Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reactions Against the Empire, Part 2: Bananas

As promised, this is the second installment of a three part blog series on Reactions Against the Empire.

So what’s this thing about bananas? They have lots of potassium. They taste delicious. They can go in so many different dishes. Have you ever thought about where your bananas (or any other food) come from? Have you ever thought about the people who help your bananas get to your grocery store or local market?

I started thinking about bananas winter term 2012 before I went to Nicaragua for a month with my one and only business class. I learned about the plight of the banana workers who worked for Dole and experienced significant health effects from working in unsafe conditions with dangerous chemicals.

Two and a half years later, I came to the Philippines and spent some time in banana plantations in Compostela on our first immersion. While we were living with and seeing the plantations and processing plants, I could not help but see the striking similarities to the situation in Nicaragua. However, in Nicaragua, Dole had to pay damages to a group of workers who filed and won a lawsuit in California courts.

In the Philippines, the issue is a bit different. The plantations are still very much operating. The workers are organizing into unions in order to collectively bargain for high wages and better working conditions. We talked primarily with the leaders and workers at Sumifru plantations and processing plants.

It is necessary to give a bit of background to the banana industry in this region before we continue. Families own the land where the plantations are located. Multinational companies sign contracts with the landowners where they rent the land for periods of about fifteen years, after which the companies pull out and move to other plots of land. After fifteen years of aggressive planting, fertilizing, spreading pesticides, harvesting, and repeating the process with only one crop, the once fertile ground has lost all of its nutrients. The company is out of the contract, and the family has land that needs to recover before growing any more crops.

The farming process relies mainly on manual labor. Runners go throughout the fields so that fertilizer and pesticides can reach the banana trees. Employees on the plantations work sometimes 10-12 hours a day for only ~PhP100 (~USD$2.50) per day. Let me remind you that PhP52/day (~USD$1) is the poverty line. Minimum wage is supposed to be PhP300/day (~USD$7), but you still cannot feed a family of six with that salary. Employees in the processing plant earn PhP125/day (~USD$2.80), but that was only after much fighting against the companies. When it comes to the processing plants, the pay is a bit better, but the situations are not. The employees receive only a one hour break for a meal and one 15 minute break for an entire 8 hour shift on their feet. Bathroom breaks are regulated and do not happen very often.

An employee using his body weight to pull 6 50kg bags of limestone on a runner to the banana trees

Most of the employees live in or near to the plantations. Nearly every day, companies are doing aerial fertilizer sprays over the plantations, as well as the homes of the community. We were not allowed to leave our host’s house because we had to wait for the chemicals to settle. These sometimes-unannounced sprays trap people in their own homes or expose them to chemicals that are dangerous to the skin and body.

Fresh banana stalks from the field ready to be processed

For the actual processing, the banana stalks are cut and brought to the plant when the bananas are still very green and almost impossible to eat. They are washed, and the “rejects” are separated out. Even though the rejected fruits will not be sold on supermarket shelves, employees still have to pay to take some of these “substandard quality” bananas home.

The bananas that do not pass the standards of quality for exportation but are valuable enough to charge employees for them 

During the washing, processing, and packaging, the bananas are covered in chemicals. As we walked past the plant, I had to cover my face to try to stifle the strong smell of chlorine coming from inside. This was worse than when I have put pure tablets of chlorine into a swimming pool pump system. Your food is drowning in that chemical. Yes, you peel bananas, but you are still touching the part that has been exposed to so many chemicals.

The washing station where the bananas first go after they are cut from the stalk

I had to take this picture through the net window, but I could still smell and feel the strength of the chlorine in this solution.

When the bananas leave the plant, they have already been packaged in bags and then boxes, ready to be exported to countries like China, New Zealand, and the US. Who knows how long it actually takes for the bananas to appear in your produce aisle? Don’t you think your bananas would taste a lot better if they were picked a few weeks later when they were actually close to being ripe? Do you really want to ingest all of the chemicals that your bunch of bananas has been exposed to from pesticides to fertilizers to the “cleaning” chlorine?

What is the point of this whole process??? To harvest and sell as many bananas as quickly as possible to earn the most money possible. Who does this money benefit? It is definitely not benefitting the workers on the ground in Nicaragua or the Philippines. It doesn’t even benefit the Philippine government or national budget, as most of these companies benefit from tax exemption thanks to US-supported neoliberal policies.

