Monday, February 16, 2009

Banana boss and the banana industry

This is the boss (or in Spanish, patron) at the banana processing plant that I showed several days ago. My wife talked to him to about the wages and working conditions for the workers in the plant and in the field. She also talked to some of the workers, and they seemed content. I will use this opportunity to talk about the banana industry in Costa Rica and to answer some questions posed in comments on this blog.

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that the banana industry, Costa Rica's leading export crop, is on track to be carbon neutral in only 3 or 4 years. (Coffee is second largest export crop.) The bad news is that bananas are grown in large plantations, often foreign owned. Many of the workers are Nicaraguans. Some estimates are that as many as 1 million Nicaraguans live in Costa Rica, a country with a population of only 4 million.

The banana industry has a fascinating and profound historical role in the country. Costa Rica was the original "banana republic." In the 1870's, it used the same technique to build a railroad as the USA did in the American West -- give away land as incentive and payment for a company to build a railroad. Costa Rica gave 320,000 hectares (470,000 acres) to U.S. interests to build the "jungle railway" to connect Costa Rica's central valleys with the Caribbean coast.

5,000 workers died building the railway though mountainous jungle. Originally, Chinese and Italian laborers were brought in to lay the 150 km (93 miles) or railroad track, but they succumbed to malaria at a high rate. Jamaican laborers of African descent were then used, with much more success.

At the end of the railroad on the Caribbean coast, many of the Jamaican laborers had to wait to collect their pay, and they ended up settling in the area. The railroad was the reason that Costa Rica has a minority population of Jamaican/African origin, largely on the Caribbean coast, many of whom still speak English as their primary language.

With the railroad, banana exports jumped form 100,000 stems in 1883 to 1 million in 1890, and 11 million in 1913. Because of labor unions and plant diseases in the Caribbean lowlands, in the 1930's the banana industry left the Caribbean side of the country and relocated to the central and southern Pacific side. Today, the banana industry is back on the Caribbean side.

We do not have banana plantations in the northwest Pacific region of Guanacaste because, unlike other areas of Costa Rica, we have a long dry season with very little rain from November until May. The sunny dry weather is great for tourism, but not for bananas. Trees actually drop their leaves to conserve moisture.

The banana industry has had a profound impact on the economy and culture, affecting issues such as land ownership and race. The small African minority was restricted to the Caribbean coast until 1948, when there was a democratic movement and they were given full citizenship. Today, sadly, 2.8% of landowners own 47% of the country's farmland, usually banana plantations or, in Guanacaste, cattle ranches. More than half of Costa Rican farmers own less than 10 hectares, or 14.7 acres, adding up to only 5% of the farmland. Many of those farms are too small to support a family, even when growing coffee.

The other day Kate left a comment asking about pesticide use in banana fields, and that is an issue. They are trying to use natural methods to reduce the use of pesticides, but some of the pests if not controlled would be very harmful to the banana workers as they work in the plantations. Unfortunately, it is not good for the environment, throughout the world, to have large tracks of land devoted to a single purpose, whether it be growing the same crop or cattle ranching. Diversity is better, and that is a major focus of Costa Rica's efforts to plant 7 million trees per year -- to reintroduce a variety of trees into cattle and plantation areas.


Martin in Bulgaria said...

Facinating subect bananas, one of my favourite foods of all time. The boss certainly looks health with all those bananas around.

This post will make an excellent reference.

brattcat said...

Excellent, informative post. Thank you.

Kate said...

Thank you very much for the information, and I appreciate it. You mentioned that the pest could be very harmful to the workers if not controlled. When you say "pests" are you referring to the chemicals? According to my more environmentally-conscious friends (who refuse to eat bananas) the chemicals as used currently are very dangerous to the workers' health, which is no small issue. I occasionally still eat that delectable fruit, but feel very guilty when I do. Unless I am informed otherwise, I probably should not be eating bananas because of the way they are grown that endangers the health of the workers. Is this accurate or not? Thanks again for the information and research you have done. said...

By the pests that are harmful to the workers I was referring to a type of spider or tarantula that can live in banana plantations that can bite workers when they are in the trees harvesting the fruit.

The issue of pesticides is complex. The newspaper article that I recently read focused on the banana industry being on pace to achieve carbon neutral status in just 3 or 4 years, but it did not address the issue of pesticide use.

Most of the reports of the use of pesticides that are harmful to banana workers have occurred in Nicaragua, not Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican environmental authorities are justifiably proud of having the country on track to being carbon neutral by 2021, but the enforcement of environmental laws is uneven. Although having a strong environmental ethic is normally thought of as part of the culture of progressive people in Europe and the USA, Costa Rica is still a developing nation. It is far ahead of other countries in fighting global warming, but it is behind USA or European standards when it comes to infrastructure for solid waste disposal. Its landfills and sewage treatment facilities need to be improved, but it is hard for developing nations that lack the financial resources of the USA and Europe.

The water in Costa Rica is safe to drink and the food is safe to eat for visitors from the USA, Canada and Europe, unlike many other parts of Latin America. In Tamarindo, we do not yet have a central, municipal sewage treatmet plant. Every condo, hotel and restaurant has its own sewage treatment. The government tests the water quality and if there is a problem, they will issue a warning and then close down the offending facility. They did that last year to a new Spanish-owned hotel in the Papagayo area, right in the middle of the tourist season.

Stu said...

Very interesting info

Radman said...

I am not sure that I would want a foreigner to question me about my business and in particular employer/employee labor relations

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