The dark history of bananas

Manuel Bonilla’s mission to reclaim power in Honduras was a precursor to a much larger struggle for land and control in Central America, as US fruit companies attempted to establish banana plantations. The domination of multinational companies in Latin America, such as United Fruit and Chiquita Brands, has led to displacement of local populations, deforestation, and hazardous working conditions.

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Lesson Article

The Rise of El Pulpo: United Fruit Company’s Exploits

On a December night in 1910, Manuel Bonilla and a group of heavily armed accomplices boarded a borrowed yacht in New Orleans. Their mission was to reclaim power in Honduras by any means necessary and they had a powerful backer, the future leader of the infamous organization known as “El Pulpo” or “The Octopus,” for its extensive reach. This organization was actually the United Fruit Company, now known as Chiquita Brands International.

Bananas: A Brief History

Bananas have been cultivated in Southeast Asia for thousands of years and eventually made their way to the Americas in the early 1500s. Slaves were responsible for cultivating them in plots alongside sugar plantations, and there were many different varieties of bananas, most of which looked nothing like the ones we find in supermarkets today.

The United Fruit Company’s Growth and Dominance

In the 1800s, captains from New Orleans and New England traveled to the Caribbean in search of coconuts and other goods. They began experimenting with banana cultivation and eventually sold the fruit in the U.S. In an effort to grow their own bananas, US fruit companies bribed and lobbied government officials in Central America and even funded coups to ensure they had allies in power. By the 1930s, United Fruit dominated the region and owned over 40% of Guatemala’s arable land. They cleared rainforests in multiple countries to build plantations, railroads, ports, and towns to house workers.

Issues Faced by the Banana Industry

From Guatemala to Colombia, United Fruit’s plantations only grew Gros Michel bananas, making them highly susceptible to disease epidemics due to a lack of biological diversity. This is exactly what happened in the 1910s when a fungus began to devastate Gros Michel banana plantations, first in Panama and then throughout Central America. To combat the Panama Disease, banana companies abandoned infected plantations, leaving thousands of farmers and workers jobless.

Political Challenges and Changes

After World War II, the dictatorships with which United Fruit had partnered in Guatemala and Honduras were replaced by democratically elected governments. In the 1950s, several Latin American countries elected governments that called for land reform. However, El Pulpo was unhappy and launched propaganda campaigns against Arbenz and called on its deep connections in the U.S. Government for help. Citing fears of communism, the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected Arbenz in 1954.

The Aftermath and Modern Banana Industry

The same year in Honduras, thousands of United Fruit workers went on strike until the company agreed to recognize a new labor union. With the political and economic costs of running from the Panama Disease escalating, United Fruit finally switched from Gros Michel to Panama disease-resistant Cavendish bananas in the early 1960s. Today, bananas are no longer as economically vital in Central America, and the United Fruit Company, now known as Chiquita, has lost its grip on Latin America.

However, the modern banana industry still faces its own set of problems. Cavendish bananas, the most popular variety, require frequent applications of pesticides, creating hazardous conditions for farm workers and ecosystems. Although they are resistant to the particular pathogen that affected Gros Michel bananas, Cavendish farms lack biological diversity, making the banana trade vulnerable to another pandemic.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does the article suggest about the US involvement in Latin American politics throughout history?
  2. How has the banana industry in the US evolved over the years?
  3. What are some of the ethical issues surrounding the banana industry today?
  4. How did the political and economic costs of Panama Disease affect the banana industry?
  5. What impact did the plantation system have on the environment in Central America?
  6. How did United Fruit establish a monopoly on banana production in the 1930s?
  7. What are the dangers of having one type of banana as the dominant variety?
  8. How can we promote more sustainable banana cultivation practices?

Lesson Vocabulary

BananaA curved, yellow fruit grown in tropical climates – Example sentence: I ate a banana for breakfast this morning.

SlavesA person who is forced to work for another against their will – Example sentence: During the 1700s, many people were kept as slaves in the American South.

CultivationThe act of developing land for agricultural or other purposes – Example sentence: The cultivation of the newly-discovered lands was a major factor in the settlement of the Americas.

Southeast AsiaThe region in Asia that consists of countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand – Example sentence: Many exotic spices can be found in the markets of Southeast Asia.

CaribbeanA group of islands located in the Caribbean Sea – Example sentence: The Caribbean is known for its beautiful blue waters and white sand beaches.

New OrleansA major port city in the US state of Louisiana – Example sentence: People travel from all over the world to attend the annual Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans.

New EnglandA region in the northeastern United States consisting of the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine – Example sentence: I love visiting New England in the fall when the leaves change color.

Gros MichelAn old variety of banana that is no longer commonly grown – Example sentence: The Gros Michel was once the most popular variety of banana in the world.

El PulpoAn old variety of banana that is no longer commonly grown – Example sentence: The El Pulpo banana was popular in South and Central America, but is now almost extinct.

Chiquita BrandsA multinational corporation that is one of the largest producers and distributors of bananas in the world – Example sentence: Chiquita Brands is known for its iconic yellow bananas with the blue label.

ShippingThe transportation of goods by sea or air – Example sentence: Shipping is an important part of the global economy.

US Fruit CompaniesCompanies based in the United States that produce and distribute fruit products – Example sentence: US fruit companies have a significant presence in Central American countries.

Central AmericaA region in the southern part of North America consisting of the countries of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama – Example sentence: Central America is known for its unique cultures and natural beauty.

Panama DiseaseA fungal disease that is fatal to banana plants – Example sentence: The Panama Disease has caused the extinction of many varieties of bananas.

Jacobo ArbenzThe president of Guatemala from 1951 to 1954 – Example sentence: Jacobo Arbenz proposed land reform that threatened the interests of US fruit companies in Guatemala.

Labor UnionAn organization that represents the collective interests of workers – Example sentence: The labor union advocated for better wages and working conditions for its members.

Cavendish BananasA type of banana that is resistant to the Panama Disease and is the most widely produced variety of banana in the world – Example sentence: Cavendish bananas are the most popular type of banana in the United States.

PesticidesSubstances used to kill pests, such as insects, weeds, and fungi – Example sentence: Farmers use pesticides to protect their crops from pests.

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