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- Banana plantations in Latin America

Bananas, in terms of gross value of production, are the world’s fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat and maize. Latin America dominates the world banana economy, where they are cultivated mostly in large mono-crop plantations.

The sector has been an important pillar of the Latin American economy since the 1950s when rising prices and an increasing demand in Northern countries (nowadays North America and the European Union capture over 60 percent of world imports), led to a rapid expansion of production. They are a commodity, and as with almost all commodities produced in the South and consumed in the North, more than 90% of the price paid by the consumer stays in the North and never reaches the producer. World trade of bananas is almost controlled by three transnational corporations.

In Latin America, the main producers for export of this crop are Ecuador, followed by Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. However, other countries such as Brazil, the Caribbean states of Windward Islands (St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts-Nevis and St. Vincent), Jamaica, Belize, the Dominican Republic and Suriname are also important producers.

The bananas from the plantations of Latin America are cheaper than anywhere else –largely because the costs are ‘externalized’, which means they are paid by someone else; in this case by plantation workers and the environment. If these costs were ‘internalized’, decent wages paid and environmental damage eliminated, the difference would disappear.

Increased production has been achieved both by improving yields (through increasing the amount of inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides) and the areas under cultivation.

This had had huge negative impacts, both human and environmental.

Banana monoculture plantations have been placed in areas of decimated primary rainforest. A characteristic of these tropical soils is their dependency on the biomass of the overhanging forest. Once the protective forest cover is eliminated, the productivity and soil fertility per unit of area declines, diminishing sharply after the first two years. This is why banana producers require large areas of land -and subsequent expansion- in order to make up for the fall in production per hectare. Moreover, these low density soils are preferred by the banana companies because: a) they have a high organic content; and b) they require practically no alteration, disturbance or further attention.

Of over 300 different varieties of bananas, the Dwarf Cavendish is the best known and most profitable. This seedless variety must be propagated by cutting and rooting a section of the mature plant, making all generations genetically identical. Thousands of plantations throughout the region grow fruit on genetically homogenous plants making the plantations particularly vulnerable to disease and pests.

To control pest outbreaks in large-scale banana production -particularly for export where the market demands flawless appearance- plantations depend on high levels of pesticide use.

Pesticides are applied continuously throughout the ten-month growing season. Plantations are aerially sprayed with fungicides in up to 40-60 application cycles per season. Workers use backpack sprayers to apply nematicides two to four times a year, and herbicides such as paraquat and glyphosate -eight to twelve times a year. Fertilizers are continually applied throughout the growing season. Workers also place and remove plastic bags impregnated with the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos over the maturing banana bunch. In the packing plant, workers cut and wash bananas in pesticide-laden water, and apply more pesticides to prevent "crown rot" during transportation. Finally, workers package the bananas into boxes, frequently without wearing protective gloves. This intensive use of pesticides is extremely hazardous for workers.

Studies conducted by the National University in Heredia, Costa Rica, reveal that rates of pesticide poisonings are three times higher in banana regions than in the rest of the country. Increased incidence of sterility and cancers were also found among banana workers. Other common illnesses likely related to pesticide exposure are allergies and pulmonary ailments. In a well-documented case, thousands of Latin American banana workers were sterilized as a result of exposure to the nematicide Nemagon (dibromochloropropane -- DBCP).

Aerial spraying and pesticide runoff contaminate water used by workers, their families and nearby communities. Pesticide use has been responsible for massive fish kills, destroying an important food source and devastating surrounding ecosystems. In some areas, soil has become so infused with pesticides that it is now unfit for agriculture.

As banana plantations have increased production, extensive forests, wildlife habitat and pasturelands have been razed to make way for bananas. In Costa Rica, the government has assisted this process by changing land use classifications to allow plantation production. From 1979 to 1992, banana expansion was responsible for deforestation of over 50,000 hectares of primary and secondary forest in Costa Rica's Limon Province. A similar situation has happened in most banana producing countries.

