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Banana: Book Review

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World (2009), Dan Koeppel. This is another tale of American exceptionalism: bringing a foreign fruit to America to create the new favorite, while simultaneously being as destructive as possible to the Central and South American countries where the fruit is grown. In many places, especially in parts of Africa, bananas are the major food source, but susceptible to diseases. What most people eat in the US and Europe is the Cavendish, one of over a thousand types of bananas. The Cavendish replaced the earlier Gros Michel which succumbed to a fungus called Panama disease after about 50 years. What was particularly difficult to tolerate was the number of times the US military invaded sovereign Latin American countries over some 100+ years—for bananas!

Part I. Family Trees. Chapter 1: And God Created the Banana. Chapter 2: A Banana in Your Pocket? The banana is a perennial herb, harvested manually. The fruit of the Cavendish has no seeds, but it puts out suckers with corms which will produce another banana plant—thus a clone. All the bananas are essentially identical.

Chapter 3: The First Farm. Bananas grew wild around the equator in East Asia. This would include Taiwan and southern China, India and Burma, all of Southeast Asia, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, into Australia and the Coral Sea, as far as Papua New Guinea.

Chapter 4: All in the Family. Leuven, Belgium has a prime banana research lab. Musa in the banana genus.

Part II: Expansion. Chapter 5: Asia. Bananas grew wild in Southeast Asia and various islands. Humans would cultivate hundreds of varieties, often in limited ranges. There are more varieties in India (670 types) than anywhere else, and the country grows 20% of the world’s supply, eaten domestically including Cavendish. The Cavendish came from China. Bananas would first be transported to the Caribbean in the early 19th century, the Gros Michel.

Chapter 6: Pacific. The banana traveled across the Pacific by the Polynesians, all the way to Hawaii. A banana called the Locatan was transplanted from the Philippines to the Caribbean.

Chapter 7: Africa. Uganda relies on the banana for subsistence, but bananas are important across Central Africa, from Ghana and Cameroon to Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. They are less sweet and starchy, something like a potato. Bananas reached Africa from the Pacific by way of the Indian Ocean in four waves, those that grow at high elevations, African plantains, then rain forest plantains, and finally East African Highland bananas.

Chapter 8: Americas. Polynesians seemed to have landed in Ecuador, although there is no evidence of bananas being grown. Father de Berlanga did bring bananas to Gran Canaria in 1516 and they spread around the Caribbean.

Part III. Corn Flakes and Coup D’etats. Chapter 9: Bringing Bananas Home. The closest place to the US where bananas were grown was Jamaica. The Gros Michel was brought to Jamaica from Martinique about 1830. Cape Cod boat captain Lorenzo Dow Baker brought 160 bunches in 1870 to New Jersey. He soon became a banana exporter from Jamaica. Baker partnered with New England produce buyer Andrew Preston in 1885 in what became Boston Fruit. They developed systems to quickly move bananas in refrigerated ships to keep the bananas green using blocks of ice and built cold-storage warehouses in the US. They found a competitor in Joseph Vaccaro based in New Orleans who called his company Standard Fruit. The banana became cheaper than the apple and America’s favorite fruit.

Chapter 10: Taming the Wild. Henry Miggs built Chile’s first train, then Peru. He was joined by Minor Keith to build in Costa Rica. Keith planted bananas on the route, initially to feed the workers. The work was completed in 1890. Keith teamed up with Preston and Baker’s in what became United Fruit.

Chapter 11: Why Banana Peels Are Funny. The Spanish-American War got the US involved in Latin American countries. The US would intervene militarily some 28 times in 35 years, mainly to make the region safe for bananas; that is, exported bananas into the US on capitalist terms, which did not involve concerns for the welfare of Latin American countries or people. A new problem arose with Panama disease. The answer was to abandon existing plantations and build elsewhere. Of course, keeping the land, which could have been used for any number of productive purposes.

Chapter 12: Sam the Banana Man. Samuel Zemurray was something of a thug who became a banana tycoon. He started importing bananas by 1910. United Fruit eliminated competitors, including using US soldiers in Panama and Guatemala. It became multinational selling bananas and expanded into sugar, cocoa, and coffee.

Chapter 13. No Bananas Today. Chapter 14: Man Makes a Banana. Chapter 15: The Banana Massacre. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude about a fictional village in Columbia, with bananas part of the story. It includes a massacre based on the real Columbia banana massacre of 1929. The banana kings could take over a country with a few hoodlums, then stay ahead of the cycle of exploitation, violence, and revolution. Exploited workers would go on strike, to be met with violence. If the thugs were not enough, then they called it a subversive movement, not a legitimate protect of conditions. The massacre happened in Cienaga, after mass in the town square, where over 1,000 villagers including whole families were killed by machine gun fire.

