Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Koeppel Interview Part 6

Back in early October, I had the opportunity to interview Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed Our World. Over the next few days, I'll be posting the interview in digestible chunks, but if you want to read the piece in its entirety, it is available in both the print, and online versions of the current Wheatsville Breeze.

Can you briefly discuss the politics of the banana industry and banana pricing?

One thing that is really important to understand, is that, the banana was unheard of up until about one hundred and twenty five years ago. When you look at bananas, you have to ask yourself, “Why are bananas so cheap?” This is a fruit that comes from at least two thousand miles away from just about anyone in the United States, maybe a thousand. It has to be shipped under refrigeration. It’s highly perishable. A banana last no more than fourteen days once it’s been cut from the tree, yet it costs significantly less than apples, which are grown one hundred to two hundred miles from most American super markets.

Now when the banana companies came to be, this was there strategy. They needed to make bananas cheap in order to beat apples. To do this they had to be brutal. They basically had to control their costs so radically, that they had to take over countries and enslave people. To make this fruit the number one fruit in the United States, at such cheap prices, they had to do terrible things.

For most of their history, starting in around 1890, and going up though the ‘50’s, and even to a large extent, today, banana companies had to cut a bloody path through Central, and South America. Using the U.S. military, banana companies overthrew governments in that region over twenty times. This what lead to the term Banana Republic, these were countries that were controlled by banana companies.

If any of your readers want to know more, they could look in my book, or they could look at any number of dozens of other books, but some of them might actually remember reading Gabriel García Márquez’s, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and in that book banana workers are massacred in a fictional town in Colombia, after coming out of church during a strike and the year is 1929. After they’re massacred, they and their families, their bodies are thrown into the sea. Well, this actual 1929 massacre really did occur, in Colombia, in the town of Santa Marta.

This massacre was ordered directly by a company called United Fruit against striking banana workers. United Fruit is today known as Chiquita, and it was just one of many massacres that was ordered. So, the history of bananas, and the history of banana pricing is a bloody and terrible one. It’s really important for people to remember, when they think about bananas that there are costs and benefits, and to remember that the banana industry invented globalization, as we know it. And that those issues still reverberate today, and are still important.

When we think about bananas as a product that may be disappearing, and when we think about adding new bananas to the market, and making bananas fairer by adding bananas that might cost more and that might benefit workers more, that we’re also thinking about ways that we might be reversing over a century of unfairness to banana workers who are being forced to work on a crop that is still very much a commodity, and that are still very much sold at prices that don’t allow a lot of help and health to the people that pick them.

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