A Ripening Fair Trade Movement
Between Ecuador’s southwest coastal fields and the Boston-based fair trade company Equal Exchange ripens a movement to change the structure of the banana industry. The legacy of bananas in South America is a highly political one—many U.S. consumers do not know that this nutritious breakfast fruit also happens to be the symbol of twentieth century U.S. involvement in Latin America, the region’s capitalist transformation and intense popular struggle. This summer we began to build an interactive documentary film focusing on transnational efforts to amend the course of these contentious legacies: a pioneering partnership between Equal Exchange and a banana farming cooperative in Ecuador named El Guabo. There is a dearth of research on such efforts, and the voices of producers are often “lost in the jungle...the reality of their lives hidden beneath marketing copy.”3 We captured the story of a percolating movement uniting visionaries and fifth-generation banana farmers, emphasizing the human stories behind the alternative banana trade efforts. We traveled to Ecuador for six weeks this past summer to visit El Guabo, where we filmed the banana growing, harvesting and packaging processes and interviewed farmers and workers.
After our time in South America, we road-tripped around New England to document the distributor and consumer ends of the supply chain. The interactive documentary medium is the best way for us to tell this story using our complimentary reporting skills and passions for visual storytelling. We are in the midst of producing an interactive web experience that not only informs U.S. consumers about where their favorite fruit comes from, but also deepens our understanding of the grassroots movements increasingly renegotiating our global food system.
Small scale banana production has existed in Latin America since the 16th century, and bananas were first exported to foreign markets in the 19th century1. The last hundred years turned Latin America into the world’s top supplier of bananas; over three fifths of world banana exports are sourced from the region, with Ecuador as the main supplier2. Today, measured by value and volume, bananas are the major fresh fruit imported to the United States, with a per capita consumption of 25 pounds annually. Three companies comprise 80 percent of the market share: Dole Food Company, Chiquita and Del Monte Fresh Produce. These banana-exporting companies historically controlled large enclaves of land in Central American “Banana Republics” that kept workers under slave-like labor conditions.3 Contract farming in South America pushed out small farmers and created a cycle of dependency under the guise of autonomy4. The literature surrounding the banana trade relationship between the U.S. and Latin America has largely focused on Banana Republics, and land and labor struggles. In “Banana Wars,” Steve Striffler and Mark Moberg acknowledge the diversity in the region’s experience of banana cultivation, revealing country-specific struggles with layers of exploitation embedded in the banana trade. Our summer research used this historical framework to answer remaining questions about the impact of the banana’s loaded history on EE’s alternative trade model, the farmer cooperative movement around bananas and the feasibility of its expansion across countries with different contexts.
Equal Exchange (EE) was founded in 1986 by three food co-operative warehouse workers in Vermont and is credited to have pioneered the U.S. fair trade coffee movement5. While fair trade’s roots stem from Europe, the model developed in the United States in the early 1990s largely through a strong Central American solidarity movement exposing the exploitative nature of the growing coffee industry. EE defines fair trade as a model for small farmers and producers who are democratically organized. The purpose of this model is to bring positive development and social benefit to the farmers’ communities, ultimately changing the patterns of environmental destruction and social inequity that are built into the global food system. The company started by developing a successful fair trade Nicaraguan coffee brand and then expanded to tea and chocolate, adding bananas to its list of products in 2005. EE is the first and largest exporter of fair trade bananas to the United States. The U.S. fair trade movement developed largely thanks to pre-existing networks built by European alternative trade organizations6. Fair trade products, including bananas, are much more common in Europe and sold at large grocery chains. In the United States, in a similar way to organic certification, the fair trade label is unclear to most consumers who remain skeptics about the actual truth behind marketing campaigns. What began as an effort to prioritize small farmers has turned into an endeavor to minimize the cost for a maximized “social impact,” such as the effort to include plantation farming into certification8. In literature about fair trade, researchers question the sustainability and modus operandi of organizations like EE. The little existing research on fair trade bananas specifically analyzes the potential lessons to be learned from the European models of fair banana trading and from the success of fair trade coffee branding. Bananas have presented a challenge to EE because the small-farmer model in bananas is much weaker than in coffee, and the product is highly perishable.
