Bite into the banana's history

Bite into the banana's history

Bite into the banana's history

A lot of the food at our table have long histories. Tea, indigo and opium teach us frightening lessons on how big multi-national firms can grow so big and greedy that they control local economies or topple governments. They emphasise on mass-producing the cheapest food (not to provide nutrition cheaply, but to sell it with the maximum profit!). This causes environmental damage and exposes countless plantations across the world to disease.

In India, any foreign company trying to exert pressure on the government, immediately raises the spectre of the infamous East India Company…the British trading company that came to India in the 1600s and stayed on to rule us for a 150 years! Now, with the controversy about Bt Brinjal, people feel that the big seed multinational firms will control what food we Indians sow and eat. What the United Fruit Company did in S.America was not very different.  

By the early 1900s, the US-owned United Fruit Company had plantations all over S.America. Land was grabbed in unscrupulous ways. In exchange for setting up railroads (to transport their own crop out of the region), the company convinced governments to give them land free! In some countries, the company didn’t pay taxes of any sort for decades! And they stayed in control by propping up dictators and unpopular rulers with bribes and the active support of the US government’s Central Investigative Agency (CIA).

In 1911, when the ruler of Honduras, then the largest banana grower in the world, objected to some of United Fruit’s practises, the company mounted an invasion and toppled the government…then went on to demand that the new government pay them for the cost of the invasion! The cruel labour conditions often led to revolts that were put down brutally. In 1928, 32,000 employees of the UF company went on strike for basic facilities like toilets, etc. UF brought in the army and over 1000 unarmed workers were shot dead.

In the 1950s, when Guatemalan president, Jacobo Arbenz tried to force the company to sell back fallow land to the government (land that the company had earlier grabbed for free!) so that it could be redistributed to poor landless peasants, he was toppled. UF’s power was so vast, it unleashed a campaign in the US press about how Communism was taking root in S.America. False reports (much like the more recent Bush-inspired false claims of Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’) were circulated in the world’s leading magazines about how Russia was training revolutionaries to take over S.America! So convincing were all these lies, that when the CIA helped the company topple Arbenz and send him into exile, there was no protest from the world community.

Today, the United Fruit company (now called Chiquita) has moved out of plantations, controlling only the railway lines, shipping and distribution into the lucrative US market, but their tentacles are all over the S.American continent. With the stranglehold on the entire transport and sales side of the business, they are able push prices so low that local plantation owners, in turn, offer poor wages to the workers. In 2002, Human Rights Watch charged Chiquita (United Fruit) in Ecuador of wide spread human rights violations. The company’s use of force to squash revolt is legendary. When governments cannot be bribed to do the job for them, they use the armed gangs of the drug lords. In 2007, the US government fined Chiquita $25 million for having business dealings with banned terrorists in Columbia…a rare occasion when the US government did not back this powerful multinational.

Environmental Damage

Apart from the millions of acres of tropical rainforest that have been cleared to plant bananas, there’re other horrors lurking in the future…the possibility of entire plantations getting wiped out by disease. In India, walking into the market, you can choose from different varieties of banana and all of us have our favourites. Those from Kerala love their ‘nendhrapalam’, eaten plain, steamed to be eaten with ‘puttu,’ or sliced up and fried as chips. ‘The small ‘ellakki’ is another preference. In some markets, the red-skinned variety is available. But in the US, all supermarkets only stock the Cavendish. Now, as more countries in Africa and Asia begin growing bananas for the US market, they all plant only Cavendish. Since the banana, a ‘berry from the world’s largest herb’ is sterile, seedless and genetically identical to its parent…almost all plants in a plantation or region are genetically similar. Disease striking one plantation will spread like wildfire across an entire country.

In the 1950s, entire regions in S.America covering millions of acres were wiped out by disase. Today, Panama Disease Race 4 has already wiped out plantations in Taiwan, Indonesia and Australia. It’s only a matter of time before it hits S.America where millions of people are now dependent on this crop. 

I’m sorry, but I hope this bloody history of the potassium-rich energy food hasn’t spoilt your appetite for it! And now you know that when someone mentions a Banana Republic, they really mean an entire nation that’s being controlled by one greedy company. 

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