It's hard to be neutral about bananas. Either you love them &mdash they remind you of your childhood, they're delicious in smoothies, you load up on them on each dining hall trip &mdash or you hate them for various reasons.
Last night, my fellow Nicaragua Sister Partnership committee members and I organized an event to get people thinking about bananas: their history, where they come from, the conditions under which they're produced, their effect on the environment, and the frightening power of the companies that market them. To be provocative, we called the event Strange Fruit. We got a bunch of other student groups to co-sponsor the event, including Oberlin in Solidarity with El Salvador (OSES), Oberlin Earth First, and the Sustainability Hall.
Bananas are a great issue to rally around. Whether you're interested in Latin American politics, workers' rights, climate change, or local foods, you have to take a stance on the purchase of this ubiquitous fruit. People turned out in droves for the event, packing the seminar room in Wilder (the student union). One enthusiastic participant even wore a full banana suit. We screened two banana propaganda films, one from 1935 and one from 1950, then talked about what doesn't appear in the films, what the banana corporations don't want consumers to know. We closed with a discussion of what on-campus actions we'd like to take, and decided that education is the most important goal. Before taking any drastic measures, like trying to get the dining halls to ban bananas, we want to raise consciousness. As the propaganda films show, we've been trained to think of bananas as a common fruit necessary to our diets, when it's actually an exotic luxury item that travels thousands of miles to reach us. The purpose of the event was to get people thinking and I believe we did just that.
Below is the statement the committee crafted about Oberlin's purchase of bananas:
We are the Nicaragua Sister Partnership Committee of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA). Besides continuing our work with the organized women in San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua, we would like this year to increase awareness within the Oberlin community about the role we play as consumers and global citizens. We want to recognize how our actions affect the people of Nicaragua, so we do not end up inadvertently harming them at the same time we are trying to help.
We are asking you to consider the presence of bananas at Oberlin College. Our committee would like to raise several issues with banana production.
* The search for an ethical banana is nearly impossible. As of 2007, the top five banana companies controlled 86% of the market. On their plantations in Nicaragua and other countries, these multi-national corporations generally do not respect the human rights of their workers. Workers are not paid a living wage for their labor. Companies impede their employees' ability to unionize to fight for better conditions. Banana workers often do not receive childcare benefits, so often the children must come with their parents into the fields. In addition, companies use dangerous, illegal pesticides like DBCP on their crops, exposing farmers to chemicals proven to cause sterility, cancer, or death.
* In addition, banana production has environmental repercussions. Only one variety of banana is grown for export. Since this banana lacks genetic diversity, companies must counteract its vulnerability to diseases by using large amounts of chemical pesticides. Also, in order to plant bananas, surrounding rainforest land must be cleared. Getting the bananas from the equatorial region up to Oberlin also creates an enormous carbon footprint.
* Finally, it's important to consider the political consequences of United States fruit companies having such control over Latin American land and resources. Banana corporations have played a huge role in political atrocities in Latin America, such as the overthrow of Nicaragua's president in 1909, the Colombian banana strike massacre of 1928, and the 1975 Honduran coup, among many others.
* In the United States now, bananas are seen as commonplace and necessary foods, but this perception is a result of marketing and propaganda from the companies. Bananas are an exotic, tropical species--an ecologically expensive luxury rather than a necessity. The "potassium argument" is moot: other, more local foods have lots of potassium, including oat bran, cucumbers, lima beans, potatoes, and beets.
When considering whether bananas should be present at Oberlin, keep in mind the power we have to vote with our dollars. It is different to buy bananas with your own money than to have the College buy bananas with the money of all students. The College buying bananas is like having every student endorse the way bananas are produced. We urge you to consider carefully the influence of your seemingly small decisions. We look forward to working with all of you to promote more ethical food-buying decisions.