Fair trade ba­nanas pop­u­lar else­where, but hard to find in GTA gro­cery stores

Toronto Star - - NEWS -

Loeb and IGA — get their fruit from the five most pow­er­ful ba­nana com­pa­nies in the world, the ones that have dom­i­nated the ba­nana trade for more than a cen­tury.

At Metro, spokes­woman Les­lie Pow­ers ex­plains: “We’re locked into long-term con­tracts with Dole and Chiq­uita, they are our ba­nana sup­pli­ers.”

But what’s the real dif­fer­ence be­tween a fair trade ba­nana and a con­ven­tional one? A ba­nana is a ba­nana is a ba­nana. Isn’t it? Well, not ex­actly. In Machala, the strength of the world’s big­gest fruit com­pa­nies — Dole, Del Monte, Chiq­uita, Fyffes and Noboa — can clearly be seen. Dole and Del Monte em­blems (stick­ered on many ba­nanas sold in Canada) hang from posts out­side plan­ta­tions and are stamped on the sides of mas­sive pack­ing plants, freighters and con­tain­ers bound for ports from New York to Tokyo.

Machala prides it­self on its rep­u­ta­tion as the ba­nana cap­i­tal of the world. The city ex­ports 80 per cent of Ecuador’s ba­nana out­put.

But be­neath the yel­low­ing skin of the ba­nana trade, there’s a rot that has tar­nished the lives of many work­ing in the plan­ta­tions here and else­where in Latin Amer­ica.

On the de­scent into Machala’s one-room air­port, a low-fly­ing prop plane can be seen over dis­tant farm­lands, pre­sum­ably drop­ping some of an es­ti­mated 30 kilo­grams of pes­ti­cides that blan­ket each hectare of plan­ta­tion in a given year.

For 21 years Louis Car­rillo, 45, felt the warm itch of those pes­ti­cides sprayed against his skin.

Car­rillo has wielded a ma­chete on ba­nana farms since 1981. Un­til 2002, he worked for the big­gest fruit com­pa­nies, re­ceiv­ing no ben­e­fits, no pen­sion, no med­i­cal care, no guar­an­teed wage and no hol­i­days.

Dur­ing those years he was rou­tinely sprayed with pes­ti­cides deemed il­le­gal in North Amer­ica for more than a gen­er­a­tion.

“I can think of count­less times when I was work­ing in the fields and the planes would fly by, drop­ping pes­ti­cides on the ba­nana trees,” he said.

“They never gave us any pro­tec­tion. I’d hide un­der a leaf or cover my face with my T-shirt. I never had any ma­jor side-ef­fects, but some times it would make me dizzy and my skin would burn and itch.”

Ba­nana work­ers have blamed can­cers, res­pi­ra­tory dis­eases, birth de­fects and steril­ity on rou­tine ex­po­sure to pes­ti­cides. Some, like the 16,000 work­ers from Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Sal­vador, Gu­atemala, Hon­duras, Nicaragua and the Philip­pines who took sev­eral fruit and chem­i­cal com­pa­nies (in­clud­ing Dole, Chiq­uita and Del Monte) to court, have re­ceived set­tle­ments to com­pen­sate for their in­juries. Then there’s Car­rillo, who, seven years ago joined the 1 per cent of farm­ers in this re­gion who work on a fair trade or­ganic ba­nana plan­ta­tion.

“They don’t spray me any more,” he says. “I get med­i­cal help if I’m in­jured at work. I even get a bas­ket with a chicken in it at Christ­mas time.” Now a con­tract em­ployee of UROCAL, a fair trade co­op­er­a­tive, Car­rillo works on one of 300 fam­i­ly­owned plan­ta­tions that ship a com­bined 216,000 ba­nanas to Canada ev­ery week. But un­less you shop at one of five spe­cialty shops in Toronto, chances are you’ll never see or taste one of Car­rillo’s ba­nanas.

Even at Loblaw, which sells fair trade ba­nanas from Colom­bia, only a small por­tion of ba­nanas are cer­ti­fied fair trade. Eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able by a higher price tag, last week fair trade ba­nanas were $2.18 a kilo, com­pared with $1.74 for con­ven­tional ba­nanas.

Sup­pli­ers say costs are higher for two rea­sons. Fair trade co­op­er­a­tives rep­re­sent unions of smallscale farm­ers whose pro­duce is usu­ally or­ganic and har­vested and shipped in smaller quan­ti­ties. About seven cents (U.S.) per ba­nana goes back to the farmer. Farm­ers of­ten re­ceive lower re­turns from tra­di­tional ba­nana sales. Back in Machala, a small but grow­ing com­mu­nity of fair trade pro­duc­ers say they could ship far more pro­duce to Canada if the de­mand were greater.

