Belize and Bananas




O

n January 1, 2006 a small
banana export market in the sparsely populated country of Belize
suffered an enormous blow. After 11 years of negotiations in WTO
courts, U.S. and Latin American banana exporters succeeded in chiseling
away ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) market protections. ACP
status was created in the late 1960s by six Western European nations
as an economic safety net for their former colonies. This safety
net, now an EU-wide program, consists of aid for development projects
and a tariff free quota import system for all ACP member countries.
This bandaging of a system promises former colonies access to EU
banana import markets. 


The ACP safety net has made so called “post-colonial”
Caribbean nation states, such as Belize, the Windward Islands, and
Jamaica, economically dependent on UK agricultural markets. Although
the ACP system has undermined national independence by closely re-tethering
former colonies to parent countries, the global market trend of
privileging corporations has made it impossible for commodity producers
to compete without compromising sovereignty and sacrificing environmental
resources and human rights. 


Inexpensive mass agricultural production requires thousands of flat
acres to enable increased dependence on mechanized production and
smaller workforces. Banana producing countries with hilly topographies
rely on a number of smaller farms requiring extensive (and costly)
irrigation systems and a limited reliance on mechanized production
capacity. Areas frequently subject to devastating wea- ther (storms,
earthquakes, drought) face double the likelihood of crops being
damaged beyond saleability in a global market where agricultural
products are required to be uniform in color, shape, and size. Thus
ACP countries have come to depend on subsidies and promised market
access, as overhead costs are too high to gain market access elsewhere.
 


ACP banana market protections are governed by the EU trade and tariff
laws, dozens of smaller trade agreements, banana distribution corporations,
and, in the case of Belize, the UK. In 1995 the WTO, too, claimed
jurisdiction over the ACP system. Within months of the WTO’s
inception, the U.S. and Dollar Banana producers (bananas grown in
Latin America for U.S. owned corporations) filed a case against
the EU, citing ACP subsidies as a barrier to free trade. Those leading
the grievances against the EU were not banana farm workers or trade
unions, but local industry elites and U.S. banana corporations.
Not surprisingly they are the same variety of leaders who once encouraged
U.S. military operatives to overthrow democratic governments to
create so-called banana republics. 








Few
consumers and citizens of Dollar Banana countries understand that
the erosion of ACP protections will not benefit the citizens of
Dollar Banana producing countries or consumer freedom. The erosion
of ACP benefits will only allow corporations producing Dollar Ban-
anas to further control the global banana market. By placing market
control in a smaller number of corporations, both consumers and
producer countries will be forced to accept greater limitations
on price and distribution company options. 


More importantly, ACP countries will be subject to national economic
turmoil. Most ACP agricultural producers are dependent on their
agricultural exports. Belize’s banana exports to the UK make
up 20 percent of its national export market. Currently, subsidies
allow Fyffes, Belize’s sole banana distributor since 1973,
to purchase bananas at a low cost while producers receive a sum
much closer to the actual production costs. Without subsidies, the
Belizean banana market price will lower, causing a devaluation of
the banana. If a devaluation occurs, producers will grow more in
an attempt to remain afloat, flooding the market with an excess
supply and causing market prices to collapse. 


According to Sam Mathias, operations manager of Belize’s Banana
Growers Association, “If market prices collapse, then in turn
so will producers whose costs are high (as lower prices will inevitably
be passed down). Growers will increasingly cut corners to save pennies
and in addition will not have the financial backing to re-build
after severe climatic patterns that may disrupt production (such
as hurricanes or low temperatures). Without a minimum threshold
volume, it will be uneconomic to continue purchasing from Belize.”
In the simplest terms, if required to pay the actual market price
of Belizean bananas out of pocket, Fyffes will not buy Belizean
bananas, leaving the industry in a state of collapse. 


The current Belizean banana regime was erected in the 1970s during
a UK banana shortage. Since then, farmers have tried to diversify,
but are met with the same geographic constrictions they have with
bananas. The global trade regime is not favorable to countries unable
or unwilling to exploit and ravage their environmental and labor
resources. 


As it stands, the current global trade regime encourages producers
to save pennies, no matter the environmental or human cost. Anticipating
the loss of an assured market, ACP producers have, in the last few
years, begun to cut corners. In Belize most farm owners began by
lowering hourly wages and have since begun to pay by the piece or
acre, instead of by the hour. This system does not take into account
supervisors who do not tally the correct number of acres harvested
or boxes of bananas packed by each worker. Events that prohibit
workers from completing tasks—such as mechanical problems due
to poor upkeep and aging machinery or the increased time and effort
it takes to transport bananas from the field into the shed during
rainy season—are not taken into account when determining by-the-piece
wages.  


As icing on the cake, some farms in the Stann Creek District encourage
supervisors to push production workers faster via verbal and physical
intimidation by providing supervisors with economic bonuses.  Most
workers are already selling their labor at below minimum wage, an
illegal practice. 


In addition, the practice of farm management offices retaining workers’
passports inhibits them from moving to another farm or protesting
conditions. If workers lose their jobs, their visas are no longer
valid; if a job is lost while the employer is still in possession
of a worker’s passport, the passport too may be lost and the
worker deported. Fearing deportation, numerous workers from Guatemala
and Honduras employed on banana farms in the Stann Creek District
expressed ambivalence towards Belizean workers’ efforts to
organize. 








In
a similar vein, farm owners have cut costs by ignoring safety issues.
On some Belizean farms, packing shed workers spend up to ten hours
a day handling chemicals, but many farmworkers said they were not
provided with informational about chemicals other than “wash
your hands.” Packing shed workers are expected to purchase
their own aprons to keep from getting soaked with watery detergent
while moving bananas from washtubs to trays, but are not provided
with or encouraged to purchase gloves that tie at the wrist to reduce
chemical contact. 


Environmental impacts from heavy chemical usage include contaminated
drinking water sources, depleted soil nutrients, and destruction
of riparian zones. Riparian zones are composed of the organic plant
matter that lines a river’s shore. Because soil in the riparian
is more fertile, a diversity of indigenous plant matter exists there.
This is clear cut and replaced with a single crop, such as bananas.
This in turn exhausts the soil of nutrients, making it more difficult
to grow products without the aid of additional chemicals. The clear
cutting of the riparian creates a path for chemicals to enter rivers
either through irrigation canals or by soil erosion during the rainy
season. 


A September 12, 2005 decision called for the eradication of quotas
on Dollar Bananas and the institution of a TO (Tariff Only) system
of 190 euros per metric ton. This decision lowers the proposed tariff
by 40 euros from the previously proposed tariff of 230 euros per
metric ton. A WTO decision will most likely not be reached in January
2006, dragging on the debate and increasing the possibility of an
even lower tariff. Mathias explained, “There is far too much
detail that needs to be sorted out for it to work smoothly despite
all the political statements.” This forced EU concession proves
that current market trends are geared towards corporations. 


People who have little choice other than to sell their labor for
less than minimum wage suffocate beneath the weight of First World
privilege. In this world determined by intricate webs of community,
economy, and history, people across the globe are bound together
by existing injustices.





Alexandra
Freedman is a recent BA recipient in history and women’s studies.