Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Banana Republic

Depending on your age when you hear the phrase “banana republic” you likely think of a repressive undeveloped Latin American dictatorship, or you think of hip clothes of the sort worn by colonials who were elites in tropical countries.

From now on, when I hear “banana republic” I will think of Dole’s corporate banana operations in Ecuador.

After meeting with Rebeca at the Fundacion Macquipucuna and her attempt to manage cloud forest crops of cacao and coffee in careful, sustainable ways, I was interested in going to our next stop outside Guayaquil, one of Dole’s large banana operations. Bananas are one of Ecuador’s largest exports and Dole is one of the largest producers. Five million boxes of bananas are shipped weekly from Ecuador, and Dole ships a million of them. Dole is the largest exporter of Ecuadorean bananas.

Dole owns relatively little land or facilities in Ecuador, unlike its operations in Costa Rica where it owns half of its growing operations. Instead, Dole contracts with Ecuadorian growers who agree to accept Dole’s technical direction and audits. Instability in government policies toward foreign companies has made foreign investors wary in Ecuador.

Dole pays slightly less than some other companies such as Chiquita and Del Monte, but Dole buys year round, not only during the preferred selling season and therefore has a stake in sustaining grower relations. Dole sells to Costco, Ralphs and other major retailers in the U.S. as well as to markets in South America and Europe.

We were met at a gas station on the outskirts of Guayaquil by Jorge, Dole’s regional quality assurance manager in Ecuador. He has been with the company for 20 years and is clearly proud of the way the Dole operations are run. Jorge lead us down miles and miles of banana plantations, some of which carry the Dole name. The Dole plantations are neater and obviously more productive.

We had asked UC Davis alumna Rebeca Justicia of the Maquipucuna Foundation what to look for when visiting the planations. She said that the damage done by banana monoculture took place many years ago and that to change it now would cause the loss of many jobs. Instead, she said to look for the use of plastic to cover the hanging bananas to protect them from insects and blemishes, the use of metal rather than bamboo props to hold up the ripening fruit, child labor, the use and half-life of chemicals, the management of water, and protection and payment of workers.

When we arrived at Primo Bananas we saw an operation in full swing, literally. A metal trolley system ran throughout the banana groves and heavy bunches of bananas as much as 5 feet long came swinging along a metal wire into a processing area.

A worker hosed each bunch down with a detergent – yes, they had had protective plastic coverings which were recycled – and then the 10-12 “hands” or mega-bunches were cut off the stalk and floated during sorting and cutting into smaller bunches.

Why the plastic coatings on the bananas? It’s because North Americans want their fruit blemish-free. The Europeans and Argentineans will take a small blemish, South Americans care even less about the appearance of the peel, but North Americans want perfect looking fruit, even if the peel is thrown away. Hmmm, so we are the cause of all that plastic.

The U.S. market gets bunches of four to seven bananas and the Italian only four. We buy less frequently apparently and have larger kitchens.

Boxes of correctly sorted bananas are loaded into refrigerated containers headed for the Panama Canal. Perhaps we had seen the Dole containers when we were at the Port of Balboa
The workers had good conditions of work. The facility was clean, open and safe, though we noticed some things that wouldn’t pass an OSHA inspection.

Did they use chemicals? Yes, at this facility, which did not produce organic bananas, a fungicide was sprayed aerially to protect the leaves. The half-life of the chemical is 32 minutes and they keep workers out of the groves for a day after the chemical becomes inert. There were no children working, only young adults.

We passed recreational and housing facilities and schools built by a Dole-supported foundation. Dole wants educated workers, and wants the workers to stay in the rural area. Without schools for their children they leave for the city. Social amenities are a cost of doing business, though I think Jorge was proud of Dole’s contribution.

Clearly we had been shown a model banana plantation, and perhaps others are not so carefully managed. But Dole has ISO 9000 and 14000 certifications, and social accountability certifications which means they are open to audit. They are concerned with food safety – as they should be after last year’s tainted spinach in California’s Salinas Valley – and their practices seem thoughtful and prudent.

After a day in “Banana School,” where we learned about cultivation and processing practices, I think we were all impressed by the care with which those bananas floating in our cereal bowls were produced.

We saw a banana republic under modern management.


Francesca said...

Thank you so much for this blog - I learned some things that I've been wondering for years and years about banana production - and confirmed some things I believed about the non-malevolent - but consequential - hypocrisy of American banana eaters. - I sure hope you will keep the blogs coming!

Spicy Green Mango said...

Hi Dean Biggart! I'm a newly admitted student into the Davis MBA program and I wanted to thank you for shedding new light on the term "Banana Republic." Now, I'll be thinking of this blog and Ecuador when I hear BR. I'm excited to join the GSM, but sad to hear of your departure. I hope you'll still continue to blog as your posts have always been so insightful!