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

Bananas or the Environment: A Fair Trade?

Air Date: Week of

Whatever the outcome of the banana war going on between the United States and Europe, there are serious concerns about the human and environmental impact of banana cultivation that are largely unaddressed. Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth contributor Bob Carty, who spent many years in Central America reporting on the banana industry there.


CURWOOD: The United States and Europe are locked in a trade war over...bananas. Regardless of the outcome of this dispute, there's a constant casualty in the production of bananas: the health of agricultural workers and their environment. On the vast corporate plantations of Central America, concerns about pesticide use and soil erosion go largely unaddressed. And though the small banana farms of the Caribbean have better environmental records, they still have problems. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty spent many years in Central America. He says in countries including Costa Rica, banana plantations resemble vast green deserts.

CARTY: That for me is really a very evocative image, green desert. I remember many times in Costa Rica, where I was living, traveling down the eastern slopes of the mountains. And as you come out of the clouds and the rainforest you just see banana plantations on the flat land, right out to the Atlantic Ocean. Tremendous, just a green lawn, where nothing grows except bananas, thanks to the pesticide use.

CURWOOD: What are the environmental impacts of this kind of agriculture?

CARTY: That kind of monoculture has a whole list of ecological impacts. The deforestation, which is ongoing as the plantations expand. There's loss of wildlife, of insects, of plants. There's the pesticide and fertilizer contamination, not only of the soil but also of the air and of their water, and even drinking water for the surrounding populations. And of course there's a huge volume of organic and plastic waste that's left over. Though I think the biggest concern I would have on these plantations would be the pesticide use. I remember watching aerial spraying. It's done about 50 times a year on a big plantation. And in Costa Rica, still to this day, it's done while workers are under the branches, servicing the plants. You'll also see workers walking around with backpacks of paraquat, which is a pesticide that's restricted quite highly in the United States in how it's used. But these men would be walking around without gloves, without masks, without boots, spraying paraquat, when they should be wearing maybe the equivalent of a space suit to do so.

CURWOOD: Well, Bob, is this current level of pesticide use really necessary? Can't you grow bananas without all those chemicals?

CARTY: Yeah. In my front yard in Costa Rica you couldn't stop them from growing. (Curwood laughs) They grow wild. At the corner market you used to be able to buy all kinds of wild bananas, not just the one marketable export kind, the Grand Cavendish, it's called. You know, the perfect long, thin, green banana. We would have baby ones, there were red ones, there were black ones. There were even, Steve, a banana that grows sort of square, a square banana. Tremendous variety. So you don't have to use pesticides. And certainly, a lot of the pesticides are just for cosmetic purposes, to make the banana look better. Those plastic bags that are put on at the end for ripening contain pesticides just to prevent a little black dot appearing in the skin. The dot does not affect the fruit, but it doesn't make the banana look perfect. And it must be perfect for consumers, the companies would have us believe.

CURWOOD: As consumers, should we be worried about these bananas. People say, "Hey, well I'm going to peel them, I won't get any pesticide." Is that a good conclusion to draw?

CARTY: Certainly the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the companies themselves say that is the case. That residue is insignificant. There are others who point out that one has to be careful here because the science is not very deep. That is, very little imported fruit is tested to begin with, and only tested for certain chemicals. I think the greatest preoccupation, though, should be the people who have to apply these pesticides. They're the really—the workers in the banana plantations and their families are the ones who pay the price. And I suppose the classic example, Steve, is the DBCP, dibromo chloro propane example. This was a pesticide used in Costa Rica from about '65 to 1979. Although the manufacturers and the banana companies knew that it had potential risks of sterility for people who are exposed to it. Nothing was done about that. As a result, there are some 8,000 Costa Rican men who are sterile. There may be as many as 20,000 such cases around the world. It's quite a tragedy. I remember being in a clinic in San Jose with some of these men as they were being tested, their sperm count was being tested. The results were coming back almost total sterility. And I remember talking to one of the wives of one of these workers, and she was saying, you know, "I have no children. My home is empty. I feel like a tree that does not bear fruit."

CURWOOD: Well, Bob, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

CARTY: My pleasure, Steve. Good to talk to you.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty is a contributor to Living on Earth and a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who spent many years reporting from Central America.



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