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Bananas: A Parable for Our Times

The history of the banana tells us about the corporations that increasingly dominate the world -- and where they are leading us.
 
 
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Below the headlines about rocketing food prices and rocking governments, there lays a largely unnoticed fact: bananas are dying. The foodstuff, more heavily consumed even than rice or potatoes, has its own form of cancer. It is a fungus called Panama Disease, and it turns bananas brick-red and inedible.

There is no cure. They all die as it spreads, and it spreads quickly. Soon -- in five, 10 or 30 years -- the yellow creamy fruit as we know it will not exist. The story of how the banana rose and fell can be seen a strange parable about the corporations that increasingly dominate the world -- and where they are leading us.

Bananas seem at first like a lush product of nature, but this is a sweet illusion. In their current form, bananas were quite consciously created. Until 150 ago, a vast array of bananas grew in the world's jungles and they were invariably consumed nearby. Some were sweet; some were sour. They were green or purple or yellow.

A corporation called United Fruit took one particular type -- the Gros Michael -- out of the jungle and decided to mass produce it on vast plantations, shipping it on refrigerated boats across the globe. The banana was standardised into one friendly model: yellow and creamy and handy for your lunchbox.

There was an entrepreneurial spark of genius there -- but United Fruit developed a cruel business model to deliver it. As the writer Dan Koeppel explains in his brilliant history Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, it worked like this. Find a poor, weak country. Make sure the government will serve your interests. If it won't, topple it and replace it with one that will.

Burn down its rainforests and build banana plantations. Make the locals dependent on you. Crush any flicker of trade unionism. Then, alas, you may have to watch as the banana fields die from the strange disease that stalks bananas across the globe. If this happens, dump tons of chemicals on them to see if it makes a difference. If that doesn't work, move on to the next country. Begin again.

This sounds like hyperbole until you study what actually happened. In 1911, the banana magnate Samuel Zemurray decided to seize the country of Honduras as a private plantation. He gathered together some international gangsters like Guy "Machine Gun" Maloney, drummed up a private army, and invaded, installing an amigo as president.

The term "banana republic" was invented to describe the servile dictatorships that were created to please the banana companies. In the early 1950s, the Guatemalan people elected a science teacher named Jacobo Arbenz, because he promised to redistribute some of the banana companies' land among the millions of landless peasants.

President Eisenhower and the CIA (headed by a former United Fruit employee) issued instructions that these "communists" should be killed, and noted that good methods were "a hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker or kitchen knife". The tyranny they replaced it with went on to kill more than 200,000 people.

But how does this relate to the disease now scything through the world's bananas? The evidence suggests even when they peddle something as innocuous as bananas, corporations are structured to do one thing only: maximise their shareholders' profits. As part of a highly regulated mixed economy, that's a good thing, because it helps to generate wealth or churn out ideas. But if the corporations aren't subject to tight regulations, they will do anything to maximise short-term profit. This will lead them to seemingly unhinged behavior -- like destroying the environment on which they depend.