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BANANA SPLIT: An interview with Shebafilms

We spoke to husband & wife team Ron Harpelle and Kelly Saxberg of Shebafilms about their 2002 film, Banana Split, which profiles the rise and practices of the United Fruit Company / Chiquita – as well as asking Canadians:  do you know where your bananas come from?  The Thunder Bay natives give a uniquely Canadian twist to the film, with the opening shots juxtaposing a Canadian snowstorm with a Honduran banana plantation.  So, we asked them…

How did you get interested in bananas?

Ron:  I’m a Professor in the History Department at Lakehead University, and was studying the migration of West Indian workers to Central America.  I had spent time in Costa Rica on my research, and witnessed the effects of the banana industry first-hand.  In 1998, I got a grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to put together a historical timeline about labour plantations in Honduras so…

Kelly:  We packed the kids in the backseat, and drove down to Honduras (from Thunder Bay) in October 1999.  It took them awhile to ever trust us before another car trip…  I’m a filmmaker, so we worked well as a team, with Ron providing the research and me doing the actual filming and editing work.

Banana Split came out in 2002.  What’s life like for those Chiquita workers now?

As we show in the film, Hurricane Mitch had a big impact on Chiquita’s workers in Honduras.  Basically, 25 years of improvement in labour relations were set to zero by Chiquita implementing new practices which both increased individual workload and isolated workers from one another. Instead of being responsible for one specific job on the plantation, workers are now each responsible for all jobs on a given plot of land. This created an environment where workers are more concerned about others not pulling their weight and it has pitted them against one another. So even though there have been production efficiencies in their new Honduran plantations, there are no benefits shared with the marginalised people on the ground, and it has made it more difficult for them to organize as they could have in the past. The Just-in-time production also involved more women, but fewer people overall.

Chiquita (and other larger companies), also started shifting part of their burden to independent producers by not owning a portion of their land. Small producers have become a safety valve for them as they now only buy bananas from them as needed. It provides companies the opportunity to turn off that tap when they have a surplus of bananas, and passes all the risk onto small producers.

In the Costa Rican plantation regions life is better in some ways. People now have access to the internet and are more aware of what’s going on in the world, and their rights. But there are still many of the same struggles: inadequate housing and low wages. Companies are still brutal and Chiquita continues to run company towns. Even though things are more modern, all the struggles and chemicals etc., continue to exist. Despite having signs up to warn people of chemicals being used, they are still spraying overhead while workers are present and clusters of houses remain right on the plantations.

How did Chiquita or Mel-o-Ripe react to the film?  How did the rest of the world react?

We notified Chiquita and the Pitoscia family that the film was out, but heard nothing back from them, and we gather that Mel-o-Ripe no longer exists.  As for the rest of the world:  we’ve made a lot of films together over the last 20 years, but Banana Split is still our “best seller”.  We toured it across Europe, it won a couple prizes, and has been honoured in many film fests world wide.  Through help from CIDA, we also helped develop bilingual curriculum material (still available here (EN) and here (FR)) which was widely used in high schools across Ontario.

Do you hold out hope for the banana industry?

We did a film called Health for Life in 2008 about Dr. Palmira Ventocia, a Peruvian scientist at the University of Peru in Lima. She developed research with coconuts to kill the larvae of mosquitos, and it became a community project to get rid of malaria, engaging the youth of the community to become leaders in malaria prevention. We believe education is the best hope for the future and getting the kids involved is what will make a difference. If they are educated, they will become adults that make changes in their communities.

In northern Peru, where these teachings about malaria avoidance were strong, a generation of children were oriented towards thinking scientifically about their environment.  People were more open to organic production of bananas (and other products) because of the education they received on malaria prevention, and benefits of not putting chemicals into their food, and on their skin (Pesticides and DDT alike). There are no conventional bananas in Peru – only organic – a choice that protects both workers and their land.

What does Equifruit think?

We like to focus on Fairtrade for many reasons. Here are some of the ways we differentiate from the practices of large, established banana companies, as described above:

-Long-term contracts: In Fairtrade, we engage in long-term contracts with our producers so they are not susceptible to larger companies using them as a ‘safety valve.’ They know they will have a consistent income which allows the small producers we work with to have the security to get loans and make investments in their houses, farms and communities.

-The ability to organize: Workers on Fairtrade-certified farms have the right to unionize. Fairtrade also requires democratic decision-making, annual meetings, and encourages working co-operatively. Equifruit currently only buys from small-farmer co-operatives where they can engage in meaningful discussions about their working conditions, production issues, and importantly, create relationships with one another.

-Restricted use of pesticides, even with conventional bananas: To date, Equifruit has imported solely organic bananas, but we have just started serving the university market with conventional (non-organic) Fairtrade bananas. What is great about Fairtrade conventional is that despite not being certified organic, there are still strict regulations about the use of pesticides on plantations. There is a very restricted list of allowed chemicals, and worker health and safety are very carefully protected and monitored in their application.  Safe working conditions are present for all Fairtrade products whether fruit is organic or not.

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