“Right now we can’t find enough for­eign buy­ers to buy what we have,” says Joaquin Vasquez, pres­i­dent of UROCAL.

“It’s com­plex try­ing to run a fair trade op­er­a­tion. Not only do you have to or­ga­nize the pro­duc­ers, but you also have to cre­ate a cer­tain type of con­sumer. You have to ed­u­cate them. Tell them what it means to be fair trade. Ex­plain to them the dif­fer­ence.”

Aside from Ger­many, Canada is UROCAL’s only in­ter­na­tional trad­ing part­ner. The co­op­er­a­tive sends 216,000 ba­nanas to Canada each week through Equicosta — a mother-daugh­ter im­port duo based in Montreal.

Ac­cord­ing to Danielle Marchessault, one-half of Equicosta, only a third of the ba­nanas she brings into Montreal make it to gro­cery stores in On­tario. That’s be­cause most ma­jor gro­cers aren’t in­ter­ested in deal­ing with small sup­pli­ers, even if they do rep­re­sent a good cause.

“It’s not that there isn’t a mar­ket for fair trade ba­nanas in On­tario,” Marchessault says. “I think it’s just hard for big su­per­mar­kets to think small. They’ve been do­ing busi­ness with multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions for a long time.” Some of those multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions have ques­tion­able track records.

It was near Machala that 1,400 em­ploy­ees of Al­varo Noboa — the rich­est man in Ecuador, and owner of the Bonita la­bel — tried in 2002 to or­ga­nize a union to de­mand ac­cess to health care and a guar­an­tee to be paid at least the state-es­tab­lished min­i­mum wage. Be­fore long, 124 work­ers were fired. The rest went on strike.

Within days, masked men car­ry­ing ri­fles are said to have stormed work­ers’ homes, dragged them out kick­ing and scream­ing and beat them. Shots were fired and 19 peo­ple were in­jured. The strike was bro­ken and life on the ba­nana plan­ta­tions went back to nor­mal. The same year, Hu­man Rights Watch in­ves­ti­gated al­le­ga­tions of hu­man rights abuses on con­ven­tional ba­nana plan­ta­tions around Machala. The group spoke to 45 child labour­ers; most said they had be­gun work­ing on the plan­ta­tions be­tween the ages of eight and 13.

Work­days for the chil­dren were said to last 12 hours and of­ten in­cluded ex­po­sure to toxic pes­ti­cides. Hu­man Rights Watch es­ti­mated fewer than 40 per cent of the young labour­ers were still in school.

Re­duc­ing child labour in the ba­nana trade is gov­ern­ment pol­icy in Ecuador. In­spec­tors with the labour min­istry in Machala say child labour on Dole, Del Monte, Noboa and Chiq­uita farms has fallen by 70 per cent in the past four years but re­mains a wide­spread prob­lem.

Fair trade in Canada is still in its in­fancy. Ac­cord­ing to Tran­sFair Canada — Canada’s only non-profit cer­ti­fier of fair trade goods — fair trade-cer­ti­fied fresh fruit has been avail­able in Canada only since 2004, with sales ris­ing from 185,039 kilo­grams in 2004 to 1,483,786 kilo­grams last year.

Tran­sFair spokesman Michael Zelmer says Equicosta and Loblaw’s de­ci­sion to bring fair trade ba­nanas into the do­mes­tic mar­ket is re­spon­si­ble for much of that in­crease. “There’s ob­vi­ous room for growth,” says Zelmer. Canada is the sixth largest fair trade mar­ket in the world, com­ing be­hind the U.K., U.S., Ger­many, France and Switzer­land. Star re­porter Brett Pop­plewell re­cently trav­elled to Ecuador on a fel­low­ship awarded by the Cana­dian News­pa­per As­so­ci­a­tion and funded by the Cana­dian In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment Agency.


Guayas Fer­nan­dez, one of a hand­ful of fair trade or­ganic farm­ers in Machala, Ecuador, car­ries a bunch of freshly picked fruit. It is sold in Canada, but not in most ma­jor GTA gro­cery stores.


Sold at the Marche Cen­trale in Montreal, this box holds some of the 216,000 fair trade ba­nanas that are shipped to Canada each week.


Dolores and Guayas Fer­nan­dez are among a hand­ful of fair trade or­ganic farm­ers in Machala, Ecuador, ba­nana cap­i­tal of the world.


Danielle Marchessault and daugh­ter Julie, mon­key­ing around at Montreal’s Marche Cen­trale, im­port fair trade pro­duce from Ecuador.

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