The year I turned 20, a friend of mine gave me a dog-eared copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez as a gift. Márquez is a Nobel-Prize-winning Colombian author and one of the literary darlings of the country. To be Colombian, as I am, is to know and love Márquez, so you can imagine my excitement as I hungrily dove into each chapter, absorbing the familial story set in the fictional town of Macondo.
This story is beautiful and heart wrenching, and I found myself memorizing passages from it to carry around in my head. Near the end of the book, a banana company sets up camp in Macondo, changing its landscape into one of neocolonialism and industry. Those chapters are particularly difficult to read, as they tell a fictionalization of the very real story of the United Fruit Company’s arrival in Colombia. The UFC was a Boston-based corporation founded in 1899 that agressively took over banana production across Latin America. Today, we know them by the name Chiquita. In particular, the book talks about a massacre that occurred in the town square, where thousands of striking workers were killed after demanding that existing labour laws be implemented.
While Márquez is likely the most famous of the magical realist authors, the way he told this story had me questioning whether or not it was fiction. The December 6th massacre of 1928 was, in fact, a real event, except it did not take place in the fictional town of Macondo but rather in the very real town of Ciénaga. One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1967– 39 years after the massacre –and Márquez is often credited with bringing this event back into the collective memory.
With his vivid description of the 1928 massacre as a catalyst, I entered a period of research where I attempted to educate myself as much as possible on the impact and history of the banana industry. I was always shocked to learn historical events such as how Chiquita funded terrorist forces in Colombia over a number of years, or the way in which the United States government played a huge role in Guatemala’s rocky political history in order to keep firm control over the banana region in the country. The more I researched the subject, the more I realized the banana industry had been built around centuries of abusive labour practices, extremely low environmental standards, and that very few changes had been made since.
So, I began watching documentaries, reading research papers, getting in touch with organizations (Banana Link and Make Fruit Fair do amazing work!), and finding out one ugly truth after another, all while being very conscious that I had never heard these stories before. Perhaps partially due to my age, but perhaps it was also due to the fact that I grew up in Canada, and these events happened in Central and South American countries, particularly regions inhabited by those most affected by racial and class divides– and the culprits were large, multinational, American corporations with all the money in the world. The impact of the banana industry doesn’t seem to have entered the consumer lexicon for those who don’t seek out Fair Trade goods or have the money to do so, and we still find ourselves purchasing a bundle for 0.60 cents a pound, smiling at the thought of a healthy snack.
This research project aims to give you a look into the long, violent, and unjust history of the banana industry in Latin America. Bananaland is a book filled with stories, figures, and archival images with the hopes of reminding you that the globalized world is small, and we indirectly contribute to the lives of people all over the world.
While my project aims to provide a colourful portrait of this issue, it is not without limitations; the impact of the banana industry is vast and beyond the scope of a year–long project (there will always be more documents to dig up, and testimonials to gather). Furthermore, Bananaland mostly touches on crucial social and political labour issues experienced by Latin American plantation workers– but there are other issues that should be mentioned such as the damaging environmental impact of the industry both on the land and its people, and the many countries in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Asia that are also affected by the iron fist of banana companies. The colonial power that American fruit empires have held over developing countries for centuries can still be felt in plantations across the world today.
By examining key moments in the social and political history of the banana industry, backed by archival images, document scans, and stories of those affected, I aim to bring these narratives into social consciousness, allowing us to begin learning about the impact behind the most consumed fruit in the world. I hope you carry this information with you and make informed choices, and that this changes your relationship towards something we encounter daily. I hope to bring these events back into the collective memory.