Banana companies in the process of expansion pressure peasant farmers living on the plantation periphery to sell their lands. Farmers that resist are denied production supports such as credit, agricultural extension services and markets for their products. Farmers are also prohibited from producing traditional creole bananas in an attempt to avoid spread of the banana fungal disease Micosphaerella fijensis (Black Sigatoka). In these circumstances it is no surprise that many of these independent farmers become wage labourers on banana plantations. The same situation takes place with indigenous peoples who are displaced from their lands, and generally end up as plantations workers.

A shortage of jobs and weakened or non-existent unions foster a climate of insecurity on banana plantations, where workers are vulnerable to exploitation and afraid to participate in union organizing. Job insecurity is exacerbated by industry practices such as subcontracting day labourers, extending the work day, eliminating collective agreements, unjustified firings (including for suspicion of union sympathy), contracting by piecework to avoid minimum hourly wages, and laying off workers before the end of the three-month trial period after which employers must provide benefits. Workers are forced into a transient lifestyle where family stability is difficult to maintain. Job insecurity and poverty are frequently accompanied by malnutrition and poor health, which are exacerbated by a higher frequency of neurological and developmental problems among workers' children --associated with exposures to pesticides in air, food and water. Poor health together with limited access to schools results in inadequate academic achievement among plantation children compared to their urban counterparts. In this way, future generations face the same fate as their parents and the cycle persists.

Banana expansion has meant –and still means- problems in Latin America. The well-documented invasions and US-supported coup d'etats and dictatorships in Central America have been almost invariably linked to US corporations' banana interests in the region. So-called "Banana Republics" were the end result of those interventions, involving widespread human rights violations. Biodiverse forests have been destroyed and substituted with endless rows of genetically identical banana trees growing in a poisoned environment which poisons people and nature. That is what banana is all about.

Article based on information from: "Support Banana Workers: Bring Justice to the Table", Global Pesticide Campaigner (Volume 14, Number 1), April 2004, written by Kate Mendenhall and Margaret Reeves. The full article can be accessed at: http://www.panna.org/resources/gpc/gpc_200404.14.1.06.dv.html ; http://www.newint.org/issue317/facts.htm ; http://www.theecologist.net/files/docshtm/articulo.asp?cod=100211 ; Banana Link, http://www.bananalink.org.uk/ ; "The World Banana Economy 1985-2002" , http://www.fao.org/es/esc/common/ecg/47147_en_WBE_1985_2002.pdf ;
Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company


- Argentina: Soybean advances on Chaco forests

According to a recent official report, Argentina has lost 70 per cent of its native forests: out of 105 million hectares of forests, only 33 million are left today. Those most affected are the native forests in the northern and central regions of Argentina in the Provinces of Santiago del Estero, Salta, Chaco, Formosa, Misiones, Entre Rios and Santa Fe. It should be stressed that in a sector of the Province of Salta, the annual deforestation rate is three times higher than the world average.

A major part of this process of forest destruction is attributed to the advance of soybean production that started to be developed 30 years ago in the centre of the humid Pampa (to the north of the Province of Buenos Aires, south of Santa Fe and south east of Cordoba). Already in the nineties, over half the lands in this area were planted with soybean and the drop in international prices increased its expansion towards other areas of the Provinces involved and to other north-eastern Provinces (Santiago del Estero, Chaco, Formosa and Entre Rios), covering forest zones that underwent a very high rate of deforestation. Forest burning is the quickest way to clear the land, with bulldozers following on to remove the stumps.

The effects are there to be seen, and tragically so. According to a report by the Litoral University Technical Commission, deforestation and scant permeability of soils subject to intensive soybean production have greatly contributed to the Salado River which has its source in the Chaco, finally overflowing. The results were 24 deaths in the city of Santa Fe during the 2003 floods.

