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The dark history of bananas

Explore the history of the notorious United Fruit Company and how its influence over the banana industry impacted Central America.

By Betty-AnnPublished 9 months ago 3 min read
The dark history of bananas
Photo by Kamila Maciejewska on Unsplash

In the waning days of 1910, a daring voyage embarked from New Orleans, setting sail towards a tumultuous destiny. At its helm was Manuel Bonilla, an exiled former leader of Honduras, fueled by the desire to recapture power by any means necessary. Bonilla had a potent ally in the form of a shadowy entity, known throughout Latin America as El Pulpo, or "the Octopus," a moniker that signified its far-reaching influence. This enigmatic figure was none other than the United Fruit Company, the precursor to today's Chiquita Brands International.

Bananas, seemingly innocuous fruits, played a pivotal role in this intricate tale of power, corruption, and environmental consequences. Originating in Southeast Asia millennia ago, they found their way to the Americas in the early 1500s, where they were cultivated by enslaved Africans alongside sugar plantations. These early varieties bore little resemblance to the familiar bananas found in supermarkets today.

The 19th century witnessed enterprising captains from New Orleans and New England venturing into the Caribbean, experimenting with bananas and ultimately discovering the Gros Michel variety. This cultivar produced robust bunches of relatively thick-skinned fruit, ideal for long-distance shipping. By the late 1800s, bananas had become a sensation in the United States – affordable, available year-round, and even endorsed by medical professionals.

By Alistair Smailes on Unsplash

The booming banana industry, driven by U.S. fruit companies, was hungry for expansion and control over banana production. To secure access to fertile land, these banana moguls resorted to lobbying, bribery, and even financing coups to ensure they had sympathetic government officials in Central America. Manuel Bonilla of Honduras, for instance, rewarded the banana company that supported his return to power with land concessions.

By the 1930s, United Fruit had emerged as the dominant force in the region, at one point owning over 40% of Guatemala's arable land. Their extensive plantations stretched across Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama, necessitating the clearing of vast tracts of rainforest to establish not only plantations but also the accompanying infrastructure, including railroads, ports, and worker towns.

By Eiliv Aceron on Unsplash

The promise of relatively high-paying jobs lured people to these banana zones, resulting in densely packed farms of Gros Michel bananas. However, the lack of biological diversity made these plantations susceptible to disease epidemics. The interconnected infrastructure facilitated the rapid spread of pathogens, hitching rides from one farm to another on workers' boots, railroad cars, and steamships. The devastating Panama Disease outbreak of the 1910s was a stark illustration of this vulnerability, causing the abandonment of infected plantations and the subsequent destruction of rainforests to establish new ones.

After World War II, the tide began to turn as democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Honduras called for land reform. In Guatemala, President Jacobo Arbenz attempted to buy back land from United Fruit and redistribute it to landless farmers, but the company resisted fiercely. Fearing communism, the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954. In the same year, thousands of United Fruit workers in Honduras went on strike, leading the company to recognize a new labor union.

By Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

As the economic and political costs of Panama Disease escalated, United Fruit, later rebranded as Chiquita, transitioned to Panama disease-resistant Cavendish bananas in the early 1960s. This shift marked a turning point, and bananas no longer held the same economic sway in Central America. Nonetheless, the modern banana industry isn't devoid of issues, with Cavendish bananas requiring frequent pesticide applications, posing risks to farmworkers and ecosystems.

While resistant to the pathogen that plagued Gros Michel bananas, Cavendish farms are similarly devoid of biological diversity, rendering the banana trade susceptible to future pandemics. The history of bananas in Central America is a complex narrative of power, profit, and environmental consequences, showcasing the enduring impact of this seemingly innocuous fruit on the region's culture, politics, and ecosystems.


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    Betty-AnnWritten by Betty-Ann

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