Bananas, Bulldozers and Bullets -

Chiquita Banana

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 forest.

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" program.

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 public.

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 Union.

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 damage.

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 through.

Transnational Corporations & the Third World