ProsThe truth about the human and environmental costs behind the success of the United Fruit Company. Peter Chapman's book is easy to read and well researched.
ConsIt is not free.
It takes time to read.
You will be put off eating bananas.
Full ReviewIn 1975 Eli Black jumped out of the 44th floor of the Pan Am Building in New York and killed himself and effectively ended 76 years of corporate tyranny in Central and South America. He had taken over an ailing United Fruit Company whose tentacles reached into several governments in Latin America and into the corridors of power in Washington.
The United Fruit Company was formed in 1899 by the merger of Minor C. Keith's trading concerns with Andrew W. Preston's Boston Fruit Company. Together these two men managed to set up a virtual monopoly in the banana selling market in the United States.
They used their influence in Boston to get US Governmental support and they wheeled and dealed their way into positions of influence throughout Central America, Ecuador and Colombia. They did this by supporting military installed dictators and offering them railway building services. Naturally, the dictators raised the money for the railways by using public money. As a sweetner for the deals United Fruit asked for vast swathes of free uncultivated forest. They got it and set about building railroads and clearing huge areas of forest for banana cultivation.
At home they employed a team of lawyers and media men to consolidate their banana monopoly and promote the eating of bananas to the American public. This went swimmingly well.
Back in Latin America, United Fruit had a massive network of railway lines to transport out the bananas to a waiting fleet of ships (the biggest commercial fleet ever assembled). And they had a huge banana growing program established with medical services for plantation managers only. No other banana or fruit company came anywhere close to challenging United Fruit's domination in the banana market. They kept on increasing production despite setbacks from diseases to the banana plants and the occasional hurricane.
Their profits largely came by keeping down operating costs. They employed anyone who would work as virtual slaves. Plantation workers were expected to work 10 hours a day 7 days a week. And for this hot, back breaking work they received not money but 'scrip' - a note which could only be exchanged at the company store for over-priced goods. So they made money from selling their workers the basics for life.
This was exploitation pure and simple. The staff back in the States were geniuses at hiding the ugly truth of how the United Fruit Company were so successful. It wasn't until the 1960's that academics started questioning the business ethics of the company. And it wasn't until 1974 (the company under Black had re-named itself United Brands) that the company finally got its legal come uppance in the scandal known as 'bananagate'. In short they had been caught bribing the President of Honduras $2.5 million to reduce certain export taxes effecting their banana interests.
It is hard to imagine that the United Fruit Company and then United Brands could get away with exploitation, neo-colonialism, bribery, massacre (they got the Colombian government to fire into a crowd of strikers in Cienaga on December 6, 1928) and environmental degradation (all those banana plantations caused massive deforestation and pesticide pollution) for so long.
Peter Chapman brilliantly tells the tale of how they got away with it in his book entitled Bananas - How The United Fruit Company Shaped The World. The book is a fascinating tale involving a whole host of weird and wonderful characters. It is also a frightening tale of how supposed 'free market' economics can run rampant and roughshod - bypassing laws back home and manipulating the leaders of developing countries.
You may think it is not possible for a company to behave that flagrantly now. Well you are very much mistaken. In 2007 the newly re-named Chiquita Brands (basically United Fruit/United Brands under a new name) was fined a whopping $25 million by US courts when it was proved that its representatives had been bribing para-military groups in the banana growing zone in Colombia. Time to think again.
It is still going on. Don't eat chiquita bananas and buy Peter Chapman's book to find out exactly why you should boycott Chiquita bananas.