Bananas are believed to have originally grown in the jungles of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in Southeast Asia, where a number of wild varieties can still be found. Travelers spread them across Asia. They were introduced to Africa by Arabs and brought to the Americas by the Portuguese.
How Bananas are grown
Bananas are cultivated in tropical regions with average temperatures of 81°F and annual rainfall of 79-98 inches, needing moist soil with good drainage.
As each plant needs individual care, banana growing is labor intensive. Jungle growth needs to be kept at bay, and the plant requires irrigation during the dry season as well as propping, as the weight of the growing fruit causes it to bend. If organic farming methods are not used, banana farms use many pesticides to keep their bananas intact.
Export bananas produced in Latin America, and increasingly Africa and Asia, are mainly grown on large-scale farms. National companies or big transnational corporations are usually in control of large export farms, which practice monoculture and can cover over 12,000 acres. Banana plants on these estates can go on for miles, and the businesses need massive investment in both infrastructure and technology, from irrigation and drainage to transport and packing facilities.
Economies of scale are key. High production volumes mean lower unit and shipping costs, and reduced labor costs contribute to reduced export prices.
A high level of human rights violations has been linked to banana production by multinationals in some Latin American countries. Campaign organizations around the world such as Banana Link in the UK have laid bare the terrible conditions and violation of core labor standards in large-scale banana farms in Guatemala, Ecuador, Costa Rica and elsewhere in Latin America.
They have reported poverty-level wages failing to cover food, education and clothing, as well as workers laboring 10-12-hour days, up to six days a week, in oppressively hot and humid conditions, unpaid overtime, and a trend for daily hiring or short-term contracts.
Conversely, small-scale or smallholder banana production is, on the whole, more labor intensive and needs considerably less investment. Small-scale farmers have difficulty in achieving the volume needed to compete with large farms and do not have as much access to new technologies, tools and knowledge.
This limits how much they are able to earn through a trade dominated by large-scale farms and exporters, ripeners and retailers. Smallholders are also faced with the growing impact of climate change with unpredictable rain patterns, hurricanes and new diseases. Whether a farmer is using organic farming methods or not, a new disease could be disastrous in a banana monoculture.
The difference Fairtrade makes
Fairtrade works with small banana farmers and workers on large banana farms. Latest data reveals that there are more than 27,000 banana farmers and workers participating in Fairtrade in 11 countries. Fairtrade banana producer organizations are primarily found in Colombia, Dominican Republic and Peru.
Fairtrade Standards aim to support certified farmers to increase what they earn and gain more control within the banana supply chains. They are also designed to improve working conditions and protect workers’ rights on certified large-scale farms.
The Fairtrade Minimum Price acts as a safety net in the face of an unpredictable market. For bananas the Minimum price varies by region to make sure growers can cover their average costs of production. If the bananas are grown on an organic farm, the Fairtrade Minimum Price is higher.
The Fairtrade Premium producers also receive for their fruit is $1/box (or $55/metric ton), which they can invest in their business or community. In 2012-2013, Fairtrade banana producers earned over $19 million in Fairtrade Premium. Small-scale banana farmers chose to invest around half of this additional sum in strengthening their organizations while workers on large-scale banana farms invested 38% in improving worker housing. Other priorities included support for education for workers and their children, through payment of school fees, scholarships and books.
Fairtrade Standards for large-scale farms support workers to negotiate with management and move towards achieving living wage benchmarks. To do that, they need to be represented by strong worker organizations. Our new Hired Labor Standard increases the strength of workers’ freedom of association in practice. This includes the right to join a registered trade union. We also changed the way the Fairtrade Premium can be spent by workers, who can now use up to 20% on making cash payments or in-kind benefits. This increases to 50% if the largest proportion of workers are migrant workers. The Fairtrade Premium continues supporting important investment initiatives for worker communities including building schools.
Research conducted in 2009 by Columbian-based CODER (Corporation for Rural Business Development) with Fairtrade certified Colombian smallholder banana farmers concluded that “Fairtrade has increased smallholder income and its stability, has lowered production and agricultural-service costs, and has improved the access to credit, thus reducing their cash flow or liquidity problems.”
In the survey covering almost 80% of all certified banana farmers in the country, farmers said that their household income had increased an average 34% as a result of their affiliation to Fairtrade. And 98% said that their quality of life had improved since joining the system.
The study also looked at the difference Fairtrade makes to workers on certified large-scale banana farms. Just over half of workers (52%) interviewed said that they had better housing with the help of Fairtrade Premium. The research revealed that all workers on the Fairtrade farms looked at had employment contracts, compared with just 16% on non-Fairtrade farms. Read the full study here (PDF, 2.4 MB).