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October 2002, Volume 8, Number 4

Global Communities: Bananas, Coffee

Almost half of the world's three billion workers are farmers or farm workers, and many are leaving agriculture for cities in the developing world. Many countries are trying to improve opportunities in agriculture to slow rural-urban migration.

Bananas. Ecuador supplies about 28 percent of the world's bananas and employs about 380,000 workers in its banana industry. The major banana companies, including Noboa (Bonita bananas) Del Monte, Dole, Chiquita and Fyffes (exporter to Europe) traditionally owned the plantations in a vertically integrated industry. However, overproduction in the late 1990s lowered prices, and sold the plantations to owners to hired subcontractors to produce and harvest the fruit.

Many of the banana workers are unionized, and their unions have formed a Coalition of Latin American Banana Unions. There are few unions in Ecuador, the country with the lowest average monthly wages for banana workers, which ranged in 2000 from $60 a month in Ecuador to $150 to $200 in Honduras and $200 to $300 a month in Colombia.

Strikes in Ecuador in spring 2002 for higher wages prompted Human Rights Watch to release a report, "Tainted Harvest: Child Labor and Obstacles to Organizing on Ecuador's Banana Plantations," that charged that children 10 to 12 were working 10 to 12 hours a day on banana plantations for $3.50 a day.

The Los Alamos plantation in Puerto Inca, Ecuador has 1,200 hectares or 3,000 acres of bananas, and employs 1,300 workers to tend banana plants fed by a state-of-the-art irrigation system. The owner is Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador's richest man and the leading candidate for president in October 2002 elections.

There is a great deal of hand work in caring for bananas, such as tying cords between the plants so they do not collapse. One worker earning about $6 to $7 a day (Ecuador's minimum wage of $128 a month) is often responsible for tending 40 hectares, and many workers use their children to help them. Human Rights Watch in an April 2002 report condemned the use of child labor on banana plantations, but families in the banana belt of southern Ecuador said that they needed the earnings of their children to survive.

As with most farm commodities, growers receive only about 12 percent of the average retail price of bananas. A 20 kilogram (43 pound) box of bananas sells in Ecuador for $2 to $3, and is worth $25 in the United States or Europe.

Coffee. Coffee prices are at their lowest levels in a century, and the 25 million farming families around the world that depend on coffee face an economic and social crisis similar to America's Dust Bowl in the 1930s. In Central America, more than 540,000 part-time and permanent jobs have been lost because of the sharp drop in coffee prices. In Oaxaca, one man said that "people are emigrating because of coffee's low price."

In 2002, worldwide coffee consumption is expected to equal about 105 million 132-pound bags, but production is expected to exceed 115 million bags, and there are 40 million bags in storage. Supply began to exceed demand when the coffee agreement collapsed in the early 1990s, and Vietnam increased production- Vietnam produces 14 million bags a year, almost 10 percent of the global supply. Farmers received $1.18 a pound for coffee beans in May 1997, and less than $0.50 a pound in Fall 2002.

In Nicaragua's northern mountains, temporary farm workers who used to live on coffee farms, and grow corn and beans on small plots, have been pushed off the farms as they collapse; their gathering in shantytowns makes the crisis in Nicaragua similar to the Dust Bowl. In East and Central Africa--Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi and Rwanda-- unemployment in the coffee growing areas exceeds 50 percent, and some farmers have switched to khat, a stimulant. Enrollment in schools has dropped because parents can no longer pay school fees or buy their books and uniforms.

Coffee is a test case for globalization, and suggests that the traditional farm problem- supply tends to increase faster than demand- will disrupt the lives of many farmers and workers with freer trade. There are two responses to avoid this. First is an effort to produce higher quality coffee beans and to label them with the area in which they were grown, turning coffee into a commodity more like wine. Second is the Fair Trade movement, which certifies that coffee farmers receive at least $1.26 a pound for their coffee, accounts for less than one percent of coffee consumed in the US and Europe.

