Bananas, Bulldozers and Bullets -
by Mike Gallagher & Cameron McWhirter
Earth Island Journal, Fall, 1998
(From the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper, June 28, 1998. The
article was later renounced by the Enquirer under pressure from
Chiquita Brands International)
Honduras - Nothing remains of Tacamiche but a few concrete
foundations. No one lives here any more but lizards and crows.
The churches are gone. The homes of the banana workers are gone.
After six decades as a community among Chiquita's banana fields
in northeastern Honduras, the village was plowed under in February
1996 by about 500 Honduran soldiers. Former residents have not
forgotten their village, nor have they forgiven Chiquita and its
subsidiary for the fact that soldiers with bayonets and bulldozers
forcibly evicted more than 600 people before wiping Tacamiche
off the map.
Chiquita tried to enforce its court eviction of the village
several times, but villagers refused to leave. The military came
into the village in February 1996 with tear gas, bulldozers and
rifles. In a statement issued through its attorneys, Chiquita
stated that the February eviction "took place peacefully
and no one was hurt." Tacamiche villagers dispute that claim.
Photographs of the event show soldiers with assault rifles forcibly
removing women and children as bulldozers destroy the village.
Chiquita television advertisements in the US show smiling,
tanned workers strolling through verdant, flowering jungles drenched
in sunshine. No one ever has made a commercial about Barrio Brooklyn,
a squatter's camp down the road from the seven large plantations
of Chiquita subsidiary Compania Bananera Atlantica Ltda. (COBAL)
at San Alberto in east-central Costa Rica.
In squalid camps and towns among the sweltering flatlands
of banana territory, workers interviewed by the Enquirer said
that in recent years working to produce Chiquita bananas has meant
less pay, fewer benefits, less union representation, unenforced
employment protections and little job security.
In the late 1980s and early l990s, officials at the company's
Cincinnati headquarters formulated policies that diminished union
influence on farms controlled by Chiquita and created plans to
limit workers' wages and benefits. These business practices include:
* Using computerized hiring logs in Honduras that alert Chiquita-controlled
farms when to rotate some workers at supposedly independent companies
before they can receive state-mandated salary and health benefits.
The companies are all, in fact, controlled by Chiquita. The rotations
also make union organization difficult.
* Financing the Solidarismo Movement in Costa Rica. The movement,
partially funded by Chiquita and other multinational companies,
supplants unions, takes management on its board, will not provide
legal representation to protect dismissed workers and does not
authorize workers to strike.
Chiquita and Pesticides
In the early l990s, almost 100 square miles of Costa Rican
grazing land and forests in the northeastern section of the country
were bought by banana companies like Chiquita and fumed into banana
fields. According to Costa Rican government statistics, 70,740
acres were in banana production nationwide in 1990. By 1995, that
number had jumped to 131,118 acres, an increase of more than 85
percent. The huge increase meant the loss of thousands of acres
of cattle farms and more than 13 square miles of primary rain
The increase in banana plantations led to a dramatic rise
in pesticide use in an area permeated by rivers and creeks that
flow into the Caribbean. The new plantations are located near
many sensitive forest preserves and conservation areas. Environmentalists
are concerned about pollution from pesticides causing fish kills
and other environmental problems.
The ecosytem of a banana plantation is extremely wet and hot.
The soil is very loose, helping the banana plants grow but also
making it easy for pesticides to spread throughout the system.
It often rains in these areas, flushing pesticides into the ground
and water table. The banana industry's answer to this dissipation
has been to apply pesticides frequently.
Chiquita's use of pesticides degrades and destroys rainforests
and poisons workers, sometimes fatally. Chiquita executives have
found that it is far cheaper to pay willing "environmental"
organizations to apply their stamp of approval than to pay for
cleaning up the problem. Chiquita's environmental cover comes
chiefly from its participation in the "Better Banana"
Chiquita's primary partner in green-washing is the Rainforest
Alliance, but the company also paid Conservation International
for its services on behalf of the company image. In a telephone
interview with Campaign for Labor Rights, Tim Hermach, founder
and director of the Native Forest Council, described Conservation
International as a major player in the green-washing-for-hire
business and described the Rainforest Alliance as a bit player.
The Rainforest Alliance stated that, while the alliance receives
no donations from Chiquita, it does charge a "fee" for
certification, paid to its Costa Rican partner, Fundacion Ambio,
the group that performs inspections on Chiquita farms. This fiscal
year, about 25 percent of Fundacion Ambio's $312,000 budget comes
from Chiquita fee payments. No certified plantation ever has had
its certification revoked for violations. Violations are not made
Chiquita's environmental partner, the Rainforest Alliance,
claims that Chiquita's "Better Banana" certified farms
apply only "products that are registered for use in the US,
Canada and Europe." But the Enquirer found that Chiquita
systematically uses chemical products that are not registered
for use in the US, Canada or one or more countries of the European
Sprayed in the Fields
The Enquirer found that, in clear violation of industry safety
standards, Chiquita subsidiaries spray toxic cocktails of pesticides
on their plantations without removing workers first. These aerial
sprayings can take place more than 40 times a year.
For aerial spraying, the company uses the fungicides propiconazole,
benomyl, mancozeb, zoxystrobin, thiophanate-methyl, tridemorph
and bitertanol. Propiconazole and benomyl have both been found
by the EPA to be possibly cancer-causing for humans. Mancozeb,
azoxystrobin, thiophanatemethyl and tridemorph are considered
hazards to fish. Bitertanol is not allowed for use on farms in
the US, while azoxystrobin and tridemorph are banned in Canada.
For workers, the unannounced aerial spraying is a constant
fear. "They never tell us about the aerial spraying. We just
see it coming and boom, it's here," Luis Perez Jimenez, 31,
a leaf cutter on a Chiquita plantation in Costa Rica, said through
a translator. Small crop dusters will fly low over the banana
trees and emit clouds of pesticides that settle over the tall,
leafy plants. They also settle on workers, nearby villagers, animals,
and open water. As two Enquirer reporters witnessed, on recently
sprayed farms the air is heavy with a stifling chemical stench.
Breathing is difficult and the pesticide residue covers everything.
Death on the Farms
On Nov. 13, 1997, an 18-year-old worker on a Chiquita banana
plantation in Costa Rica had been working since 5 a.m. At about
7:30 a.m., he was found writhing on the ground, choking and vomiting
a white substance. He was dead by 9:17 a.m.
One of the co-workers who brought his body to the medical
clinic stated: "He was working in an area... that had been
sprayed with the agrochemical Counter (the brand name for the
pesticide terbufos, an organophosphate) three days ago... and
he wasn't using any protective gear like gloves and mask."
The autopsy.. . determined that the man died from intoxication
from organophosphates, which caused internal bleeding and brain
On a nearby plantation, Enquirer reporters saw a work team
applying terbufos, classified as extremely hazardous to humans
by the World Health Organization. According to EPA guidelines,
once the pesticide is put on the ground, no one should be allowed
in the area for at least 24 hours unless wearing protective clothing
and a respirator.
But with the air thick with the heavy smell of pesticides,
the Enquirer team observed children from the nearby village playing
in the area amid open bags of terbufos and plants just treated
with the pesticide. No warning signs were posted and no workers
tried to stop the children from playing in the area or passing
Corporations & the Third World