Thousands of hectares of the millenary old forest at El Impenetrable (Chaco) were logged for decades by logging companies and are now being logged by soybean companies. Public lands covered by Chaco forest are involved, very often the ancestral property of the indigenous peoples. Since last December a new law promoted by the Chaco government makes logging of the native forest even easier. Social and environmental organizations have warned that if things go on this way, in ten years time no forest will be left. For this reason they have submitted a petition to the local Courts of Justice against law 5285 that the Chaco government passed last December, modifying Forest Law 2386. They agree that the previous law was not a good one, but that the new legislation is even worse. According to complaints by Endepa, Funam and Incupo, among others, the law is unconstitutional because the indigenous peoples were never consulted as established in the National Constitution and ILO Convention 169. They also claim that it will facilitate destruction of the native forest.

The continuous sale of public land “is taking the Chaco forest away from the Wichi, Cuom and Mocovi indigenous peoples. Although the government might think that this is progress, in fact it is concealed genocide. The legislators and Provincial government must know that because of this law and the constant sale of public land to agricultural producers, the indigenous communities are loosing their territories for ever, and that with the disappearance of forests where they used to obtain their food and natural medicine, the number of sick people and deaths is increasing” stated Dr. Raul A. Montenegro, from Funam.

For their part, in May this year, the Social Pastoral Body of the Catholic Church in Santiago del Estero, the Land Board, the Santiago del Estero Peasant Movement (Mocase) the NGO Prodemur (Promotion of Rural Women), the Rural Reflection Group, the National University of Santiago del Estero and Greenpeace Argentina submitted a request for a moratorium on logging in the Province of Santiago del Estero.

A paper was submitted in this framework, prepared by technicians from the UNSE (Santiago del Estero National University) Faculty of Forestry Science, showing evidence of the extremely high rate of deforestation caused by the advance of the soybean frontier on the Santiago del Estero forest, an important part of which is still standing: the semi-arid Chaco quebrachal (Prosopis sp.). The Santiago del Estero quebrachal is found within the semi-arid Chaco and together with the Humid Chaco comprise the American Gran Chaco ecosystem, second largest after the Amazon.

The joint petition includes a request to regularize land tenure -a permanent source of conflict between peasants who have lived in the forest for several generations and some so-called land-owners who on various occasions have hired security forces to deal with the peasants as intruders and evict whole families. They are also demanding abolition of the Law authorizing logging, recently broadened by the Chamber of Deputies.

During a joint demonstration by hundreds of people, and facing an area of over 800 hectares that had been logged, an enormous placard was deployed with the slogan “not one hectare more.” Emiliano Ezcurra of Greenpeace Argentina, who was present at the demonstration, stated that “this site is only one case of many others. At this very moment, hundreds of lumberjacks are logging the last third of what is left of the native Argentine forest, mainly promoted by the advance of the soybean frontier.” For her part, Margarita Salto, a peasant leader, affirmed that “the forest is our source of work, it gives us our food, it ensures our future. The companies come and log everything and leave nothing. They want to take away our land to destroy it, burn it, and plant the soybean that gives them so much money and us so much misery.”

Article based on information from: “Santiago del Estero. Se acaba el monte: es tiempo de actuar”, http://reflexionrural.galeon.com/desmonte.htm ; “Agricultura Argentina: El desierto verde”, Marcela Valente, Terramérica,
http://www.geocities.com/lospobresdelatierra/ecologia/desiertoverde.html ; “Chaco: Destrucción de bosques y genocidio indígena”, Funam ; “Campesinos y Greenpeace ‘delimitan’ la expansión de la frontera sojera”, http://www.greenpeace.org.ar/noticia.php?contenido=3918&item=&seccion=4


- Brazil: The “hamburger connection” threatens forests today just as it did yesterday

Between 1950 and 1975, the area of human-established pasture lands in Central America doubled, almost entirely at the expense of primary rainforests. The numbers of cattle also doubled, although the average beef consumption by Central American citizens dropped. Beef production was exported to markets in the United States and in other Northern countries.

