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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The End of Banana Republics?

Air Date: Week of

Richard Schiffman reports from Costa Rica on various recent developments in the banana industry concerning land use and pesticides in Central America.


CURWOOD: It wasn't so long ago when the fate of 6 Central American nations hung from a single stem: the stem of the banana plant. For years the United Fruit Company of Boston dominated the politics of the region, and more than one US president intervened militarily to keep up the steady supply of one of North America's favorite fruits. Today the countries of Central America are no longer the banana republics that they were once called. But the cultivation of the fruit has left the landscape deforested and polluted. Now these nations, including Costa Rica, are looking into more sustainable ways to grow this lucrative cash crop. As Richard Schiffman reports, even the big banana companies are gradually changing the way they do business.

(Musicians, and vendors calling on the street)

SCHIFFMAN: On the street outside San Jose's central market there are lush piles of vine-ripened tomatoes, crates full of miniature green squashes, mounds of ripening papayas and avocados. And there are cart after cart of bananas of all sizes, shapes, and colors. There are petite finger bananas, plump red-skinned varieties, large green plantains for cooking. Many of these have scars on their peels, though they're generally smooth and tasty inside. Few of these bananas, however, ever make it to North America. Costa Ricans are fond of a wide variety of banana flavors and textures. But for the most part, they send us only one: the standard thick-skinned variety, which travels well and is uniquely suited to the high-yield, chemical-intensive agriculture of the modern plantation. That's the kind Vokker Ribbnigar grows on his 250-acre farm near the Panamanian border. Over breakfast at a sidewalk cafe, a few blocks from the market, he talks about why he came to Costa Rica 15 years ago.

RIBBNIGAR: When I started banana farming, I thought there must be another way to produce bananas. Because my reason to come to Costa Rica was to live in another way than in Germany. To grow my own vegetables free of pesticides, for example.

SCHIFFMAN: Since nobody in Costa Rica had any experience growing commercial bananas without agro-chemicals, Vokker Ribbnigar had to develop his own methods from scratch. He still hasn't succeeded in totally eliminating pesticides from his pest-rich plantation. But environmentalists now regard his low-impact farm as a model plantation, and some of the eco-friendly techniques pioneered there are now being adopted by the industry giants.

(Music. Woman's voice-over: "Hello amigos. I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say, bananas have to ripen in a certain way...")

SCHIFFMAN: Chiquita, the current trade name for the old United Fruit Company, means "little" in Spanish. But the multinational is anything but little. Chiquita is one of the largest landowners in Central America. And until as recently as 7 years ago, Chiquita and the other big companies Dole and Del Monte were clearing tens of thousands of acres of virgin rainforest in Costa Rica to make way for expanding plantations. In the 1970s the growers' use of the pesticide DBCP was implicated in the poisoning and permanent sterilization of thousands of banana workers. These ecological abuses led some in the environmental community to call for a boycott of bananas. But the Rainforest Alliance, a New York-based group which focuses on tropical conservation issues, disagreed.

WILLE: Thousands, tens of thousands of people, depend on the banana industry.

SCHIFFMAN: Chris Wille is the Rainforest Alliance's regional director in Central America. I spoke to him at the headquarters of Fundacion Ambio in San Jose, the Alliance's Costa Rican partner.

WILLE: It at that time was the leading source of revenue here in Costa Rica. So you can't kick a pillar like that out from under a country's economy without causing a lot of human hardship, and in addition a lot of environmental damage that you didn't want.

SCHIFFMAN: So the Rainforest Alliance decided to try another tack.

WILLE: So instead of a boycott, we invented what amounts to a "buycott". We decided to set standards and reward the people who can meet those standards with a green seal of approval.

(Rain, bird calls)

SCHIFFMAN: It's raining on the Coca Bola Farm, one of Chiquita's huge plantations on the coastal plain. We're standing on the bluff above the Rio Sucio. The Dirty River as it's called in Spanish runs yellow from the sulfur minerals it leaches from a nearby volcano. But until recently, the Rio Sucio was dirty in another sense as well. Locals remember how the banks used to be draped with untold thousands of discarded plastic bags used to protect the skin of growing bananas. Bags that eventually washed into the Caribbean and clogged the beaches and the coral reefs. But these days, those bags are being put to a new use. On a walk through the plantation, Dave McLaughlin, the director for environmental affairs for Chiquita Brands, gestures toward the blue paving stones lining the trails between banana plants.

McLAUGHLIN: All plastics are picked up. The twine, the bags, and they're all recycled. As you can see, the paving blocks here have all been made from recycled tree bags and recycled twine.

