Worse than Oil?
The Geopolitics of the Banana
by Bhaso Ndzendze
11 March 2018
Photo: Banana Forest/Pxhere
|Attracting encroachments to national sovereignty by rapacious Washington-connected multinational corporations and the meddling attentions of their powerful home country; stunting reform and economic development at every turn; breeding economic dependency; firmly controlled by foreign companies and giving little beneficiation to the country of production; upending and undermining political institutions; and not even sustainable.|
These are ringing accusations which bring to mind one natural resource – oil. Certainly not the banana. This is somewhat understandable; oil more readily lends itself to the vilification touted in these bleak and cynical claims, and it has been the subject of visible conflict, with allegedly oil-motivated American interludes into Kuwait, Iraq and Libya being all too well known and well televised.
Nonetheless, it is one of the blights of modern political economic analysis, including those with a bent for “resource curse” theory, that in their discussion of the interaction of forces that have resulted in the paradoxical plights of some resource-rich countries, they tend to overlook one of the most important culprits, or perhaps better understood as a catalyst in a larger political process; the innocuous banana. And yet, perhaps just as much as oil, this energy source has been the fons et origo of many social, political and economic malaise in many underdeveloped countries who possess them.
This inevitable interaction with politics is only more obvious when we consider the economic significance of this product; bananas are the world’s fourth most consumed food crop, after rice, wheat and corn, with some 350 billion bananas consumed every year. Figures of this magnitude rarely rack up by market forces alone and nominally hint at a set of vested political and economic hands at work.
In this brief article, a slice of the long and storied history of the politically-derived banana’s impact on the economies of numerous states which were in possession of it, particularly regarding Latin America, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa through the prism of the unholy alliances between big corporations and dictators, as well as the battle for market access.
Unholy Alliances: Dictators and Corporations
The South American country of Ecuador rarely finds itself on the top 3 list of any global rankings. Yet it occupies that very spot when it comes to world production of the banana. Some 18% of the bananas traded worldwide during the 1970s and 1980s originated from Ecuador, and this number expanded to 30% in the 1990s. Banana production and trade in Ecuador gives direct employment to an estimated 380 000 people.This tells something about the history and geography of this fruit on two particular points; why Ecuador and why now? The road to this present-day reality is an interesting and entangled one through which we gain insights into the nature of globalization as a performative process and its structures with implications far beyond Latin America.
In order to flourish, banana plants require rich soil, combined with 9 to 12 months of sunshine along with constant, heavy rains of to 80 to 200 inches a year. This is a demand level unmatchable by artificial irrigation if the given plantation is to compensate for the production costs and still have the ability to sell at the low price for which the banana is known. This gives us an important clue as to the Ecuadorian presence among the top producers in the world. But that is only a partial aspect on a bigger picture.
For one, how did the bananas get to Latin America, when they are said to be native to the tropics of South and Southeast Asia, and are likely to have been first domesticated in Papua New Guinea? And how did one particular variety of this fruit, the Cavendish, conquer the world market when there are thousands all across the world? The answer to these questions are political and are to be found in the early half of the nineteenth century.
The mass production of the banana such as we know today commenced specifically in the year 1834 and saw an explosion in the late 1880s and from the beginning reaped political consequences. Prior to the 1870s most of the land that bananas were grown on in the Caribbean had been previously used to grow sugar, and indeed before then bananas were virtually unknown in the United States. But this quickly changed and just 30 years later, Americans (then totaling at 70 million people) were consuming over 16 million bunches a year. Like all rapid expansions and enormous profits, this came at a high cost, and perhaps none bore it more than the producing populations.