Between 1966 and 1978 in Brazil 80,000 km2 of Amazon forests were destroyed to give way to 336 cattle ranches carrying 6 million head of cattle under the auspices of the Superintendency for Amazon Development (SUDAM).

Similar initiatives have been implemented in the Amazon territories of Colombia and Peru, although not on such a vast scale, promoted in some cases by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

In every case, many ranches became unproductive within less than ten years, because productivity of artificial grasslands declines. However, very often the ranchers obtained another plot of forest to clear.

During the eighties, two factors led to increased exports of beef from the tropical region of Latin America with the consequent aftermath of accelerated deforestation of the Amazon. On the one hand, increased consumption of beef in the countries of the North (particularly for fast food chains in the United States) and on the other, lower prices of land and labour in the tropical countries of Latin America, making the final product cheaper. As an example, in 1978 the price of a kilo of beef imported from Latin America averaged US$1.47, compared to US$3.3 a kilo of beef produced in the United States. This direct relationship between the advance of cattle ranching and deforestation was called the “Hamburger connection.”

At that time, Brazil was not a part of that “connection” because of its low rate of beef exports insofar as its production was mainly aimed at domestic consumption. However the country increased its heads of cattle from 26 million in 1990 to 57 million in 2002. The production was mainly concentrated in the States of Mato Grosso, Para and Rondonia –and over the same period, these states showed the highest rate of deforestation in the country. The new expansion of cattle ranching is not based in small or medium-sized farms but in large scale enterprises.

For decades the cattle production sector was aimed at domestic consumption, but factors such as devaluation of the Brazilian currency, the successful efforts to free cattle from foot and mouth disease, the mad cow disease affecting beef production in the countries of the North, and the chicken disease in Asia leading to a swing towards the consumption of other meat products, enabled Brazil to have access to new markets in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Between 1997 and 2003, the volume of Brazilian exports in this field increased over five-fold.

A report published recently by the Centre for International Forestry Research –CIFOR– has identified this process of expansion of cattle raising as one of the factors responsible for the recent increase in the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon forest.

According to this research, with respect to deforestation the accumulated area of the Brazilian Amazon increased from 41.5 million hectares in 1990 to 58.7 million hectares in 2000, of which most ended up as pasture lands. The authors of the report state that although in recent years the expansion of soybean crops in the Amazon has been a cause of deforestation, this is only a part of the process, which to a great degree is due to the growth of cattle raising.

The CIFOR report was made known at the same time as new figures for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, which have shown a second historical record of loss of tropical forest. The new data submitted by the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment show that the loss of forests over the period of August 2002 to August 2003 reached 23,750 km2. The historical record corresponds to 1995 with a little over 29 thousand km2. The new record represents an increase of 2 per cent vis-à-vis the previous year. Since deforestation started to be monitored in 1988, a total of over 270 thousand km2 of tropical forest have been lost, that is to say, approximately the size of Ecuador.

The importance of consumption should be noted in this process, as one of the pillars of the current model of commercial agriculture and cattle-raising, and therefore another factor responsible for deforestation processes. This is not the production of large volumes of food to solve the hunger of many impoverished and underprivileged sectors. These are cash crops, ranging from coffee to beef, mostly aimed at consumers in the North who in many cases have been induced to change their food habits.

Historically, the countries of the South, rich in biodiversity, have played the role of export producers. Very often, the inhabitants of these countries do not consume what they export. After being colonized by bloodshed and fire, they have later been colonized by dollars, debt and exclusion … in addition to bloodshed and fire.

Article based on information from: “Conexión entre ganadería y deforestación Amazónica”, CLAES, http://www.agropecuaria.org/sustentabilidad/ConexionHamburgerAz.htm ; “Hamburger Connection Fuels Amazon Destruction”, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), http://www.cifor.cgiar.org/publications/pdf_files/media/Amazon.pdf ; “Role of Cattle Raising in Conversion of Tropical Moist Forests”, CIESIN, http://www.ciesin.org/docs/002-106/002-106c.html

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