Banana Plantation Employees
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Bananas are a fruit that sustain hundreds of millions of people yet are not sustainable due to the process of growing them which causes damage to both the environment and to humans. Historically the working conditions for banana plantation employees have been poor primarily due to the chemicals involved in the production process which relies heavily on pesticides such as fungicides, herbicides, and nematicides (Mlot, 19).
Currently bananas are the third largest crop in Costa Rica following coffee and pineapples (Costa Rica). Banana plantations occupy 5 percent of the cultivated land and make up 20 percent of the countryÕs exports. Bananas are also the reason for 35 percent of the nationÕs pesticide imports (Wheat, 9). The use of plant protection chemicals per hectare is higher in Costa Rica than in most industrialized countries (Daly, 1118).
An average banana plantation worker starts work at 5 a.m. and works until 6 p.m. with a 30 minute lunch break. Employees could take more breaks but it would cost them too much. A crate of bananas sells for about 18 dollars in an international market with 2 dollars going to agricultural inputs and just over 1 dollar going to labor costs. This distribution translates into employees making between 5 and 15 dollars a day depending on the weather conditions and on the density of the crop. A confounding factor for banana plantation workers is that they rarely remain at one plantation for longer than three months. After that amount of time they are entitled to severance pay and other benefits so plantations usually fire workers before their third month is completed (Wheat). Unfortunately workers who protest these exploitations are usually either fired or put on a black list which prevents them from being hired by other banana plantations.
Banana plantations use extremely toxic chemicals on a scale few Northern consumers realize. Workers are exposed to chemicals through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact. Workers inhale chemicals when they are sprayed onto the plants or dropped from planes above plantations. Workers can also inhale dangerous chemicals through dust from contaminated soil. Workers ingest chemicals from residue left on their hands and because of chemical runoff into water supplies. Dermal or skin contact occurs due to crop dusting while workers are present and from workers handling the fruit. Together these exposures lead to high levels of daily chemical intake in workers and can even lead to acute pesticide poisoning over time (Wheat).
Common results of acute pesticide poisoning include sterility, allergies, and birth defects. An estimated 10,000 Costa Rican banana plantation employees were sterilized in the 1960Õs and 1970Õs by pesticide exposure. More recently, in 1987 the Pesticide Program determined that 6 percent of Costa RicaÕs salaried workers in banana growing regions experienced pesticide accidents (Wheat). A confounding factor in acute pesticide poisonings is the mixture of various pesticides which is common and is related to higher rates of poisonings (Kishi, 2).
Typical banana plantations in Central America apply 30 kilograms of pesticides per hectare each year which is 10 times more than the amount applied for intensive agriculture in developed nations. The pesticides used by banana plantations are categorized by the World Health Organization in the first and second most dangerous categories. In developed countries these hazardous pesticides are strictly controlled or even banned while in developing nations they are applied freely with little or no protective measures (Kishi, 2). The major types of pesticides are fungicides, herbicides, and nematicides.
Fungicides are applied to prevent fungus from growing on the plants but they tend to lose their effectiveness with overuse. Fungicides are applied to banana crops 40 times a year in the form of banana cocktails which are sprayed from above by crop dusters. Mancozeb also known as Monzate is one of the most common fungicides used in Costa Rica and is a suspected metabolic carcinogen and mutagen (Wheat).
Herbicides are applied to banana plantations 8-12 times a year. The most common herbicides are paraquat which causes severe skin burns and eye damage, and MonsantoÕs glysopahte also known as Round-Up which is a suspected carcinogen (Wheat).
The most concerning pesticides used on banana plantations are nematicides which are used to deworm plantations of nematodes. The most commonly used nematicides are terbufos (Counter), fenamifos (Nemacur), and etoprop (Mocap) which are applied 2-4 times a year. Nematicides are of great concern because they inhibit the action of an enzyme which plays an important role in the human nervous system. Damage to the human nervous system by such nematicides has been known to negatively affect reflexes and memory capacities (Wheat).
