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The long road to ethical bananas: Part 2

The long road to ethical bananas: Part 2
4 February 2011

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 second of a two-part blog he summarises current efforts by diverse stakeholders to transform the global industry.

 A race to the top?

In the Flemish Parliament in the heart of Brussels on April 30th 2005, the 250 assembled fruit companies, banana growers, trade unions, governments and UN agencies including the International Labour Organisation, retailers and civil society organisations - from four continents - declared their collective interest in the creation of a permanent multi-stakeholder forum. The idea of a global forum was to fill a void and facilitate much-needed dialogue and cooperation amongst the different players who rarely met each other face to face, let alone spend three days in the same room debating the hottest issues of price, wages, violations of basic labour rights, environmental damage and international trade rules.

Despite the extreme heat of the ongoing banana "trade wars" at that moment, a genuine political will emerged amongst the assembled players to work together to find practical solutions to the economic, social and environmental problems facing the entire banana chain. The theme of this second International Banana Conference - convened again by the broad South-North civil society coalition of trade unions, small farmers and NGOs - was "Reversing the Race to the Bottom". At the time, this title may have seemed vain or utopian to many participants, even for some of us organisers!

However, nearly six years later, the first signs of real transformation are visible, although for the majority of the million or so plantation workers and small growers these signs of hope may still seem elusive at ground level.

Governments as key players, economics on the menu

The much-heralded World Banana Forum - complete with a tag-line of "Working Together for Sustainable Banana Production and Trade" - was launched on 8th December 2009 by some 150 organisations, institutions and companies. Later the same week, when the world's eyes were more focused on a Northern European capital (Copenhagen) than on the headquarters of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome, the governments assembled in FAO's Inter-Governmental Group approved the creation of the Forum and agreed that the UN agency should incorporate this unprecedented collective effort in its work programmes.

For the record, the motion of support was proposed by the Dominican Republic, 'capital' of organic banana production, and Uganda, the world's biggest per capita consumer of bananas, reflecting the Forum's scope that prioritises the international trade, but also recognising the critical importance for household food security of banana and plantation production in a broad band of tropical countries from Indonesia to Colombia and Pacific Islands. The support of the UK's Department for International Development to the international preparatory process and over the last twelve months has proved decisive. The grant not only meant that civil society from producing countries was present in force, but it has also permitted the creation of the World Banana Forum secretariat based in FAO's Trade and Markets Division to facilitate multi-stakeholder efforts (contact wbf@fao.org for more detailed information than is on the website).

Permanent Working Groups on the priority themes were launched: covering labour rights, the distribution of value along the chain, sustainable production and environmental impacts, certifications and reducing agrochemical use. A year or so down the road, highlights of the work in progress include:

  • The two leading US-based fruit companies cooperating with scientists and small farmers on developing sustainable production practices, including pesticide reduction strategies and transfers of knowhow between regions and continents
  • A global retailer, Latin American trade unions, the biggest fruit company, the government of the world's largest exporter and small-scale organic fair trade farmers launching pilot living wage initiatives in Latin America and West Africa and sharing information on costs of production and marketing
  • Global fruit companies, women trade union leaders, an African company and the UK's Ethical Trading Initiative developing a work plan to ensure trade union rights, free collective bargaining and gender discrimination in the workplace and in employment policies
  • Participant organisations aiming to fund at least one third of the functioning of the international secretariat and core Working Group programmes, with new governmental donors committing their support
  • The active support of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to the process.

"Competitive solidarity" for a sustainable banana economy?

The Merkel plan for the EU economy announced in Madrid yesterday uses the term, at least in the French media, "competitive solidarity". This new formulation does not derive from an explicit vision of a transition of the regional or global economy towards a more sustainable model, but it does reflect the notion that Europe's future depends on tangible inter-governmental cooperation that is informed by the spirit of human solidarity. The very fact that this quasi-taboo word has entered the highest levels of political and economic dialogue should be seen as positive. It is similar to the spirit which drives the World Banana Forum and its mission and objectives.

Even repeated and much-vaunted calls for "South-South cooperation", a term also virtually banished from the international vocabulary after the infamous Cancun "New World Order" summit of 1980, are now being translated into new realities; the rise of "new" powers on the world stage like China, Brazil, India or South Africa - some of the biggest producers and consumers of bananas, mainly within their own borders - is opening new doors in the emerging multi-polar world.

It is such new realities of the globalised economy that are the backdrop to our hopes that the World Banana Forum can trace new paths for agricultural, agro-industrial and industrial product chains. Workers along the chain, producers and consumers all have a hisotric reponsibility to turn these hopes into practice. If in five years time, the majority of plantation workers have not noticed the difference that the Forum is making, then we can we can conclude that a promising initiative has failed. If there are less and less small producers able to access the international market, if food insecurity has spread further in banana and plantain growing countries, and if consumers in many countries cannot find ethical bananas in their neighbourhood, then our efforts will have been in vain.

 Read Part 1 of Alistair's blog here