The Motogua River, Guatemala’s longest at just over 400 kilometres in length, carries a heavy load of silt to its mouth on the Gulf of Honduras.
Tracking down from feeder streams in the volcanic central highlands the last third of its journey to the Caribbean cuts through the rich alluvial plain that once was the heart of the classical era Mayan world.
For over a century now banana plantations have covered most of the lowland valley floor. The once dominant tropical rainforest has been pushed back again by corporate fiat as it had been during the height of the Mayan lords. On neither occasion did the environment or the people ultimately benefit.
A veteran agronomist once some four decades ago gave me a tour of a banana plantation there. As we walked a path along the bank of the Motogua he told me of regularly seeing bodies floating in the muddy current. These, the ‘disappeared’, were peasant casualties of the brutal military repression of any resistance to a status quo which well served the banana barons as well as the country’s elite. It kept, however, the majority of Guatemalans impoverished and hungry.
Since fast ships first introduced fresh bananas to North Americans in the 1870s the demand here has been nearly insatiable. According to a Washington Post article we each eat about 75 bananas or 14 kilos each a year. The profits this tropical fruit generated warranted protection. The United Fruit Company hired mercenaries like General Lee Christmas to force concessions from reluctant governments or help install regimes that would.
However that didn’t always work. Sometimes banana corporation heads had to plead the case for protecting their interests to leaders in Washington, D.C. Those pleas were sympathetically heard. In the early decades of the 20th century US Marines landed in Honduras five times, in Nicaragua twice and Panama four times.
The infamous 1954 US-organized and funded Guatemalan coup d’etat which included American pilots staging bombing runs on Guatemala City, the country’s capital, marked the most outrageous episode of banana diplomacy. It brought down the democratically elected Arbenz government which had dared to challenge the United Fruit Company’s control. Forty-two years of violence followed. It ended officially with the signing of peace accords in 1996.
Other threats to corporate profits exist. Of the some 1000 varieties of bananas know to exist, the Cavendish banana was chosen by the corporate managers to replace its predecessor the Gros Michel when the Panama disease threatened to wipe out the trade in the 1950s. Today the Cavendish is under attack from the a disease called black sigatoka.
Now to grow the Cavendish banana it takes almost weekly applications of fungicides to control the disease. Together with pesticides this costs about 500 to 800 dollars a year per hectare, according to a CBC Sunday Morning report, to chemically maintain banana plantation production. The environmental and worker health consequences of this are well documented.
Last week an e-mail reached my desk; it celebrated the first direct shipment of a container of certified organic bananas from a fair trade co-operative in northern Peru to an organic produce distributor in Vancouver. Previously their distribution had been controlled by one of the three major US banana corporations that have dominated the trade for more than a century.
A model that provides a healthier product, with benefits flowing directly to small producers could present a revolutionary challenge to the fiercely held hegemony of the banana corporations. How will they react? How can we demonstrate our support for a life affirming food system? After all, food for one should mean food for all.
The bags for the annual In the Spirit of Caring food drive have gone out. I know on my downtown route we couldn’t deliver bags to a fair number of apartment buildings. If you were missed, you can drop off your donation directly at the Whitehorse Food Bank at 306 Alexander from Monday thru Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on Friday until noon.
This year’s drive is crucial to getting our food bank off to a good start. Please generously support it.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, May 23—The Declaration of Bab marks the Baha’i recognition of the 1844 statement by Ali Muhammed that he was the herald, the Bab (the Gate), of a coming great messenger from God.
Sunday, May 24—Ascension of the Lord / Seventh Sunday of Easter. A suggested reading is Mark 16: 15-20.
Monday, May 25—Memorial Day commemorates the men and women who died in military service for the United States.
Thursday, May 28—Ascension of Jesus, the bodily “going up” into heaven, is marked by Orthodox Christians today, 40 days after Easter.
Friday, May 29—Ascension of Baha’u’llah recalls for Baha’i, the death of their founder.
Friday, May 29—Shavuot marks the Jewish celebration of God’s giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai.