantly deteriorated according to the length of time that they had worked with the chemical (van Wenel de Joode et al. 2001).

Many agro-chemicals that are used in banana plantations such as dibro-mochloropropane (DBCP) are known to have carcinogenic affects. Banana plantation workers have higher cancer rates than the general population. Woman workers have been found to be at greater risk for cervical cancer and leukemia, while men have been shown to be at risk for penile cancer. (Wesseling et al. 1996)

DBCP is a namatocide that is widely used in banana plantations. The chemical has been known to be a testicular toxin since 1978, but is still in use in some central American countries (Harrison, 1999). The Costa Rican government outlawed the use of DBCP in 1979 (vanArsdale, 1991). The chemical affects the testicular germinal epithelium and can lead to infertility in males. (Harrison, 1999). It is estimated that as many as 2,000 men in Costa Rica have been involuntarily sterilized through exposure to DBCP during 1970s (vanArsdale, 1991).

The increased use of agrochemicals has had many negative affects on the environment. Banana plantations use drainage ditches to divert excess water away from the plants and eventually into the nearest river. A large percentage of pesticides that are applied to the plants get washed off by rainfall and watering and eventually find their way into these drainage ditches and the rivers. At least 25% of the pesticides that are sprayed on banana crops from aircrafts never reach their target, but instead land on ponds, streams, or farmland. (vanArsdale, 1991)

Shreds of the PLA plastic bags can be found among the debris in tree branches along canals that mark the floodwater line. This is clear evidence showing that the plastic bags are not all being collected. The PLA plastic bags have been found on beeches, coral reefs, and in the stomachs of sea turtles. In areas where large amounts of pesticides are washed into the groundwater, residents sometimes notice dead fish floating in polluted streams. Close to 90 percent of the coral reefs on Costa RicaŐs Caribbean shore have been killed by sedimentation and pesticide runoff, much of which is from banana plantations. The coral reefs are important as more than just tourist attractions. They are a critical component of the ecosystem. The fish in the coral reefs are an economic resource to local communities. (vanArsdale, 1991)

When looking at the effects that Banana plantations have on the environment it is important that we not forget about the people that work on them. Banana plantations generally donŐt have the best record of treating their workers well. In Costa Rica, there are few job options for local people, and working for the big banana companies is one of the larger ones. This allows the banana companies to implement social and economic pressures on their workers. The Costa Rican government allows a 90 day probationary period, so many of the plantation workers are employed for less than three months. Up to 70% of workers employed for less than the probationary period. This means that very few workers ever work long enough to receive health benefits, social security, or vacation. The larger fruit companies donŐt show a lot of concern for the workers that depend on them to make a living. When the company decides that a plantation needs to be relocated, the workers can either move as well, or lose their jobs. As can be seen anywhere where there is no job security, there is an increase in alcoholism, sexual abuse, drug abuse, and prostitution among the poor communities of banana workers. (Emaœs, 1998).

Banana plantations often use a contractor system to hire workers. Private contractors are used to bring in workers for various jobs on the plantations. Because the workers are technically working for the private contractor, and not the plantation, they are not entitled to the same protection that they would be under Costa Rican labor laws if the plantation was their employer. This contract system also makes unionization very difficult. In many areas, workers that try to form union are either pressured to stop or fired and then blacklisted so that they cannot find work at any other banana plantation. (Emaœs, 1998).

An issue that is hard to ignore when considering banana plantationŐs effects on local peoples is the balance of resources. Most of the land that is now part of banana plantations was once either locally owned small farms or forested areas. Many small farms that are run by local or indigenous communities have been forced out of business by the large fruit companies. The farmers are pressured to sell their land and in some cases are told that they cannot grow traditional crops because doing so could spread disease to the nearby monocrop plantations (Emaœs, 1998). If the land belonged to the local people, then they should be getting some significant compensation for it. The profits from the banana plantations should be going to the Costa Rican people that work so hard for the fruit companies.

This is not really the case, however. 52% of Costa Rican bananas are sold to the European Union and close to 47% go to the United States. In a typical year sales of Costa Rican bananas will total between 550 and 700 million US dollars. The Costa Rican government earns income through export and salary taxes, but the bulk of these profits stay within the large fruit companies. Very little of the money is seen by the actual workers. (Emaœs, 1998)
If one is taking the stance that the individual worker should be treated fairly, there is a slight silver lining to the banana industry. There has been some legal fighting for rights of the banana workers. Seventeen law suits were won by SITGAH, the banana workers union, in 1997 against Chiquita for persecuting banana workers that joined unions. (Emaœs, 1998)

Lawsuits are also being filed in the US courts against the fruit companies by workers who were exposed to DBCP. The Texas Supreme Court agreed that Costa Rican workers exposed to the chemical could take there case to the Texas courts. The US Supreme Court has also backed this decision. This gives Costa Rican workers a way to seek compensation from the companies responsible for their condition. Any victories in these cases will set a new precedent that could change the way that transnational corporations operate in the third world. Until such time as this precedent is set, Costa RicaŐs national health insurance company has to pay the medical bills for poisoned workers. (vanArsdale, 1991).

Bananas, once a relatively rare and exotic fruit in most world markets, are now practically a staple in much of the developed world. The large scale production of bananas has economic, environmental, and social consequences. The balance between who rightfully owns the land, and who is profiting the most from the destruction of rainforests to grow bananas is not proportional. While a huge proportion of the Costa Rican labor force is involved in banana production, the majority of the profits go to the large fruit companies. Workers are exploited and often forced to move from their places of origin to find work. Large scale use of agro-chemicals poisons the environment, pollutes the water table, and is a significant health risk for the workers on the plantations.


Emaus, Foro. The Price of Bananas: The Banana Industry in Costa Rica. Global Pesticide Campaigner. March 1998. Vol 8. No 1.

vanArsdale, Christopher. Banana Development in Costa Rica. Multinational Monitor. January/February 1991. Vol 12. No 1 & 2.

Tucker, Richard. Environmentally Damaging Consumption: The Impact of American Markets on Tropical Ecosystems in the Twentieth Century. In: Confronting Consumption. Princen T, Maniates M, Conca K (editors). 2002, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Pages 177-195.

van Wenel de Joode B, Wesseling C, Kromhout H, Monge P, Garcia M, & Mergler D. Chronic nervous-system effects of long-term occupational exposure to DDT. The Lancet. Vol 357. March 31, 2001. Pg 1014-1016.

Wesseling C, Ahlbom A, Antich D. et al. (1996) Cancer in banana plantation workers in Costa Rica. Int. J. Epidemiol. 1125-1131.

Harrison K. (1999) Occupational risks to male reproductive health. Reproductive Medicine Review. Vol 7. No 2 & 3. 71-79.

Ho K G, Pometto A L, Hinz P N, Gadea-Rivas A, Briceno J A, & Rojas A. (1999). Field Exposure Study of Polylactic Acid (PLA) Plastic Films in the Banana Fields of Costa Rica. Journal of Environmental Polymer Degredation. Vol. 7 No. 4. 167-172.

Matlock R B, Rogers D, Edwards P J, & Martin S G. Avian communities in forest fragments and reforestation areas associated with banana plantations in Costa Rica. (2002) Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 199-215.

Matlock R B & De La Cruz R. (2003) Ants as Indicators of Pesticide Impacts in Banana. Environmental Entomology. Vol 32. No 4. 816-829.

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