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.

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