Alistair Smith, Banana Link's International Coordinator and one of the co-founder's of the new World Banana Forum explains why bananas are more than just Britain's favourite fruit. In the first of a two-part blog he summarises nearly two decades of efforts to rid an industry of its reputation for unfair trade.
Bananas and their close cousins plantains are vital to the basic diet of tens of million of households across the tropics, from Indonesia to Ecuador via most of Africa. They have also become the most internationally traded fruit in the world and are a consumer favourite from North America, the UK and the rest of Europe through to the Middle East, Japan and, most recently, South America and Russia. Some would say they are the ultimate cheap fast food.
But bananas are also a classic example of the inequalities that exist between producers and marketers, and of abuses of workers' and trade union rights.
In the 1980s, the big banana companies like Geest, Del Monte and Chiquita were profiting from what even they called ‘Green Gold'. But the ‘gold' was not shared fairly with those who did most of the work in the fields of the Caribbean islands or the plains of Latin America.
Thanks to the work of organisations as diverse as Christian Aid, the French CGT, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Banana Link and the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers, millions of people in consumer countries now have some awareness that these tropical commodity chains deliver most of the profits to the big national and global retailers - and not to workers in the fields and packhouses.
Plantation workers - Paying the price of the banana wars
The so-called ‘Banana Wars' - the long running trade dispute between the EU and Latin America over tariffs - are now officially over. But all that has really happened, at least in the UK and to a lesser extent in the USA and Europe, is their transferral to the world of retail.
At several points in the last ten years, banana prices to British consumers have fallen well below the cost of delivering them to Dover or Portsmouth. In the (mistaken) belief that it will bring more shoppers through their doors, supermarkets have followed each other down every time their competitor makes a consumer price cut. In late 2009, Aldi was selling at 35p a kilo when the cost of a kilo delivered to the port in the producer country was no less than 25p per kilo!
Even if it is retail margins that take the hit, the fact is that consumer prices are on average more than one third less than they were a decade ago. As the weakest link in the chain, plantation workers pay the price, with only their labour to sell and long queues of unemployed or migrant workers waiting to fill their shoes if they refuse lower and lower wages and daily violations of their human and labour rights.
Efforts to stall the race to the bottom
After making contact with Latin American plantation workers' unions and fair trade organisations in continental Europe, we convened the different interested parties in Europe and the European Banana Action Network was launched in 1994 to explore alternatives to unfair trade and to support a transformation of production systems that harmed workers, family farmers and their communities in 15 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
My next blog will deal with the concerted international efforts to reverse the race to the bottom in banana prices, in which small farmers - whose market share has more than halved in the same period - and plantation and packhouse workers end up paying for our supermarket wars. At last, some of the more responsible retailers have not only acknowledged the problem and that they are part of that problem, but have started to act to resolve it.
Even if nearly one banana in three sold in Britain is either Fairtrade-labelled or organic, a sustainable banana economy remains a distant goal. The good news is that this goal is now shared by most of the big players and a growing handful of governments - not just the trade unions and small famers themselves.