The odyssey started in 1871 and, indicative of those twists of fate with which history is so littered, not with anything to do with agriculture but the construction of a railroad in Costa Rica overseen by an ambitious 23 years-old Minor Keith, born in New York. The mega project sees hundreds lose their lives, including the lives of Keith’s two brothers. Bur Mr. Keith is undaunted. While building the railroad in Costa Rica he was also hatching a far grander plan. As construction made progress, he ordered the planting of bananas on the land easements to either side of the tracks. The bananas flourished and once the railroad was brought to completion it was possible to economically transport the bananas to Americans who were beginning to acquire a taste for the exotic fruit. By the next decade, Keith owned three banana companies. Keith then joined up with a Cape Cod sailor, Lorenzo Baker, and a Boston businessman, Andrew Preston. The three raised the necessary capital to establish the Boston Fruit Company. By 1899, the Boston Fruit Company and the United Fruit Company (UFCO) emerged – and in their wake formed the largest banana company in the world, with plantations all over Latin America and the Caribbean, including Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama and Santo Domingo. The company also owned 112 miles of railroad linking the plantations with ports. To complete their Charter company-like set up, and in order to protect their interests, they also owned some eleven steamships, known as the Great White Fleet and an additional 30 other ships under lease.
In 1901, Guatemalan dictator, Manuel Estrada Cabrera granted to UFCO the exclusive right to transport postal mail between Guatemala and the United States. Thus came UFCO’s first entry into Guatemala in whose wake the country would be held custody to a fruit company. Ruled by a conservative dictator who would be a puppet to the UFCO, Keith judged Guatemala to have “an ideal investment climate”. He formed the Guatemalan Railroad Company as a subsidiary of UFCO and capitalized it at $40-million. Other countries in Central and South America also fell prey to the UFCO, which they called or “El Pulpo” (the Octopus), but no other state felt the weight of the UFCO more than Guatemala.
Why was Guatemala such an ideal investment climate for the UFCO? “Guatemala was chosen as the site for the company’s earliest development activities,” a former United Fruit executive once explained, “because at the time we entered Central America, Guatemala’s government was the region’s weakest, most corrupt and most pliable.” In Guatemala, United Fruit gained control of virtually all means of transport and communications. United Fruit charged a tariff on every item of freight that moved in and out of the country via Puerto Barrios. As if that were not enough, the company also managed to exempt itself from virtually all taxes in Guatemala for 99 years.
In 1944, the people of Guatemala overthrew the right-wing dictator then in power, Jorge Ubico, and held their first ever true elections. The man they elected president was Dr. Juan Jose Arevalo, a socialist. A new constitution was drawn up, partly based on the American version. At this time, in the highly class-divided Guatemala, only 2.2% of the population owned over 70% of the country’s land. Only 10% of the land was available for 90% of the population, most of whom were native Indians.
Most of the land held by the large landowners was unused. Jacobo Arbenz who succeeded Arevalo in another free election continued the reform process. Arbenz proposed to redistribute some of the unused land and make it available for the 90% to farm. This greatly unsettled the UFCO; the United Fruit was one of the big holders of unused land in Guatemala. The pressure mounted heavily against the UFCO and finally the company made its pleas and called on officials in the US government, including President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (whose former New York law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, was a representative of the company), saying that Guatemala had turned communist and was susceptible to Soviet Union influence.
Fortunately for the fruit conglomerate, almost every major American official involved had a family or business connection to the company itself (Allen Dulles, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, had served on UFCO’s board of trustees while Ed Whitman, the company’s top public relations officer, was married to Ann Whitman, President Eisenhower’s private secretary). Thus with great zeal, the U.S. State Department and United Fruit, enlisting the talents of the PR genius Edward Bernays (a nephew of the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud), embarked on a major public relations campaign to convince the American people and the rest of the US government that Guatemala was a Soviet “satellite”.
Upon Bernays’ suggestion, the company also arranged and offered to pay for the expenses of journalists who traveled to Guatemala to learn United Fruit’s side of the story, and some of the biggest outlets (and particularly The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune) published accounts favorable to the UFCO.
