In October 2012, Nick Foster-Walters, the West 7th store manager visited the Peruvian banana cooperative along with Equal Exchange and staff from other Twin Cities area food Co-ops. Here is his account of his visit:
Mississippi Market purchases our bananas from Equal Exchange, who partners with two co-operatives in northern Peru, APOQ and CIPEBO, and one in Sothern Ecuador, el Guabo, to supply us with certified organic and fair trade bananas. I was part of a delegation of five co-op representatives from the Twin Cities and three members of Equal Exchange that went to visit the growers in Peru who grow bananas that end up on our shelves. This trip provided a chance for me to see firsthand the small fields that our bananas come from. We stayed with three host families, over a course of five days, visiting organic banana farmers in a small village that is just outside of Piura. After a night of sleeping under mosquito nets, we walked to the fields with the farmers and learned about the activities involved with banana production. It was incredibly moving to talk with many of the growers and learn about their daily lives.
Flying into Piura in northern Peru I was surprised to see miles of sand. I wondered how bananas could grow in such an arid area. Then, in the distance I could see a wide swath of green. Under this green would provide my answer; irrigation canals from the main river. When we landed I received my second surprise—poverty, and lots of it. Coming from the land of plenty my first reaction was, how can we help? How could they grow bananas in such an arid land? How does purchasing these Fair Trade bananas make any difference to those living in this part of the world? Answers to these questions would also be revealed over the course of our visit.
Equal Exchange is best known for its fair trade imported coffee, tea and chocolate. They work with small-scale farmers and cooperatives to help them bring their products to market. Originally founded in 1986, Equal Exchange was at the forefront of the fair trade movement. They started working with organic banana farmers in 2006 as a partner with Oké USA. The label was rebranded as Equal Exchange in 2009. Mississippi Market has been a strong supporter of these bananas from the beginning of Oké USA.Our connection to them was so strong that when the Ecuadorian farmers were hit with a tropical storm that caused major landslides, the Mississippi Market was able to raise over $10,000 that went toward the purchase of a new Bobcat tractor for the el Guabo co-op.
Bananas grow extremely well in the northern region of Peru. The dry arid air is good for controlling pests and diseases. The water to irrigate the banana plants comes from a dam that supplies water to the whole area. Each small banana producer owns around one hectare (approximately 2.5 acres) of land for growing bananas on. Great care is taken in the production of this fruit. The farmers are out in their field daily monitoring and preparing the bananas. Bananas do not grow on trees but are actually large herbivorous plants that produce one flower and then die.
Each new plant, called a daughter, starts out as a shoot from the base of the old plant, called the mother. The farmer monitors the progress of the flower -when it starts to set fruit, a bag is placed over the flower for protection. The farmer returns regularly to add protective pads in between the growing hands of bananas shield them from abrasion.
When the fruit reaches maturity, workers go to the field to pick and transport the bunches of fruit to a packing shed where the bananas are processed for shipment. Once, they are washed, sorted and packed in to a climate controlled container, the bananas are loaded on a ship and spend 10 days at sea before they arrive at a port in New Jersey. The bananas are still green at this point and will not begin to turn yellow until they have been shipped to J&J distributing, in St. Paul, where they spend 24 hours in a ripening room. Without going into a ripening room bananas will take up to one month or more to ripen. The bananas are either shipped directly from J&J to stores or to Co-op Partners Warehouse for direct distribution.
The small banana farmers that we met have banded together, forming cooperatives, in order to improve their working conditions and their communities. Dole used to purchase 90% of the organic bananas in this area. The cost of production was high; Dole’s payments to the farmers did not allow them to improve their living situations. The farmers were making such a little amount of money that they were prepared to plow under their fields. In 2001 they began organizing secretly in the fields and worked together, cooperatively, to negotiate a better price for their product. Eventually they were able to work without Dole and get a better price for the bananas and, more importantly, control the conditions of their labor and their product. Now, Dole only controls 30% of the bananas in northern Peru.
These banana co-ops receive a fair trade premium of one dollar per box above the minimum price. Four dollars per box go directly to the farmer. Before the growers organized they were receiving only $1.90 per box. The members of each co-op vote on how the fair trade premium is spent. It is used on projects to improve the working conditions of the banana workers or upgrading the social infrastructure of the communities. They have purchased educational material and equipment for community schools, invested in business opportunities for the local youth, sponsored community events and helped families in financial need. One of the projects that was highlighted to us was the installation of a cable system to transport the banana bunches from the field to the packing sheds. Prior to the cables, workers in the field would have to carry the fruit on their backs, sometimes as far as one half mile. This improvement has increased their ability to process bananas by six times!
The history of banana production is not a good one. It is one of large corporations that promoted large plantations, low wages and heavy chemical use. It also is a history of strong arm tactics used to intimidate workers and overthrow governments, often, with the support of our government. The Fair Trade, cooperative system is the exact opposite of the old way bananas are produced and distributed. It gives the power to the producers and workers, promoting environmental stewardship and allows for democracy control of the working conditions.
When we visited the school in the village, the sixth grade class president explained to our group that the school has a garden that they watered everyday by carrying plastic buckets to the canal and back. She asked if we could help them by building the infrastructure for running water, so that they could water the garden with a hose. We did not have an answer to this request at that time; our answer will come from continuing to purchase and sell the bananas from her parents.