The mainstay of fair trade is the small-farmer cooperative. This organizational model is perceived as the seed of a fairer, more democratic way small producers may successfully compete in international markets7. Latin Americanists such as Marcela Vasquez-Leon have focused on the cooperative model’s potential for socio-economic and political liberation of historically marginalized farm workers; the model’s capacity to empower farmers to integrate the global marketplace and rebuild their perceptions of their own agency and identity; and the balancing of local autonomy and solidarity while integrating into the international realm and meeting market quality standards. There is no research on banana cooperatives in South America because banana farmers in the area have not historically been organized that way. As Molly Doane points out in “Fair Trade and Social Justice: Global Ethnographies,” there is generally a need for a more in-depth understanding of these new ways farmers organize, and the differences in experiences and perceptions of fair trade amongst producers, distributors and consumers. Significantly, there is just a handful of films focused on fair trade coffee (Black Gold, 2006) and the history of bananas (Bananas!*, 2009), and there is currently no documentary telling the new half of the emerging fair trade banana story, especially through the lens of the farmer cooperatives at its source.
We spent six weeks in July and August immersing ourselves in El Guabo’s community and travelling around Ecuador to collect farmers’ and workers’ stories from within and outside the Equal Exchange supply chain. For the first half of our six-week stay in Ecuador we were based in El Guabo, where we visited dozens of Asoguabo farms and conducted interviews with small producers and workers. We spoke with people who were founders of the cooperative, some who had been suspended, those who only produced organic and others only growing conventional crops. We inquired about their labor and environmental practices and analyzed their perspectives on how Fair Trade has impacted their lives. Part of our reporting included an overnight visit with a mountain producer named Anibal, who illustrates the original vision of fair trade banana pioneers like Equal Exchange: to make room for small producers to compete in an industry rigged against them. After our stay with Anibal, though, we learned that it’s about much more than the market—it’s also about people owning their own land and livelihoods.
We also spoke with the farmers and cooperative directors about the challenges farmers face and the limitations of the fair trade model. The main issue seems rooted in the limited and homogenous U.S. consumer base; the demand is not great enough for the supply, and the supply chain is rougher since it is not contained within one institution like big importers. Consumers who purchase fair trade also prefer organic, but it is often impossible for small farmers living near big aerially fumigated plantations to get certified even though their farming practices might be organic. As a result, conventional fair trade is often sold to the conventional market at a price lower than the cost of production, and the social premium meant to fund community projects is used to cover operational costs. Finally, the growing trend of certifying plantation-based fair trade has created more competition for the original, small-producer vision of the movement. Prices are lower than they should be for the cost of the fair trade supply chain, and cheaper fair trade from plantations is more attractive. Importers and supermarkets now have more choices and thus Asoguabo’s producer membership has dropped from 400 to 150 in two years.
“After our stay with Anibal, though, we learned that it’s about much more than the market—it’s also about people owning their own land and livelihoods.”
While the fair trade model presents challenges, we also learned about the harsh realities of unassociated small producers. We spoke with Jimena, a baby banana farmer from the region Los Rios who shared her story of exploitation from intermediaries. Through legal loopholes, intermediary buyers buy small producer’s boxes at market value ($2 to $3.50) rather than official government prices (a standard $6.20 for non-organic). Organizations like Asoguabo help farmers circumvent this exploitative system and establish long-lasting committed relationships with mission-driven importers.
We also spoke with government officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, fair trade activists from the movement in Ecuador and banana workers suffering health problems due to fumigation. Our interviews led us to the essential conclusion that fair trade is especially viable in Ecuador due to a historical legacy of small-producer farms and a political climate in which the government is ideologically committed to shifting trade power balances. Fair Trade is a system with huge potential to create a better, more just food system. Convincing supermarkets and changing consumer habits are critical steps to that end.
Katherine Nagasawa and Leah Varjacques