The campaign was a resounding success and in 1954, with consent manufactured, the CIA engineered a coup, code-named “Operation PBSUCCESS”. The CIA set up a clandestine radio station to carry propaganda, jammed all Guatemalan stations, and hired skilled American pilots to bomb strategic points in Guatemala City. The U.S. replaced the democratically-elected government of Guatemala with another right-wing dictator that would again bend to UFCO’s will. The propaganda machine, meanwhile, portrayed the operation to the American audience as the removal of an unpopular leader and the ushering in of liberty and democracy; this has an eerily familiarity when looked at through the prism of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.
After his firm, Hubbard-Zemurray, experienced much success importing bananas from Latin and Central America and selling them in in New Orleans, Samuel Zemurray went to the Central American republic of Honduras to expand his company into banana production in the year 1910. Honduras was deemed well-suited for growing bananas due to its proximity to the equator. These were the seeds of what would eventuate into Cuyamel.
But Cuyamel did not enter unchartered territory and the turf was already spoken for. The main player seeking monopoly status in the Honduras banana market besides was Vaccaro Brothers and Company. But both the Vaccaro firm and Cuyamel were eclipsed by the much larger United Fruit Company. Before United Fruit entered Honduras as a direct producer in 1910, the firm participated in the Honduras market by proxy through investments in both Zemurray’s and Vaccaro Brothers’ companies. Before United developed plantations of its own in the cities of Trujillo and Tela, it owned 60% of Cuyamel and 50% of Vaccaro. Even though the three companies were competitive against each other, they maintained some respective distance, and even pursued joint efforts in advertising and increasing banana agricultural outputs in Honduras.
Nevertheless, competitiveness seeps through. Zemurray had played an active role in Honduran politics since he first arrived in the country. In 1910, the administration of President Miguel R. Dávila had given the Vaccaro Brothers’ Company land for railroad construction and prohibited any other companies from building a competing railroad within 12 miles of the Vaccaro line. This had long displeased Zemurray, and he detested the Dávila government, having provided encouragement and money to a failed coup in 1908 against Dávila.
These concessions by the Dávila regime to Vaccaro further enrage Zemurray. He makes a concerted effort now to remove the regime, and has an accomplice in the person of former President Manuel Bonilla. Zemurray supplied weapons and transportation for Bonilla to launch a coup against Dávila. President Dávila fled, and Bonilla once again assumed the presidency of the nation, owing in large part to the direct intervention of Zemurray.
Shortly before Bonilla ascended to the presidency, Zemurray in 1911 transformed his company from Hubbard-Zemurray into Cuyamel Fruit Company. He acquired 5,000 acres of land for agriculture along the Cuyamel River in the northwestern extremity of Honduras, near the Guatemalan border. The firm took its new name either from this river or from the town of Cuyamel nearby. As a repayment for his support, Bonilla also granted Zemurray a concession to build a railroad between the town of Cuyamel, by the coast, and Veracruz, in the interior.
There were no more coups in the country through the end of the decade, but Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit was in fierce competition with Vaccaro and United. Further, Cuyamel’s development of a previously empty strip of land along the Guatemala-Honduras border almost led to an outbreak of war between the two states, but this was halted by US mediation. This incident of near-war strained relations between pro-Honduras Cuyamel and pro-Guatemala United, and this tension would not fully cool off until the two companies became one in 1929, when following the October crash of international financial markets, Zemurray sold Cuyamel to United Fruit in exchange for stock and retired, making UFCO the giant discussed in prior sections.
The Banana Wars: The Battle for the Banana Market
Africa’s banana market is a paradoxical reality. In the lowland of the Congo basin, farmers grow a greater diversity of bananas than anywhere in the world. In countries such as Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda per capita consumption has been estimated at 99 pounds per year, the highest in the world. Uganda itself is the second-largest producer of bananas in the world after India. It is, however, one of the smallest exporters, the crops being used mostly for domestic consumption.
West African countries produce nearly all of Africa’s banana exports. Production in this region has grown rapidly over the past 15 years, now accounting for around 4% of the world banana trade. The vast majority of these bananas are sold in Europe, mainly in France and the UK, where an estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of bananas are peeled annually. But the African access raises questions and a myriad of issues about the nature of the international political economy than meets the eye.