Ok, well now what? I would love to tell you to boycott the bananas from large multinational corporations. That’s an easy answer. I would love to tell you to only buy local and shop local only (a statement I’m sure my dad is happy to read). However, reality is more complicated than that. If we launch a boycotting campaign against all big food business (because I’m sure that this does not only happen in the banana industry or only outside of the US), then we would really end up hurting the people we most want to help. Sure, the stocks of multinational companies would feel a little bit of the effects, but the corporate level executives will probably not go into poverty because of a boycott. It is the people on the ground working in the fields and processing plants who would hurt most. They would lose the little job they had. As many of the workers told us, even a little money is better than no money. It would cost at least a generation of employees their jobs and livelihoods before any real change in corporate ethics would take place. It’s not like Compostela is bursting with other jobs for its people.

So what do we do? I cannot give you a succinct, articulate, straightforward answer. What I can do is tell you that my eyes have been opened, and I refuse to close them again. I am trying to be a more conscious and intentional shopper while I am in the Philippine. I intend to continue to do this when I return to the US. That is still so difficult. I am still complicit in the Empire when I buy my NesCafé packets of instant coffee. Nestlé is not my favorite company. The Empire has dominated the markets so much that there are no options of locally and justly grown and produced foods in grocery stores or supermarkets. I only have any sense of where foods come from if I can find them in the local market.

I especially feel for my national YAVs who are living on food budgets that seem tighter than mine. How can you live out food justice on a simple living budget? Healthy and just food is more expensive than processed imports because of the higher production costs involved. I guess when you commit yourself to that ideal, you must make hard decisions distinguishing needs from wants. However, a family living with a tight budget may not be able to afford to live out that pledge, no matter how strongly they believe in the concept. It’s a hard issue that does not come with an easy answer. 

I urge you to look at what is in your kitchen, pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Think about these issues. Think about the hands that helped to bring the food to you, from the field, to the processing plant, to the transportation, to the stocker at the store, to the cashier. Think of these people who all have valid names, faces, and stories, just as complex as yours.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reactions Against the Empire, Part 1: Development

I have been working on this blog post in my head and journal since my first week or so in the Philippines. The 6 weeks since then have challenged my original reflections and beliefs. My experiences continue to shape these initial reactions, and they are definitely not settled yet. I plan to explain these thoughts in a series of three posts: Development, Bananas, and ‘MURICA!! Each of these posts deals with the environment and US influences on the situations I’ve encountered so far.

I have been so impressed by how close to the land and environment is to every person we have met in our travels and experiences. Students from schools and communities have performed numerous dances and original songs dedicated to climate justice. Nearly every Sunday, I have prayed in church about humanity’s sinfulness contributing to environmental problems. The following prayer is the Prayer of Confession from Silliman United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Church in Dumaguete from Sunday, September 28:
Merciful God, in your gracious presence we confess our sin and the sin of this world. Although Christ is risen from the grave and has shattered the power of death, we are still held captive by fear and doubt. We hold on to suspicions and jealousies that set neighbor against neighbor and nation against nation. We have neglected the poor and the hungry. In our pursuit of the “good life” we have gone along with injustice; we have ignored the cries of the oppressed. We pursue profits and pleasures that harm the land and pollute the waters. We have squandered the Earth’s gifts on technologies of destruction. Have mercy on us, O God. Help us to trust your power to change our lives and make us new, that we, and all your creatures, may know the joy of life abundant, given through Jesus Christ, the risen Lord. Amen.

Silliman Church, Dumaguete

It is with this context that I come to my first fairly radical change of stance on development. This idea blossomed as I rode on the back of a “skylab” (covered motorcycle) two hours up and then down the mountains of Compostela Valley Province heading to and from the community of Indigenous People (IP) in Panansalan. This was our very first immersion and opportunity to do life with a community of Filipin@s. It is quite fitting that I am writing this during UCCP's Indigenous Peoples Month, which also happens to overlap with Columbus Day in the US.