(Rain, bird calls)

SCHIFFMAN: And they've made other changes as well. They're growing deep-rooting sotocabayo trees along the riverbank to prevent erosion and to protect the Rio Sucio from contaminants. And they're planting native seedlings in other areas of the plantation not suitable for growing bananas. Nowadays, McLaughlin claims, his company is creating forest, not cutting it.

McLAUGHLIN: Chiquita has committed to, in its charter, an environmental code of conduct that it will not clear any rainforest for the establishment of banana plantations. We will not take down a tree to plant bananas.

SCHIFFMAN: Still, large scale environmental problems remain. A witches' brew of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers are used to grow bananas. And Katherine Wessling, an epidemiologist who works at the National University in San Jose, says the effect on human health has been equally harsh.

WESSLING: You can see it when you map, for example, poisonings in the country. It's the banana areas that's -- that have the highest incidence rates for both poisonings and demolitions. And we also have -- well, we have studied cancer among banana workers and found an excess risk compared to the general population of Costa Rica for several cancers, several types of cancers.

SCHIFFMAN: Some people question whether these dangerous agro-chemicals are really necessary. But industry officials argue that the large-scale production of cosmetically perfect bananas requires strict chemical controls.

(A man speaks in Spanish)

SCHIFFMAN: Back at the plantation, a worker measures the width of a banana with a steel calibrating pole to see if it's ready for harvest. After he determines that the fruit falls within precise industry standards for size, he pads the stem with foam rubber to protect it from bruising, and then cuts it.

(Falling fruit. A man speaks in Spanish)

SCHIFFMAN: The huge stems of over a hundred bananas are then loaded onto a cable way and transported to this processing area, where they're washed and then fumigated -- again, to protect the peel.


SCHIFFMAN: Every phase of banana production from planting to post-harvest preparation of the fruit involves the application of industrial chemicals. But Chris Wille of the Rainforest Alliance says they're trying to change this.

WILLE: We're working with the banana companies to get them to look at every bit of chemical use to see if it can be avoided or somehow made less threatening to the environment and to the workers.

SCHIFFMAN: In particular, they're encouraging the plantations to adapt integrated pest management. That's a system of applying pesticides and fertilizers only when and where and in the amounts that they're needed. Chiquita hopes to earn a greener image for itself by meeting these standards. But some critics are not investing all their hopes in the enlightened self-interest of the banana companies. They're turning to smaller growers, and also to places like this for hopeful developments.

(People milling)

SCHIFFMAN: Young people from all over tropical America learn sustainable agricultural practices here at Earth University in the heart of Costa Rica's banana growing area. After breakfast the students go into the fields with their professors, like banana expert Panfilo Tabora.

TABORA: That is a Sigatocca disease, the black leaf burning. That is a Sigatocca disease. Twenty-five percent of the cost of growing bananas, that is the cost of Sigatocca control.

SCHIFFMAN: Professor Tabora is pointing to some wilted leaves in the crown of a banana plant. If allowed to progress unchecked, the Sigatocca fungus can wipe out an entire banana plantation. That's why aerial spraying of fungicide is done several times each year. But here at Earth, they've been developing ways to control this disease by biological rather than chemical means. They're also working on developing disease resistant strains of banana, and they're experimenting with native ground cover that will help control soil erosion on plantations. Professor Tabora is optimistic.

TABORA: We can have organic banana production, totally organic banana production within 5 to 10 years as a technology.

(People milling)

SCHIFFMAN: Back in San Jose, grower Vokker Ribbnigar says he expects that he'll be producing organically even sooner. Up until now, even this environmentally conscious grower has conducted aerial spraying against the dreaded Sigatocca fungal disease. But later this year, those flights will be ending.

RIBBNIGAR: We are starting in September a new project with an international investing group to plant other varieties to look forward to produce without any fungicides of bananas.

SCHIFFMAN: The biggest barrier to growing eco-friendly bananas is no longer technical, Vokker Ribbnigar says. It's the consumer demand for fruit with an unblemished peel.

RIBBNIGAR: They were educated by the big companies to look for nice banana and not for a good banana. And I think now the companies must make another effort to educate the consumer on the other side to say no, you have to look for a good banana, and therefore we can protect more environment.

SCHIFFMAN: Vokker Ribbnigar adds that if we're willing to try some new banana varieties, to pay a few pennies more for cleanly grown fruit at the checkout counter, and to overlook some harmless brown spots on the peel, we can go a long way toward creating a greener environment for Central America. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman reporting.



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