[Given the invasion of Ukraine, I can see the parallels, except instead of dictatorial Putin, it was a dictatorial fruit company using similar tactics of repression and propaganda. Instead of calling them Neo-Nazis, the strikers were subversives, later to be called Communists. Less than total success, meant more repression and violence, including calling in the US military. Why president after president would agree to invade sovereign countries to benefit a fruit company is hard to fathom. It is not unreasonable to blame much of the current strife on our border to this century of bad behavior by the US on behalf of capitalism at its worst.

[This has been standard procedure for much of capitalism, especially after companies become gigantic—or perhaps, that’s when bad behavior is noticed. How hard is it to accommodate workers or all stakeholders with reasonable behavior for long-term benefits? Think about the treatment of Amazon warehouse workers or any number of other examples. Stakeholder capitalism is not an unreasonable concept.]

Chapter 16: The Inhuman Republics. Attempts were made for land reform and hold goons accountable. Success was at best temporary. In Columbia there was guerilla war and a military dictatorship by 1953. Drug cartels moved in. Banana republics had weak institutions, making democratic reform difficult. The term “banana republic” was used in a 1935 Esquire article about inhumane treatment by fruit companies.

Chapter 17: Straightening Out the Business. Three fruit companies remained after United Fruit drove the rest out: Joseph Vaccaro’s Standard Fruit and Sam Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit remained, until United bought Cuyamel. When the others died, Zemurray gained control.

Part IV: Never Enough. Chapter 18: Knowledge is Powerless. In the face of Panama disease, rather than taking measures to fight the disease, the companies just closed old plantations when the disease killed the plants and tore up more rain forest to create new ones, causing environmental and social damage across Latin America.

Chapter 19: Pure Science. Scientist Wilson Popenoe was hired to develop plants. Suggested replacement plants included rubber, oil palm, cocoa, and timber, all now grown in Central America.

Chapter 20: A Second Front. Sigatoka also attacked bananas; the cure was copper sulfate, then other chemicals. The chemicals were toxic and expensive. “The Octopus knew only one way to wield power: bluntly, with brute force” (p. 109).

Chapter 21: No Respite. Chapter 22: Brand Name Bananas. Advertising included the singing banana for Chiquita Banana. Chapter 23: Guatemala. Guatemala shares a border with Mexico and was (and this is) an impoverished country dependent on bananas. United Fruit had built the entire infrastructure of the country—to facilitate the banana. A middle class developed, but tired of being part of a foreign-owned plantation. The result was strikes. Democratic reforms started by 1945, including political parties and press freedom. Jacobo Arbenz became president in 1950. Presumably, part of his coalition included Communists.

This was a problem for United Fruit. An interesting turn was using Edward Bernays, the father of public relations and author of the 1928 book Propaganda. Propaganda is not lying (but could be) but manipulating information (by cherry picking and biased analysis, or convincing leaders of a position—here, money can be useful to sway opinion). It was Bernays job to convince Americans that Arbenz was a Communist. [This suggests Putin took a page out of Bernays propaganda playbook, in his case to convince Russians that Ukrainian was run by Noe-Nazis. Putin seems to mainly have used lying as the key part of his propaganda.]

Arbenz was taking United Fruit’s land that was abandoned and redistributing it to local peasants. United Fruit considered this a major threat. Convincing Arbenz was a Communists was easy in the time of McCarthy. The claim was Communists were everywhere. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had been a partner in United Fruit’s law office. President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to take out Arbenz. The CIA had taken out Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, replacing him with the Shah. Psychological warfare was a key in Guatemala. Arbenz was out by mid-1954.

Part V: Good-bye, Michel. Chapter 24: Cavendish. Britain Charles Telfair was involved in the invasion of Mauritius from the Dutch (they eliminated the dodo in Mauritius) and transformed it for sugar productions. The Cavendish banana arrived from China around 1826. Somehow banana trees were sent to the Duke of Devonshire’s (William Cavendish) estate Chatsworth. As a duke, he gets the fruit named after him. The Cavendish would end up across the equatorial world and the only banana most people in the rich world ate.

Chapter 25: Falling Apart. Standard Fruit was a smaller company, started by Salvador D’Antoni and Joseph Vaccaro, a New Orleans fruit distributor. This company started using the Cavendish.