In Costa Rica the banana industry is currently undergoing a major shift as it attempts to change from a damaging industry to a sustainable one. Changes are occurring within some companies thanks to movements from conservation and environmental groups, but without demand for green bananas greater improvements are unlikely. One major banana producer, Chiquita, installed shower and laundry facilities for workers so that they can cleanse themselves and their clothes of chemical residues before leaving work. Also, Chiquita automated the application of some chemicals to keep employees out of contact with harmful materials. Another improvement is worker training to educate employees about working safely with chemicals and machinery (Mackey). Other improvements by Chiquita include posted schedules warning workers of crop dusting times and the use of kidney weed as a replacement for herbicides (Jackson, 23).
The Better Banana Project (BBP) is a certification that has been a successful catalyst for improving conditions for banana plantation employees. The program is sponsored by the Rainforest Alliance and is one of the oldest certification efforts. The BBP requires banana producers to maintain health and safety standards for employees. They must also display reduced pesticide use and other environmental practices and improvements such as recycling, proper waste disposal, and soil conservation. As of 2004, 15 percent of bananas in the global market were certified by this project (Mlot).
As of 2004 small and medium scale plantations were growing organic bananas in Costa Rica by planting bananas in shade in combination with other crops such as cacao. Thus consumers today have a much greater opportunity to purchase environmentally friendly bananas than they did ten years ago, but consumers still need to demand these organic products because less than 1 percent of bananas sold in the United States were organic in 2004 (Mlot). Also problematic is the consensus that further changes are unlikely to occur in the industry without greater demand because it is dominated by the economic elite (Mlot).
Since the 1990Õs steps have been taken to improve conditions for banana plantation employees by reducing exposure to the most damaging chemicals, yet little has been done to reduce exposure to other pesticides such as herbicides, fungicides, and disinfectants and their combinations (Wheat). Common recommendations to improve health conditions for banana plantation employees include education and training to promote the safe use of equipment and pesticides. Also necessary for major improvements is the banning of the most dangerous pesticides and the use of alternative methods to pest reduction in order to reduce the use of pesticides (Kishi, 2). One such alternative for impmroved banana production may involve conventional breeding and/or genetic engineering to make the crop more resistant to diseases and pests (Mlot).
Another recommendation for improving the industry is union organizing. Given the conditions described above and the underhanded practices of employers the industry is ripe for union organizing (Wheat). Union organizing would provide a safe venue for workers to communicate their needs and demands such as fair wages, hours, and long-term employment. Despite the aforementioned improvements by Chiquita there are still shortcomings. For example, the few banana union workers who make up a small portion of ChiquitaÕs employees were left out of the process of certification. These union issues need to be faced head on in order to improve working conditions for banana plantation employees (Jackson, 22).
Organic bananas grown by protected workers are unfortunately rare in the United States. It is important for consumers to understand where their food is grown, how, and by whom. With this information consumers can make informed decisions that demand improvements from unsustainable industries such as banana production. If people demand bananas produced with less pesticides and better worker conditions (which go hand in hand) then the situation in Costa Rica and throughout Central America would improve greatly (Wheat).
Daly, Gillian L., Ying D. Lei, Camilla Teixeira, Derek C. G. Muir, Luisa E. Castillo, and Frank Wania. 2007. Accumulation of Current-Use Pesticides in Neotropical Montane Forests. Environmental science & technology 41 (02/15) : 1118-1123.
Costa Rica. 2006. World Almanac & Book of Facts : 769-770.
Jackson, Rachael. 2007. Green Bananas? E Magazine: The Environmental Magazine 18, no. 1: 22-24.
Mlot, Christine. 2004. Greening the World's Most Popular Fruit. National Wildlife 42, no. 2: 18-19.
Mackey, Chris. [YEAR]. "Going bananas for Eco safety." Americas 49, no. 2: 3.
Misa Kishi, MD, DrPH. 2002. Acutely Toxic Pesticides. JSI Research and Training Institue, Inc. (June 6) : 1--41.
Wheat, Andrew. 1996. "Toxic bananas." Multinational Monitor 17, no. 9: 9.
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