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