SARAPIQUÍ, Heredia – Beneath the low canopy of the Nogal banana plantation in Costa Rica’s northeastern Sarapiquí region, the soft, muddy soil is littered with banana leaves and stalks and the ground crisscrossed with shallow channels. It is slippery, crunchy going.
Intermittently throughout this particular plantation, hugging close to the soil, is a leafy, perennial herb known in English as kidney weed, or in Latin as Dichondra repens. The maligned plant – not actually a weed but a wanted participant at the plantation – adds nitrogen to the soil and beats out other weeds that would compete with the bananas for nutrients and water. It is also just one example of how Chiquita, once the world’s largest banana producer, is transforming its farming practices to reduce harmful environmental impact at its banana farms around the world, including approximately 6,400 hectares of plantations in Costa Rica.
Founded in 1899 as the United Fruit Company, the banana exporter has lost some of its market share over the decades, challenged in part by European tariffs on Latin American bananas. Long the target of protests from environmentalists and labor rights activists, it also has a long and storied history in Costa Rica. Violent clashes and sustained strikes by workers in the southern Pacific port town of Golfito resulted in United Fruit closing up shop there in 1985.
The region has never fully recovered. During the past 12 years, however, Chiquita Brands International has slowly, and quietly, overhauled its environmental and labor practices thanks largely to a partnership with the environmental organization Rainforest Alliance. The multinational corporation launched its first ads heralding the changes last year, but has limited them to the European market. However, 100% of its 70 banana farms worldwide are now certified by Rainforest Alliance, and 96% of the 300 independent producers it buys bananas from are also certified.
Chiquita’s farms also have the SA8000 certification from global labor rights organization Social Accountability International, and signed a major agreement with the International Union of Food Workers in 2001.
“I believe they have made a great effort, and in the social area they have improved a lot,” said Ana Lucía Corrales, 46, the technical coordinator of Rainforest Alliance’s certification program. “They have become pioneers of a cultural change in the banana sector.”
Making Green Bananas
David McLaughlin was the general manager of Chiquita’s operations in Costa Rica in the early 1990s, a time when the banana industry was receiving heavy flak from environmental groups around the world for its agricultural practices
“At the same time, there were a lot of stakeholders speaking out and voicing their concerns over banana production practices,” McLaughlin, 52, explained in a recent phone interview. “We noticed that the campaign against the banana industry was clearly affecting our local staff ’s morale. My own children were talking about it.We also had to acknowledge that there were some issues that had some validity and we could perform better.”
While many in the industry dismissed attempts from environmental groups to change their practices, McLaughlin, now Chiquita’s senior director for environmental and social performance, offered a sympathetic ear.
“Rainforest Alliance brought with them an alternative. ‘What you guys are doing is wrong, but we can help,’” McLaughlin recalled. “We piloted the project on two farms, and the rest is history.”
In 1992, unbeknownst to Chiquita headquarters – located in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the United States – McLaughlin began implementing a series of changes outlined by Rainforest Alliance. Today, Rainforest Alliance inspects Chiquita farms annually using standards developed to reduce the chemical contamination, deforestation and pollution the banana industry had spread along Central America and Colombia’s Caribbean slope.
These standards are increasingly more strict. “The whole matrix of storing and handling any of the agricultural chemicals had to be improved. We built hundreds of new warehouses and new mixing stations with new technology,”McLaughlin said. The company has reduced its pesticide use by 35%, a “nice number,”McLaughlin said.At the same time, the application of pesticides has become “micromanaged,” as technicians monitor the pest and weed threats in different areas to make the application of pesticides site-specific.Managers look for natural alternatives, like the kidney weed, that can further reduce chemical use.
Chiquita has improved its crop-dusting technology to make the chemicals less likely to roll off the banana leaves and onto the soil, or be blown outside the target area. Pilots are now trained to stop spraying before they reach the roads or other areas where people or vehicles could pass.
Plantations are surrounded by hedges or trees that act as natural buffers to keep pesticides from escaping the plantations. The chemicals used are all approved by both the Rainforest Alliance and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Water quality on the plantations and in surrounding areas is monitored, while water in the packing plant is recycled, treated and reused. According to Rainforest Alliance, Chiquita recycles or reuses nearly 80% of the plastic bags and plastic twine used on its farms – about 3,200 metric tons per year –and has reforested more than 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of land.
The big surprise, however, was that once the costly changes were implemented worldwide, the farms’ productivity began to improve.
“Production has gone up 27% and cost has gone down 12%,”McLaughlin said. The Chiquita exec read from a report from the National Banana Corporation (CORBANA), a public-private organization that oversees Costa Rica’s banana industry, which found that Chiquita’s banana plantations are the most productive in Costa Rica – 23.6% more productive than the rest of banana farms in the country.
With all its accomplishments, however, Chiquita has not appeased everyone. Critics have called on the banana giant to go completely organic – eliminating all chemical pesticides, which McLaughlin and others say is nearly impossible because of the sensibility of the crop.
“We have been, and will continue to be, a target,” said Chiquita’s Costa Rica spokeswoman Irene Sandoval. “So what does Chiquita do? It recognizes that there is still a road ahead.”
McLaughlin said Rainforest Alliance “is a great example of how a non-governmental organization has helped transform a company by working with that company,” McLaughlin said. “The beauty of what they did is not only did they help transform Chiquita, they have helped transform the industry. You can’t be in this industry without taking into account environmental concerns and the Rainforest Alliance really brought that to the forefront.”
Bettering Labor Relations
Part of the Rainforest Alliance certification goes beyond the environmental impact and requires fair treatment of workers, safe working conditions and occupational health and safety programs.
In improving its relations with workers, Chiquita has reduced workday hours and makes sure employees get a minimum of one day off a week, McLaughlin explained.
Chiquita management meets every six months with all its unions,McLaughlin said, and gives full access to union organizers, though in Costa Rica, only 450 of Chiquita’s 4,735 workers are unionized. He attributes the low number to two other options workers have available: the solidarista associations, a Costa Rican tradition featuring a worker-management alliance managed by employees that functions as a credit union and more, and the representative committees Chiquita organizes.
The representative committees are groups of workers that represent their colleagues and meet regularly with management to voice complaints and talk about workplace issues. Chiquita employee Ballardo José Ríos, 38, sits on such a committee at the Nogal plantation.
“We don’t talk like we did in the old days, with yelling and punching. Now there is feedback for people, they give talks and it is bearing fruit. We are seeing a good treatment, from the laborers and from the company,” said Ríos, a banana packer. “Now, we truly know that we have various points where we can go to air our problems.”