Rachel, Simon, Nils, and their driver squished on a skylab

Sometimes the roads were paved, often with many cracks or still under construction. Sometimes the roads were packed down rocks. Sometimes the roads were simply mud. There were few guardrails. If we fell or slipped, there would be no help to get us. It would take too long for any sort of rescue team or vehicle to get to us to take us to a hospital. That being said, it was still a beautiful and clarifying ride. The motorcycles were able to navigate most of the rocks and mud without too much of a problem, besides the occasional push or walk.

The roads that were paved were built by logging companies that completely deforested the mountains home to many indigenous populations. The companies financed the construction of the roads so that their equipment and trucks could easily navigate the terrain. After they took all of the trees and wore down the roads, the companies pulled out, leaving the local communities with roads in a terrible state and a damaged ecosystem. The trees grew for centuries. They held the fertile soil in place and provided a barrier for bad weather. Now, the mountains are still green, but the plants are mainly low brush with few tall trees that give the landscape a jagged look. The trees' root systems cannot protect against strong storms or landslides anymore.

The jagged treeline of the mountain and a particularly muddy part of the road

The Westerner in me wants to have a nicely paved road so that everyone can travel between communities with ease and in a more timely fashion, both for convenience and emergency situations. Perhaps the IP communities could sell their crops in the markets in Compostela to earn some money, rather than relying on subsistence farming to survive.

Then, I thought about the consequences of this “development.” It would take so much time, energy, and effort to fully pave all of these mountain roads. Those are resources that the government either does not have or is not willing to designate to such a purpose. In that construction, though, they must change the landscape, which would increase the chances and occurrences of landslides. The construction waste would contaminate an otherwise clean mountain stream. All of the equipment is dangerous for the motorcycles trying to cross the mountains and would lead to more accidents, not to mention the hassle of construction. By the time the roads were all paved, it would be time to do repairs on the first sections of road. In the end is it really worth it?

Yes, dirt roads still exist in the US. Yes, many roads are littered with potholes and are far overdue for repair and repaving. However, I have never experienced anything quite so vulnerable as the roads to Panansalan. I learned so much about living abundantly with so few material things from this IP community. Life was good in its self-contained simplicity. The children cooked, cleaned, farmed, and gathered spring water for themselves. They played games together. They probably didn’t care about the state of the roads leading to their community. 

They did care about the land, though. The land that they worked with their simply farming tools. The land that the government is gradually selling out from under them to mining companies eager to get the coal, gold, nickel, copper, and iron resting under the tall, jagged peaks. The land that is called ancestral lands, meaning that it does not require any titles or deeds for ownership. They care about the environment and how climate change has affected their land. Climate change, combined with the lack of tall, strong trees due to over-logging, has led to disastrous storms and landslides, as shown through Typhoon Pablo in 2012. This is the same climate change that developed nations (the US) contribute to in disproportionate amounts. In the US, we experience some of the negative consequences of our impact on the environment, but not to the extent as it is felt in the Philippines and other developing countries. The infrastructure needed to handle the bigger, faster, and stronger storms simply does not exist in most, if not all, of this country.

May May, one of the students, weeding with a simple blade

So, I ask, what net good will truly come from building roads in the mountains of Compostela Valley? If the only way to build roads is for a multinational company to finance them before exploiting the resources in the mountains, how will that benefit the people who call the mountains home? Is it just another case of trying to make “them” more like “us”? Is that what international development really is at the end of the day? In my experience, international development has such a positive connotation. It is empowering the lives of people by giving them more freedoms, capabilities, and opportunities to make choices. I am conflicted, though. Developed countries give so much in resources to developing countries in order to make them developed, to allow them to compete in the global economy. However, at the most basic level, does this not sound like we, the developed countries, are trying to make “them” more like “us”? What would we lose of the IP community’s tribal culture if it became a “developed” region? Who are we to say that “development” is what this community needs the most? Must the road to "development" be paved to give the IP community the best opportunity to do life? What even counts as the "best opportunity"? Who decides those standards? Does the IP community have a say in their own standards of living? Who knows?

These ideas are not fully fleshed out, obviously, and I welcome any respectful feedback. This idea has been challenged as I have traveled 16 hours quite uncomfortably by car on poorly paved roads damaged by Typhoon Yolanda. Perhaps this is too radical of an idea, but it is simply what has been floating around in my head these past 6 weeks. I look forward to fleshing out more ideas like this in the next two posts of the series: Bananas and 'MURICA!!