Skip to main content

The story of bananas: Banana republics and colonial control

Those in the UK ‘discovered’ a taste for the banana – which had been grown for centuries in areas like West Africa, the Caribbean and South America – in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

The story of bananas

Like so many of our commodities, its import began with colonialism, from the Caribbean, many areas of which were under British imperial control at the time. As banana conglomerates grew in power, – like other corporates over the next century and a half – they replaced states in the role of the coloniser.

The United Fruit Company was founded in 1899. It was the first true modern multinational corporation. By the 1920s, its empire had spread across Central and South America, where it owned large chunks of land and was nicknamed ‘el pulpo’ – the octopus, with its grasping tentacles.

Initially, the Honduran government blocked United Fruit from entering the country. But in 1911, one of United Fruit’s business partners financed and organised its overthrow. It marked the beginning of a history of ‘regime changes’, in the interests of the banana trade. In the 1950s, United Fruits itself asked the CIA to overthrow the democratically-elected Guatemalan President, who had been redistributing unused company land to local peasants. The coup sparked a 50-year civil war that devastated the country. Today 23% of Guatemalans live in extreme poverty.

In many ways, the United Fruit Company set a precedent for international conglomerates over centuries to come. It provided workers with housing but paid them in vouchers that they could only spend in plantation shops. It lobbied for lower taxes and lax legislation and marketed to children under the guise of education.

In 1990, United Fruits was renamed Chiquita Brands, and its main competitor became Dole Food Company. Although the monopolistic power of United Fruits was gone, the companies that grew up in its place – Chiquita, Dole, Del Monte, Fyffes and others – remain powerful today.

The term ‘banana republic’ still refers to a politically unstable country with an economy that depends on the exportation of a single, limited-resource product – like the banana.

Charged with crimes against humanity

In February 2017, 200 companies were charged with “crimes against humanity” by the Colombian government. Three banana companies – Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole – were amongst them.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Prosecutor stated, they paid paramilitary groups responsible for some of the worst massacres in the country’s civil war. The case is still ongoing.

Links of this kind have long been known. In 2007, Chiquita was fined $25 million by the US Justice Department after they pleaded guilty to conducting business with the AUC – a paramilitary group in the banana-producing region of Colombia.

The AUC was notorious for horrific mass killings of trade unionists, organizers and social activists. Those that were critical of Chiquita’s business operations were amongst the victims, and strikes were prevented.

Initially and in the 2007 settlement, the company said that the money had been ‘extorted’, and not paid for any actual services. However, in 2011, confidential papers emerged from the company suggesting otherwise.

The payments were allegedly planned by 13 executives high up in the company in return for security at plantations. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it paid nearly $1.7million, which allowed the AUC to increase their ranks from 3,000 to 20,000 and buy weapons, ammunition and military vehicles.

Since 2007, victims of the AUC and their families have been seeking an apology and compensation from the company through the US courts. Chiquita has repeatedly tried to see the case dismissed, but in October 2019, it finally opened and is continuing today.

In February 2018, the company also made a settlement with US victims of the FARC – another guerrilla, paramilitary group to which they also made payments.

Free Issue

Sign up now to our email newsletter for a free digital copy of Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sign up now for our email newsletter