Shrimp. Many southeast Asian farmers have turned to raising black tiger shrimp in ponds on their farms; they often suffer heavy losses when disease strikes their farms. Vietnam, which became a major coffee exporter in the 1990s, now aims to become a major shrimp exporter-Vietnam exported shrimp worth $780 million from 446,000 hectares of shrimp ponds in 2001. However, shrimp farming is high cost and high risk, and small farmers with heavy debts and little technical assistance do not always follow proper pond cleaning and feeding techniques, hoping to strike it rich before disease wipes them out. In Quang Nam province, where per capita income is $300 a year, 10,000 families raise shrimp, but they lose, on average, 20 percent of the shrimp to disease.

Sugar. The Cuban government is closing 70, about half, of its sugar mills, reflecting the fact that tourism, generating $2 billion a year in foreign currency, is far more important than sugar exports, worth $440 million. About 100,000 workers will be displaced; some will be re-employed on cane fields that are converted to vegetable farms or cattle ranches, but others are expected to migrate to Cuban cities. Many sugar workers have only a ninth-grade education, so special schools are planned for them to obtain high school diplomas.

Cuba's sugar production has been halved, from eight million to four million tons a year between the 1980s and 2000. Cuba has been importing about twice as much as it exports, and has high debts to Russia.

Cocoa. South America used to be a dominant supplier of cocoa beans, but yields dropped in the 1990s due to disease. In 2000-01, Ivory Coast is expected to produce 1,235,000 tons of cacao, compared to 150,000 in Brazil. Cacao trees are indigenous to South America, and the US is trying to develop a disease-resistant tree to discourage farmers from turning to coca. However, cocoa bean prices hit a low of about 40 cents a pound in 2000.

Africa and GM Food. The United Nations says six million people- half the population of Zimbabwe-are threatened with starvation. President Robert Mugabe, who came to power in the 1980 election that ended white rule, saying that he wants to return land to the people from whom it was stolen, and ordered 2,900 white farmers to quit their farms by August 8, 2002; about 200 of those who did not quit their farms were arrested. The government has refused to pay the white farmers for their land, saying it will not pay for land stolen by British settlers.

By May 2002, about 30 percent of commercial farms had stopped producing altogether because of threats from government-backed militants. The production of corn - Zimbabwe's staple food - fell 70 percent in 2002. The white farmers employed 350,000 farm workers, many of whom were laid off.

The US and other nations sent grain to Zimbabwe and other African countries facing food shortages, but the corn that was sent was rejected because it had been grown with genetically modified seed. Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique rejected genetically modified grain shipments; Swaziland, Lesotho and Malawi accepted them. Zimbabwe and Mozambique later accepted the GM corn, but Zambia's President said "We would rather starve than get something toxic."

The countries rejecting the genetically modified corn say that it may prevent them from exporting agricultural products and livestock to the European Union. The United Nations World Food Program countered that "there is no scientific evidence to support" concerns about the safety of genetically modified corn.

South Africa. In South Africa, many farmers are selling their cattle and buying giraffes, buffaloes, hippos and rhinos, hoping to earn more money from eco-tourism and hunting. The Natal Game Ranchers Association says that wildlife are less labor intensive than cattle, which need to be regularly dipped for pests, immunized, fed and fenced off. In 2001, there were 5,300 private game farms in South Africa, covering 27 million acres, or about 13 percent of South Africa's private farm land.

A special license is required to stock game on a farm, many of which are 10,000 to 20,000 acres, and prices for hunting game range from $350 for an impala to $700 for a zebra, $1,000 and up for a kudu and $10,000 for a buffalo. In addition, the 5,000 foreign hunters pay a daily fee of $350 to $450, making the average cost of a 10-day hunting safari is $5,000 to $10,000. Photo safaris at private game farms, by contrast, cost $500.

T. Christian Miller and Davan Maharaj, "Coffee's Bitter Harvest," Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2002. Ann M. Simmons, "Wild Animals in S. Africa Reserve Are Going Once, Twice--and Gone," Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2002. Dana Frank, "Our Fruit, Their Labor and Global Reality," Washington Post, June 2, 2002.