Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's Fair (Trade) World After All

At least we all wish it were. Many of the products we consume come from questionable origins, in which the environment and local people that are most directly impacted by our purchases get the short end of the deal. Bananas, those tropical fruits that form the basis for many school lunchboxes, smoothie bars, and cartoon pranks, have a history of social and environmental mistreatment.

Banana plantation near Ranomafana, Madagascar

Banana cultivation goes back at least 7,000 years in Southeast Asia. Over time, the fruit spread out into Africa, hitting Madagascar first. However, bananas were not widely known or consumed in Europe and North America until the 19th century! Plantations were thus largely a New World phenomenon, as a market in the north became available with refrigeration and more efficient rail transportation. The concept of a "Banana Republic" was born around this time, stemming from the large agribusinesses begun by railroad tycoons (the precursors of Dole and Chiquita). Remembered for the unequal distribution of wealth, a form of imperial domination, and political corruption, the period of the Banana Republic incited rebellion and a massacre that spurred rebellion and violence. While the situation for workers improved, trade policy fostered a supportive environment for large agribusiness rather than smallholder farmers. And thus we come to the need for measures such as Fair Trade designations.

Chiquita, the large agribusiness that holds a quarter of the global banana market (2007; UNCTAD), was recently certified by Rainforest Alliance. And in the past few years, Dole, which also comprises about a quarter of the banana market, began selling Fair Trade bananas certified by Transfair. While this movement towards corporate social responsibility (CSR) appears to be a step in the right direction, years of justified distrust on the part of many environmental groups and conscious consumers has led to skepticism over whether these certifications are anything more than "greenwashing."
See the banana plants in this mixed agro-ecosystem landscape? A mix of forest, rice paddies, banana, and homesteads lends itself to higher biodiversity, maintained productivity, and sustained ecosystem health.

Whether it's greenwashing or not, the awareness around the production of products like bananas has grown substantially in recent years. So, while I don't care for cooked bananas (or fostered), I will continue to make my tasty banana, strawberry, kale smoothies. At least in moderation...

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