Blood in the tropics: the deadly toll of bananas and sugarcane from Latin America

16 June 2015

Jason Glaser is the co-founder of La Isla Foundation. Fairfood International is working together with this partner NGO as part of our Occupational Health and Safety programme to address the fatal epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT) among sugarcane workers in Latin America.

He is also a documentary filmmaker and his film ‘Banana Land: Blood, Bullets & Poison’ is now available free online in English and Spanish. It tells the story of individuals directly impacted by health and human rights violations committed by the global banana industry. From the United Fruit Company massacre to the use of Dow Chemical’s pesticides known or suspected to cause birth defects, cancer and sterility, ‘Banana Land’ examines the human cost of the world’s most beloved tropical fruit.

In this interview with Fairfood’s Richard Glass he talks about this shocking documentary and the parallels with the current CKDnT epidemic killing thousands throughout Latin America.

 I believe you started this documentary before your work with La Isla Foundation. Could you explain its conception?

The documentary is predicated on the idea that the system of exploitation inherent in most extraction industries (industries in which commodities are bought and sold for very low prices, often sourced from poor countries) has a template or model. You cannot blame this model solely on the history of colonialism.

After discussions with a number of experts and my own research I landed on United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita) as the model for this system. United Fruit was known as ‘El Pulpo’, or The Octopus, because of its tentacles manipulating the halls of power from Central America to Wall Street and Washington DC. There are many echoes in the corruption scandals, repeated abuses and unethical, though often technically legal, poor behaviour we continually see from mining, agricultural and energy companies.

On closer inspection, there seems to be many shared themes with your work for La Isla Foundation: the extreme poverty of workers in Latin America, as well as the flagrant and fatal disregard for their health shown by large multinationals. What is your perception comparing the two cases?

I put the Banana Land documentary on hold because at the time it seemed that there were promising, though now largely defunct, legal cases representing the needs of banana workers impacted by both the structural violence of pesticide poisoning and the political violence of paramilitary assaults.

For me, the labourers impacted by the occupational disease Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional causes were a group that had no voice, no data with which to defend themselves and no attention in the media. So, I shelved the film and started La Isla Foundation deciding that the issues were in fact related in terms of the questionable international bank investments to support untenable extraction models, the unwillingness of governments to protect worker well being and the unwillingness of US/EU buyers to demand verifiable and truly better practices to protect people and our environment. This issue, which we address at La Isla Foundation, is a deep reflection of my concerns about how we source our food and fuel (sugar and ethanol in this case), as well as the human costs due to the inhumane treatment inherent in its production.

Later of course, the banana workers lost their champions as the companies picked off the opposition one by one. For this reason, and because La Isla Foundation was gaining traction, we dusted off the film and are now providing it for free to everyone in both Spanish and English to be used as needed to educate and hopefully empower.

One of the most shocking elements in the documentary is the complicit cooperation between Chiquita and the violent Colombian paramilitary group the AUC leading to thousands of murders. Is this violence an isolated case or is this a more common problem affecting Latin America?

Latin American labourers are too often victims of brutal reprisals for demanding basic rights from their employers and governments. What happened with the AUC is particularly well documented and also particularly abusive. However, it is in no way isolated. Workers in Nicaragua demanding better working conditions and attention from their government regarding CKDnT have been beaten shot and intimidated on numerous occasions. Displacements, murders, and threats are too often part of business as usual.

What really bothers me, is these abuses are well documented in respected news sources and yet the largest commodity buyers continue to rationalise their lack of will to get involved and demand better conditions for the people that make the stuff they buy. The fact is that change can happen much more quickly and it’s a matter of will. Leaders lack the will to do the right thing to protect the well-being of those that produce the stuff we consume, and we as citizens need to hold them to account.

Another shocking element was how Dole exposed workers in Latin America to the pesticide DBCP in Latin America, despite knowing the grave health risks such as sterility, as well as the harmful effects of the pesticide Mancozeb. To what extent do multinationals see the lives of workers in the Global South as inherently worthless and are there any governments in Latin America who care enough about their citizens to stand up to these multinationals?

Clearly these people are not valued on the same level, though increasingly in the USA it seems our own government has issues valuing many sections of our population as equal citizens. It’s a tired and sad story of class and your worth being dictated by the amount of pay you receive from the people that get wealthy off your labour. I don’t consider myself a class warrior, and I’m very much in favor of competitive markets, but this is just a cold hard conclusion from years of experience and careful analysis. If you’re paid dirt, you get treated like dirt.

As far as countries that are protecting their own, the Sandinistas, Correa and some others have been wholesale disappointments., It’s inexcusable that supposed socialist parties let labor get treated as they are for any reason and just blaming the yankee or the colonialists is a tired drum that has been beaten to death. These leaders are extremely powerful in their own countries and extremely wealthy. They have the power to effect change and do not.

Credit must be given though to the governments of El Salvador and Bolivia who really have begun to take an interest in the needs of people who labour. El Salvador has been the leader in Latin America for addressing CKDnT and (President of Bolivia) Evo Morales seems unique among the new leftists of Latin America in terms of practicing what he preaches.

The leaders I loathe more than anyone are those who espouse supposed solidarity with workers, like Ortega in Nicaragua, and repeatedly show their true stripes. More disturbing in the context of Nicaragua are the people from the old solidarity movements in the EU and USA that will savagely attack anyone who calls out Ortega for the charlatan he has become due to their emotional connection to the heady times of the Sandinista Revolution and the quantifiably terrible and unjust Contra War waged by the USA against Nicaragua. However, it has been many years and in Nicaragua banana workers never received justice or adequate support for being sterilised by Dole’s practices, and the relationship between Ortega and the country’s largest sugar producer, Pellas Group, is far too cozy. The government there has shot and beaten citizens demanding appropriate attention on more than one occasion.

Some online reports suggest an increasing correlation between CKDnT and pesticide/fertilizer use. Boston University research, for example, has shown ‘markers’ of kidney damage in adolescents as young as 12, thus suggesting chemical exposure weakening workers for the ‘second hit’ of dehydration and strenuous labour in the sun. Would this be an accurate summary, seeing as many people are focusing more on the labour conditions?

It’s still early days on the environmental research, and it may not be just fertilizers, but your summary is very much in line with what we are investigating with our research colleagues. A double hit of not only early exposure and damage due to environmental exposures, but also of exposure while on the job to other conditions while you are in a terrible weakened, dehydrated, and overworked state. Physiologically we have shown the dehydration and workload alone can cause damage, but we are investing heavily in our research efforts to look at the soil, air, and water these sugarcane workers, and other workers, are exposed to.

You talk in the documentary of the potential power of consumers to demand change from companies. Do you believe Dole or Chiquita would listen and shouldn’t governments take a larger role?

YES, governments must be more involved. And citizens should demand it. Dole and Chiquita will listen to your dollars, pounds and euros. You don’t need bananas, certainly not bananas grown this way. Europe and the USA got along for centuries without accessible and cheap bananas. They are something that should be a treat given where they come from but are instead priced as if they’re grown down the road, and for some reason we feel entitled to 99 cent a kilo bananas.

Most people do not know what is behind the production of that fruit. My hope is, once they become informed, they make the right choice, write a letter to Dole and Chiquita about their concerns and stop eating those brands until verifiable change is demonstrated in terms of pesticide use, labour relations, and pay for workers in every single country and municipality they source their product from.

What can consumers do in concrete terms to bring about change?

Stop eating the worst offenders. Work with Fairfood and Equal Exchange to ensure a healthy workplace for those that make our favorite fruit.

Watch ‘Banana Land: Blood, Bullets & Poison’ now