Since 1975, African and Caribbean countries had had a quota of bananas to import into the EU market, enabling them to sell to Europe as many as they wanted to support. The official reasoning for this was that the European Union (then known as the European Community) hoped, that this would enable the economies of such developing countries to grow independently, without depending on overseas aid. Some economists, however, question the logic behind this.
To begin with, if the EU is concerned with the development of these countries and to free markets, it makes no economic sense to continue to subsidize their agricultural lobby with up to 50-billion euros per year. Secondly, the EU would remove barriers to a vast array of agricultural products from Africa – as it stands only bananas can be sold into the EU market without barriers to entry, and indeed disincentives are provided as seen in the imposition of 30% tariffs to unprocessed coffee but 60% to processed (that is job-creating) coffee from Africa.
Secondly, banana and pineapple production in Africa are dominated by two American multinational companies Compagnie Fruitière/Dole (a descendent of the Cuyamel company dealt with above) and Del Monte. In any case, US multinationals which control the Latin American banana crop hold 67% of the EU market and the US itself does not export bananas to Europe. This perhaps displays the extent to which the removal of barriers to access are motivated by US-EU alliance and not developmental concerns regarding Africa. The Caribbean is a different story, however.
Despite this, however, the US filed a complaint against the EU for further with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and, in 1997, won. The EU was instructed to alter its rules as a result. The chief outcome of this deal had been to protect banana farmers in the Caribbean from competition from Latin America, whose bananas are cheaper because they are grown on largescale, mechanised plantations run by giant USbased corporations.
After the WTO ruling, the US government continued to argue that free trade in bananas had not been restored, while the EU argue it has changed its rules. The US has then imposed a retaliatory range of 100% import duties on European products, “encompassing everything from Scottish cashmere to French cheese” as the Guardian then put it.
The US government was allegedly pressurised by powerful US multinational companies which dominate the Latin American banana industry. “The Bill Clinton administration took the “banana wars” to the WTO within 24 hours of Chiquita Brands, a powerful, previously Republicansupporting banana multinational, making a $500,000 donation to the Democratic Party” according to journalist Patrick Barkham.
The banana wars came to a conclusion only in 2009 with an agreement between the EU and Latin American countries. The December 2009 agreement involved the EU reducing its tariffs on imported bananas from 176 euros ($224; £140) per tonne to 114 euros per tonne within eight years.
The Future and Sustainability of the Banana: A Challenge of Globalization
Like oil, the banana is not only problematic in its production and sale, but it may also not have much of a future; at least not as we know it. Researchers have declared the Cavendish to be potentially unsustainable and at risk of “imminent death.” This threat stems from the Panama disease; a deadly root fungus from the island of Taiwan. And since all Cavendishes are clones, if the fungus can kill one banana shrub, it can kill them all.
Of course the Panama disease is nothing new. It was identified at least as early as the 1950s, when it wiped out the Cavendish’s predecessor, known as the ‘Gros Michel’, or Big Mike. When the Gros Michel banana succumbed to the fungus, the Cavendish was found to be immune, at least until the fungus mutated and started its attack all over again. Starting in the 1990s, the Panama fungus began to work its way across Asia and Africa once again. The oceans have proven effective barriers for now, “but when someone with the fungus on their shoe can cross an ocean in a few hours,” National Geographic magazine warns “oceans provide little protection.”
The history of the banana has been one of deep politicisation, therefore; implicating it in the unfavourable destinies of multitudes. But the banana, and for that matter oil itself, is merely one among many problematic resources to reap these economic histories and contemporary consequences. Indeed its trysts with dictators, lobbyists and tariffs at the behest of seemingly malevolent multinationals says more about the politicised nature of international trade than the resource in question. Indeed very few resources, if at all, could undergo similar examinations and emerge unscathed to some degree or another.