Fair trade is often presented as a fair way to help banana growers, but when international trade is dominated by the wealthier nations and companies, poorer farmers and nations are often left with an uncertain future.
The WTO rules against the Largest Aid and Trade Pact, the Lomé Convention
Caribbean bananas are grown on small, family-run farms. However, a September 1997 World Trade Organization (WTO) decision pressured by the US, backed by companies like Chiquita, has meant that these local producers will have to
7 on a level playing field with giant multinationals and Latin-American dollar bananas.
According to the WTO ruling8, there shouldn’t be discrimination based on where the food is produced or even how it is created (which also means, for example, that a country cannot easily say no to genetically modified food9 and the general public doesn’t have to be informed).
This has affected the way the European Union (EU) has it’s trade agreements10 with the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP countries) and the Lomé; convention which is based on cooperation and partnership between the EU and 71 ACP member states. This, even though some members of the ACP are not WTO members or observers as the report from the previous link mentions. The convention was the world’s largest trade and aid pact and following the expiry in 2000, has to be replaced11 by a system designed to open up the markets of the poor nations to the industrialized nations of Europe.
In 1998, UK already voted to abolish12 the Caribbean’s guaranteed access to European markets. European government and development agencies have predicted terrible consequences such as mass poverty, and high levels of unemployment (from this link13). In its place is a proposal for the EU to issue import licenses to ships arriving with bananas on a first come, first served14 basis.
The ACP nations feel that they will be not be ready15 to enter a global market place with free trade in the way that the WTO prescribes. As mentioned in the Free Trade16 part of this web site, forcing free trade restructuring on governments who are not financially stable or ready to do so would not work.
A report from a coalition of NGOs said that the new agreement fails to safeguard17 the notion that poverty eradication plays a central role in ACP-EU relations or guarantee the inclusion of civil society. There is hope that the framework is flexible enough to address these concerns, but it remains to be seen. You can read the actual report at this link18.
Oxfam also highlights that the new agreement allows the EU to follow more free trade policies in a way that can give them a stronger bargaining position19.
Oxfam also noted that the Caribbean small farmers themselves were denied representation at the WTO (though some of which were not WTO members—though they are affected, nonetheless), that the multinationals were generally making profits anyway, and that the entire argument was over a small share of the overall European market20.
A trade war between US and Europe: two banana-importing consumer nations
The beginning of March 1999 saw a new trade war emerge. To give an idea of the importance of this issue, Washington applied a set of sanctions on a variety of EU goods, many of which had nothing to do with bananas21, due to the preferential banana trade agreement.
Washington claimed that they were protecting their interests and want to show that free trade can work, while the EU battled over questions regarding the right to decide, claiming that the US was manipulating WTO rules22 to implement sanctions against countries trading with regimes it does not like.
The WTO eventually authorized its largest ever trade sanctions23 by USA on the EU.
(The beef trading disputes24 also bore resemblance to the banana trade war; the EU banned beef from the US which have been treated with growth hormones, on the grounds of safety. The WTO ruled against the EU concerns and preferred the free trade approach.)
The beginning of May 2001, saw an agreement signaling an end to the sanctions25 resulting from the banana dispute. Chiquita is thought to benefit26, as it was facing bankruptcy. The Caribbean Bananas Exporters’ Association, representing the interests and fears of the Caribbean banana industry, also welcomed the end of the dispute27 but remained worried about some provisions.
We will act multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must
Another fundamental issue from the banana war had emerged: initially, Washington imposed sanctions unilaterally28, just weeks before the WTO was to meet about this issue. The resulting emergency meetings by the WTO raised concerns about whether the WTO can be an effective moderator in such disputes if nations decide to do things unilaterally.
In other words, if larger, powerful nations can impose their will whenever they wish, what would be the fate of the poorer or less powerful nations? Even at the WTO Ministerial Meeting in Seattle, Caribbean nations would have likely lost out29 and gained little from the world trade liberalization agenda of the WTO had the huge public protests30 not been able to derail that meeting.
(Whether the WTO has actually been beneficial and fair to developing nations31 at all is another topic in itself, but the point here is more about how this is yet another example of undermining or manipulating international rules to suit ones own interests with disregard to who and how it can affect so many other people—for example, on the one hand, the US was able to disrupt a biosafety protocol32—which it hasn’t even signed to—arguing that the WTO should be involved, allowing freer trade (even though the biosafety protocol is not about trade). Yet here, while they have used the WTO to get the original ruling, they did not wait for the WTO resolution process to work and acted unilaterally. As an aside, the above quote in the heading is from then-US Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, Madeline Albright, regarding the Iraq crisis in 1998, but very applicable here too.)
A lot of pressure to get this ruling came from the large corporations like Chiquita33. They complained that this was unfair trade. Yet, with the subsequent ruling turning in their favor34, trade may become unfair for the livelihoods of many Caribbean people35. Another point to note is that there was less than 10% share of the European market reserved for the thousands of producers in the Caribbean according to Christian Aid, in a report on Fair Shares36.
In May 1998, there was a huge exposé (see Part 137, Part 238 and Part 339) in the Cincinnati Enquirer about Chiquita Brands International, a company headed by Republican mega-donor Carl Lindner, and its terrible working practices and illegal activities such as bribery, tax evasion, violence towards some workers and even killings.
However, the sensation wasn’t that Chiquita was so unfair in its methods, but that the reporter that investigated this had stolen some information from internal Chiquita voicemails. The paper then sensationally retracted the story after huge pressure from the company and denounced the report for three days on it’s front page! Its truly amazing that while the reporter received all the criticism, the company received little scrutiny40. Many charges of corporate criminal activity did not rely on the hacked voice mails.
Caribbean region’s dependency on bananas is unhealthy
However, when it comes to the banana trade, one must question if a crucial factor has been missed out here; that is what economic system is most beneficial for the Caribbean itself; with the banana industry being a major industry, but largely export driven, the economies of the region are more sensitive to external forces as we have seen in the WTO ruling, US pressure, and EU agreement changes.
Yet, there are many poor and hungry in the region. While it is a challenge in itself, meeting local needs must remain a priority as a means to alleviate poverty and develop.
Although specialization is typically encouraged for poorer countries, diversification of their economy may help them meet a multitude of needs, withstand external influences to some extent, and explore further areas where they may be able to provide a competitive advantage. Examples of diversification include other crops, and other industries (e.g. tourism, which some Caribbean nations are already expanding reasonably successfully).
Keeping countries dependent upon the developed world has been a mechanism used throughout history to maintain superiority and continue the economic advantages. If campaigns for fair trade unwittingly maintain this unequal relationship, it is not really fair (or is perhaps a short term remedy for a more fundamental problem).
For more about this perspective, refer to this site’s sections on poverty41 and this site’s section on bananas from a consumption42 perspective.
Its just banana’s, isn’t it? Well, the way this trade agreement has been contested43 probably gives us a good indication44 of how smaller, developing nations fare in globalized markets that are dominated by the more powerful and wealthy actors.
For more information on the Banana trade war see
Banana Link46 is a very good site with a lot of in-depth information. It is a UK-based organization working for sustainable production and trade in bananas.
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs47 has a large section on Chiquita. (Simply do a search for Chiquita)
Food and agriculture goes to the heart of our civilizations. Religions, cultures and even modern civilization have food and agriculture at their core. For an issue that goes to the heart of humanity it also has its ugly side.
This issue explores topics ranging from the global food crisis of 2008, to issues of food aid, world hunger, food dumping and wasteful agriculture such as growing tobacco, sugar, beef, and more.