Chapter 26. Embracing the New. Cavendish became important by the late 1940s. They did not ship well but could be cut into small bunches and shipped in boxes. This changed the shipping infrastructure, including using packing houses in the banana fields. This would be a better size at retail stores. United Fruit did not make the switch until the 1960s. Sales of Gros Michel in the US stopped in 1965. The company did reform to some extent, including selling much of their land and using local subcontractors.

Chapter 27: Chronic Injury. Dictatorial governments ruled in Guatemala and Honduras, causing thousands to flee, many to the US. Bad behavior by fruit companies continued, but more traditional bribery and graft.

Chapter 28: Banana Plus Banana. OA Reinking traveled throughout Asia to gather wild bananas during the 1920s, returning with 134 banana types, which were housed in Panama. Thousands of hybrids were created.

Chapter 29: A Savior? Honduras tried land reform, creating small plantations and rural cooperatives. Standard Fruit was bought by Castle & Cooke, changing to the Dole brand. West Indies Fruit became Del Monte. United Fruit became United Brands.

Chapter 30: Golden Child. Research produced a banana called goldfinger that had characteristics for commercial production like tough skin and good taste, while disease resistant, something like an apple banana. These are widely grown as subsistence bananas in places like Africa.

Part VI. A New Banana. Chapter 3`. A Long Way From Panama. After Panama disease hit the Gros Michel, it took 75 years for it to vanish. Cavendish caught the disease when it arrived back in Asia. Asian bananas are varied, giving enough of them the variety to survive diseases.

Chapter 32: Know Your Enemy. Chapter 33: A Banana Crossroads. Chapter 34: Franken-banana. Chapter 35: Still the Octopus? Scientists working on improving the banana mainly focused on improving the fruit to feed hungry people with limited food choices, including many African nations. United Fruit sold a lot of fruit but by the 1980s seemed unable to make a profit, perhaps because of poor management. Carl Lindner, a private equity guy, took over in 1984, changing the name to Chiquita in 1992. The company went bankrupt in 2002. They still paid bribery money, including to criminal groups in Columbia.

Chapter 36: The Way Out. “The best solution for most of the social ills caused by the industrialization of food production is to give up the exotics—beef from Australia, mangoes from Malaysia, fish from China—that, like to bananas, require huge infrastructures and rock-bottom operating costs to remain economical. We could grow and buy locally and only eat fruit in season, only eat meat raised and killed with humane practices. Our market baskets could be filled with items from small-scale concerns, purchased at local markets. … Brazil grows its more tart, more resistant banana. … Cuban fruit is greener and less sweet; the Brazilian banana is apple like in texture” (p. 235). “If Europe wants bananas, Chiquita must grow them in Africa. If Japan wants bananas, they’ll be grown in the Philippines” (p. 238).

A Banana Timeline. Prehistory: tiny, seed-bearing bananas. 5000 BC: Bananas were cultivated in the western highland of Papua New Guinea. 500 BC: India wrote first accounts of banana cultivation. 50 BC: Pliny the Elder writes on the origins of bananas, which assumes they came from India.

650: Middle Eastern armies and traders bring bananas to Africa. It becomes a staple around Lake Victoria. 1402: Portuguese soldiers bring bananas to the Canary Islands. 1516: Spanish missionary de Berlanga brings bananas to the Caribbean. 1750: Linnaeus calls them Musa sapentium, wise fruit. 1799: Captain Cook finds bananas in Hawaii.

1826: British naturalist Charles Telfair brings the Cavendish banana from China to Mauritius. 1836: The Duke of Devonshire receives the banana from Mauritius. 1870: Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker brings Gros Michel bananas from Jamaica to Jersey City. 1871-80: Minor Keith built railroads in Central America and planted bananas. 1886: Baker creates Boston Fruit. 1894: US military invades Nicaragua to stop land and labor reforms.

1900: Boston Fruit becomes United Fruit. Standard Fruit is created in New Orleans. 1900. US-owned plantations started throughout Central America. Panama disease identified in Java. 1910. Honduras becomes largest banana exporter. Sam Zemurray organizes a coup in Honduras. Honduran rebellion put down by US troops. 1929: banana-workers strike brutally suppressed. 1935: Sigatoka disease identified in Central America, controlled by pesticide which is harmful to humans. 1950: Standard Fruit develops cardboard box to ship Cavendish bananas. 1951: Jacobo Arbenz democratically elected president of Guatemala. 1953/4: CIA authorized to overthrow Arbenz. 1961: Bay of Pigs partially funded by United Fruit. Cavendish banana widely adopted. 1970: Cavendish completely replaces Gros Michel. 1974: Chiquita caught giving $1.25 million bribe to Honduran president. 1980: Blights and other diseases attack African bananas.


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