What I Learned Watching ‘Banana Land’

Banana Land: Blood, Bullets, and Poison

I absolutely adore documentaries. They offer a glimpse into how most everyone else lives in the world. They highlight issues that we never knew about. And they’re crucial to getting important information out, particularly when we need to preserve something and/or incite change. Today, I watched Banana Land: Blood, Bullets, & Poison, created in 2014. And I am outraged. Horrified.

While I had heard about Chiquita’s history of inciting violence in order to keep their banana business going, this documentary gave me the low down on just how horrible companies like Chiquita, Dole, Dow Chemical, and Shell Oil really are. And how the people most devastated by these practices are Latin Americans. But that’s not the only thing I learned and I don’t plan to keep my newfound knowledge to myself. So, I’m sharing six things that I learned while watching Banana Land: Blood, Bullets, & Poison

Americans Eat a Lot of Bananas

Bananas: Photo courtesy of Pexels

Maybe it’s because apples are portrayed as so American (they are grown in all 50 states), but I had no idea that bananas are the most consumed fruit in the U.S. In fact, also according to Banana Land, 96% of Americans eat bananas every year, the average one consuming a whopping 26 pounds of them. 

Bananas Are Cheap Thanks to Exploitation

19 cent bananas, courtesy of Metro US

So, we now know that there is a massive demand for bananas in the United States and any trip to the grocery store will show you the prices are incredibly low despite it being the country’s favorite fruit. You can get individual bananas at Trader Joe’s for only 19 cents. Apples, on the other hand, are up to twice as much per pound than bananas, despite being grown “within a few hundred miles from the store” and keeping much longer. We learn this information from Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, who is featured in the documentary, as well as this article for Freakonomics

Koeppel talks in Banana Land about how these rock-bottom prices for bananas are achieved – exploitation. Big banana producers rely on pesticides, low wages, union-busting to keep prices low, hurting the environment and their workforce along the way. I

Bananas Came to America Through UFC’s Monopoly 

UFC Map, courtesy of Señora G

In Banana Land, you’ll learn that in 1899, the existing Boston Fruit Company joined with a “struggling railman” (Minor C. Keith) to create the United Fruit Company. In order to create its monopoly on bananas, they also monopolized transport, “controlled shipping at all major ports in the region,” added radio outlets that pushed propaganda, and propped up oppressive regimes, which guaranteed the United Fruit Company cheap land and labor. The reach of UFC was so extensive that they became known as “El Pulpo” (“The Octopus”).

There Was a “Banana Massacre” in Ciénaga, Colombia

Latinx picket line, courtesy of The Ryder

I had no idea that the terror behind the companies that sell us bananas extended to Colombia, where the maternal side of my family is from. It started with the unfair working conditions placed on laborers in Colombia’s Banana Zone. Workers banded together to strike, asking for basic rights such as an eight-hour workday, a six-day workweek, and a written contract that included working conditions similar to those in America. Instead of granting these fair requests, the United Fruit Company called these Colombians “communists and radicals.” On December 6, 1928, the Colombian military, with the support of the U.S. State Department, murdered 1,000 people (this number is according to the documentary; estimates range from 47 to 2,000 people killed).

Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of the United Fruit Company’s (now Dole) crimes against Colombia. Besides the long-lasting trauma the 1928 attack caused families, the actions of the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) inspired the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to form during the 1960s. The company also illegally paid money to the AUC (United Self Defense Forces of Colombia; from 1997 to 2004), who kept civilians terrified and in control through murder, assault, and intimidation. 

WWII Chemicals Are Destroying Lives in Latin America Today

Fumigation, courtesy of IMDb

DDT was one of the chemicals used during WWII and during the mid-20th-century, leftovers of these chemicals were used to “launch the Green Revolution.” The spraying of harmful chemicals in Latin America began as “testing.” According to Banana Land, when Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring warned against pesticides, things became stricter in the United States and Europe, but not in Latin America. 

The Standard Fruit Company used toxic chemicals such as DBCP in countries including Nicaragua and Ecuador. In this documentary, we see male workers in Nicaragua, as well as in the United States, who became sterile after continuously coming into contact with the toxic substance. Some workers in Nicaragua would apply it by hand, drink from water containing DBCP, and bathe in the sprinklers, unaware that it was dangerous to do so. But Standard Fruit Company knew.

In Ecuador, we watch as a plane dumps pesticides right next to Nuestra Sra del Carmen Special Needs School. Many kids in the area have birth defects/disabilities, no doubt due to the constant exposure to insecticides. Even the pilots dropping the chemicals have crashed numerous times due to their systems becoming overwhelmed. 

EPA rules state there should be a set distance between the fumigation area and a populated area, as well as a 24-hour re-entering wait period, but in much of Latin America, these rules are ignored. Instead, residents and workers are literally getting sprayed on their skin, and in their eyes. The result is cancer, sterility, altered DNA chromosomes, birth defects, liver failure, “skin maladies, and chemical sensitivity.” All in the greedy quest for inexpensive bananas. 

We Need to Boycott Bad Bananas

Boycott Chiquita, courtesy of Button Museum

When you learn injustice is wrapped into one of your everyday products, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed – but take that feeling and your small part in the problem and turn it into action. Personally, I’m not buying any more bananas from Chiquita, Dole, or Favorita, and you shouldn’t either. Instead, let’s shop fair-trade whenever we can. I’m also saying no gracias to Shell gasoline. In addition to boycotts, Banana Land tells viewers to support workers who want to organize, push for studies that show/prove the health hazards of certain chemicals (as well as the combination of chemicals used on crops), and to demand diversity in bananas so that there isn’t a monoculture

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