“With the bloodthirsty flies
came the Fruit Company,
amassed coffee and fruit
in ships which put to sea like
overloaded trays with the treasures
from our sunken lands.
Meanwhile the Indians fall
into the sugared depths of the
harbors and are buried in the
a corpse rolls, a thing without
name, a discarded number,a bunch of rotten fruit
thrown on the garbage heap.”
– “La United Fruit Company” by Pablo Neruda [translated from Spanish]
“Although Chiquita’s history includes storied moments in its past, the company now proudly focuses on extending labor rights, protecting our environment and investing in the communities in which we live and work.”
– “The Chiquita Story,” Chiquita brand [formally United Fruit Company]
I’ve been to Chiquita’s banana fields in Northern Honduras, where men with machetes harvest by hand the fruit that ripens in our supermarkets. The plantation only hints at what it once was, back when Chiquita was called United Fruit, back when the banana industry toppled governments and ruled with an iron fist. Bananas built today’s Honduras. Bananas tore it down.
It seems fitting that the first book I read after landing this week in Honduras was Banana, Dan Koeppel’s detailed and exuberant study of what he calls the world’s favorite fruit.
The banana’s story is as old as civilization (some biblical scholars say Eden’s fruit was a banana), but according to Koeppel, the United States’ chapter didn’t start until 1870 when Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker brought his first load of bananas from Jamaica to sell in the United States.
The sweet, seedless fruit moved quickly from a novelty for the rich to a staple for the masses, and the banana craze made Baker a rich man—he founded Boston Fruit, which would later become United Fruit, which eventually would become the Chiquita brand that is ubiquitous in today’s grocery stores.
Koeppel writes with unabashed zeal, equally excited about every aspect of the humble fruit. He uses linguistics to trace the banana’s predecessor from Papua New Guinea through Africa to the Americas. He delves into horticulture to describe the Panama Disease that plagued early banana companies. But his description of the banana empire that built today’s Central America is the most lurid and engrossing part of his book, and the part that most applies to the bananas I buy on the street corner here, five lempiras for a bunch.
The banana is a strange fruit. It grows on towering watery stalks, not a tree but the world’s largest herb. The seedless fruit that we eat grows nowhere that humans do not cultivate it. It spreads asexually, producing small copies of itself – every banana we eat is a genetic clone of every other.
This homogeneity assures a reassuring similarity (the “fast food of fruit” Koeppel says), but it also leaves the crop vulnerable to devastating disease. The world’s bananas have already been destroyed once. Our grandparents’ Gros Michel banana was stubbier, sturdier, and sweeter than the Cavendish variety we eat today, its taste closer to that of artificial banana flavoring. Despite its advantages, the Gros Michel was driven nearly to extinction by disease in the 1960s. It is nearly impossible to find the fruit today.
As banana magnates fought crop diseases, banana workers perished from human ones, from miserable working conditions, unsafe pesticides, and political aggression. Central American countries were the original “banana republics,” fragile nations with little infrastructure outside of what United Fruit and Standard Fruit (now Dole) provided. Banana companies became de facto governments themselves, running everything from railroads to post offices.
What followed was decades of shady dealings, bribes, coups, and secret assassinations. Under the guise of stamping out communist leanings, the U.S. military intervened in Central America nearly thirty times over that period, quelling land and labor reforms, destabilizing governments, and reinstating powers who were friendlier to North American trade. It is a story about power and colonialization, but also a story about bananas and our insatiable appetite for them, as many as twenty-seven pounds per person per year.
Koeppel tells the story well, if calmly, with reports of U.S.-trained guerrilla movements sandwiched between chapters about plant husbandry. The story does not resolve, but it quiets down. Over decades, we see, puppet regimes give way to tenuous democracies and public scrutiny pressured banana companies into better conditions for their workers.
But the history is real and the history is recent, irrevocably tied to the present and the future here. Today, bananas are still Honduras’ biggest business, owning wide swaths of land, employing thousands of people.
“Although Chiquita’s history includes storied moments in its past,” the banana website states (who visits a banana website?), it’s one of Honduras’ biggest employers.
“Should we buy bananas?” my classmates and I asked two years ago, when we had the banana union leaders alone. “Buy Chiquita,” they said in agreement, to our surprise. “We live from these bananas.”
But they had something else to ask as they fight to keep their salary in line with inflation, to keep their health care, for the right to work in good conditions: “As consumers, we wish you would pressure the company so they would treat us better.”