Banana Political Ecology

Bananas are one of the world’s main food crops (4th in economic value) with over 100 million tons being produced per year, most of these bananas are a consumed in the tropics, but 15% are exported and are key exports of many poor countries. Daniel Kurtz-Phelan in the New York Times Book Review on Peter Chapman‘s book Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World:

For much of the 20th century, the American banana company United Fruit dominated portions of almost a dozen countries in the Western Hemisphere. It was, Peter Chapman writes in “Bananas,” his breezy but insightful history of the company, “more powerful than many nation states … a law unto itself and accustomed to regarding the republics as its private fiefdom.” United Fruit essentially invented not only “the concept and reality of the banana republic,” but also, as Chapman shows, the concept and reality of the modern banana. “If it weren’t for United Fruit,” he observes, “the banana would never have emerged from the dark, then arrived in such quantities as to bring prices that made it available to all.”…

Throughout all of this, United Fruit defined the modern multinational corporation at its most effective — and, as it turned out, its most pernicious. At home, it cultivated clubby ties with those in power and helped pioneer the modern arts of public relations and marketing. (After a midcentury makeover by the “father of public relations,” Edward Bernays, the company started pushing a cartoon character named Señorita Chiquita Banana.) Abroad, it coddled dictators while using a mix of paternalism and violence to control its workers. “As for repressive regimes, they were United Fruit’s best friends, with coups d’état among its specialties,” Chapman writes. “United Fruit had possibly launched more exercises in ‘regime change’ on the banana’s behalf than had even been carried out in the name of oil.”

… the company’s successor in the banana business, Chiquita Brands International, has admitted to paying nearly $2 million to right-wing death squads in Colombia. And the blow-back from United Fruit’s way of doing business still haunts Latin America. Just look at Guatemala — once United Fruit’s most treasured possession, now one of the Western Hemisphere’s most violent countries.“Guatemala was chosen as the site for the company’s earliest development activities,” a former United Fruit executive once explained, “because at the time we entered Central America, Guatemala’s government was the region’s weakest, most corrupt and most pliable.” When a left-wing democratic president named Jacobo Arbenz tried to roll back the company’s dominance in the 1950s (by, among other things, redistributing its fallow land), United Fruit executives saw it as an affront — and set out to help pressure the United States government to engineer a coup. Fortunately for them, virtually every major American official involved in the plotting had a family or business connection to the company itself.

More reviews of the book are available at the AV Club, LA Times, the Guardian, the Independent, and Down to Earth.

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