In my living room, sits a golden fruit with black freckles. I peel the fruit and slice it into my morning cereal with milk, as I have done since I was a child. I am suddenly in touch with my Monkey Me, my inner primate. Here in the United States, we do not cultivate the banana to any great extent. Still, it is the most consumed fruit on these shores. As a result of the American obsession with the fruit, it is the top non-grain crop cultivated in the world.
We may think of hunting as the cruellest and most bloody of human endeavours, yet if we look into recent history, we may discover that plant agriculture is the cause of more human violence than hunting ever was. For instance, the US’ shameful manipulation of Central American politics in the 1950’s was spurred by American’s love of bananas.
Let’s look at a small country in Central America, Guatemala. In 1951, the democratically elected government of Ruben Arbenz, seeking to institute a land reform programme similar to the US’ own Homestead Act, sought to purchase the land not in production from the vast holdings of the US-owned United Fruit Company. United Fruit was by far the largest landowner in Guatemala. It owned 42 percent of all arable land in the country. Any meaningful reform required some of this land. I emphasise: The land the government sought was not land that was in production, nor was it land laid to fallow as part of some crop rotation. The reform only dealt with land that had never been cultivated by United Fruit.
Duly-elected Guatemalan president Ruben Arbenz, cautiously acting within the bounds of international law, acquired the land through Eminent Domain, the same legal acquisition of land
for public purposes that the US uses within its borders. Imminent domain allows nations to acquire property for public purposes as long as the government pays a fair market value to the landowner. The “fair market value” Arbenz was willing to pay was the value that United Fruit itself had placed upon the land for tax purposes. Guatemala did not seek to acquire the land in a hostile manner, simply to pay the price for the land that the United Fruit Company claimed it was worth according to the company’s own US tax returns.
John Foster Dulles, and his brother Allen were lawyers for the firm that represented United Fruit. They were major shareholders in the company. In 1954, John Foster Dulles also happened to be Secretary of State, and Allen was director of the CIA.
Long story short, the US, with the intervention of the CIA, overthrew the Arbenz government and ended what Guatemalans call The Ten Years of Spring, and ushered in a dark period that, six years later, would result in a 36 year long civil war. Meanwhile, the actions of the US did not hurt the Dulles boys financially or politically.
All so it would be possible for me to slice a banana into my cereal.
Interestingly, the Dulles boys also had a hand in overthrowing another annoying democracy — Iran. What Arbenz had tried to do with the land reform, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq attempted to do with British Petroleum holdings in Iran. As a result, Mossadeq incurred the wrath of the Dulleses, and the Shah was brought to power.
I could write a sad saga of “what goes around comes around”. United Fruit was a politically connected concern, and it perpetrated great evil that was so contrary to the Constitutional principles upon which my country was based that it constituted, in my opinion, treasonous actions against the principles of liberty. It was an act of pure evil. Iran was even worse. We weren’t even acting in our own imperial interests. We were acting on behalf of Britain!
United Fruit eventually fell victim to a hostile takeover of its own. It was raided and acquired in 1968, and became United Brands. The company continued to import bananas and exploit workers. The company was grossly mismanaged, and the owner of the company eventually “resigned via window” leaping to his death from the Pan Am building in New York City. The smudge on the sidewalk, CEO Eli Black, was going to be exposed for bribing the Honduran president in order to reduce import taxes. United Fruit eventually became Chiquita Banana, and it is this label that my children used to take off the individual bananas and affix to their foreheads.
United Fruit had a bloody history in Central America and South America. In 1928, under the direction of an United Fruit friendly military in Colombia, government forces opened fire on striking banana farmer, killing over 1,000 workers. The General in charge claimed to give the orders for fear of US troops poised to land and defend their commercial interests on Colombian soil.
In a strange turn of fungal justice, an illness came home to roost. The success of the Gran Michel, the banana that replaced all domestic fruits as the top consumed fruit in the United States, forced the banana to be cultivated over many acres at the expense of any other type of banana. As is often the case with such monoculture, the banana fell victim to a fungus, and since the banana reproduces via corm like asparagus or lilies, each banana plant is genetically identical to its parent. The Gran Michel was gradually driven to the verge of extinction, and today, only exists on experimental farms in Guatemala, and in the Congo, It is still susceptible to the ravages of Panama Disease. The banana which caused US corporate interests to create the “Banana Republic” was no more.
Did the cultivators learn their lesson?
What do you think?
Today, the Cavendish is the banana of choice in the West. It is shorter than other banana plants, and therefore requires less support to cultivate. It accounts for 50 percent of the world’s banana cultivation, and 99 percent of the bananas eaten in my country are Cavendishes. This is so short-sighted. After all, there are more than a thousand varieties of edible bananas cultivated throughout the world. Our one-size fits all consumerist attitude, and our obsession with uniformity (political as well as botanical) has affected what is planted (and “planted politically”) the world over. It makes no scientific, nutritional (or political) sense.
And now, a cousin of the fungus that drove the Gran Michel off the shelves is threatening the Cavendish. Since the bananas are genetically identical to each other, this means that the Cavendish will disappear within the next decade. Large corporate concerns like Monsanto must see this as an opportunity to gain public relations points by modifying a disease-resistant variety of the Cavendish.
All we have to do is accept several different bananas. Is that so hard?
In a world where you’re an Islamist or Western, AL or BNP, Conservative or Liberal, Republican or Democrat, the patience for subtle differences has vanished. Why? It’s because the more amiable differences you can admit to between people, the more difficult it is to market to any given group. It’s hard to say, “well, the BNP has made some bad choices on certain issues, it has picked its allies unwisely at times, and if I were a minority person living in Bangladesh, I would be frightened of the BNP’s power, but the AL seems too subservient to India.” Can you say “I’m with the BNP on some issues, and with the AL on others”, or even more productively, “I’m some other, very different party. I’m a party of ten or twelve people who share certain core ideas, but I’m willing to listen to the ideas of everyone else.”
See, politics is like the Cavendish. The monoculture of political ideas eventually breeds very particular fungus.
The more ideology based political parties take root, the less corruption can spread. Corruption-resistant varieties can take hold and thrive, especially when those varieties are willing to share space with many other cultivars. This was the whole idea of the Parliamentary system of government.
The American geopolitics of “US and THEM”, be it Cold War or anti Islamist, creates the kind of environment in which the spores of human misery can feed. We deprive ourselves of a variety of new flavours for fear of the unknown. We “refuse to negotiate with terrorists”. We dismiss people who don’t share our ideas as superstitious and backward. Natural variance of human thought rots on the vine and the pestilence of despair soon takes over.
So I grab a banana, and I peel and eat it. The banana is a much more fairly traded item with real benefits for planters than, say chocolate. The banana somehow harkens to my simian roots, reminds me of the way my grandmother used to resolve any differences I had with her in evolutionary terms.
“I’m a monkey, you’re a monkey.” Perhaps before they engage in any sort of political standoff, our leaders should eat a banana, and remind themselves that whatever else is true, we are, ourselves, just like the Cavendish, a seven billion strong monoculture of primates, all pretty much genetically identical, and subject to the same weaknesses, be they physical or political.
Frank Domenico Cipriani is a writer and a friend of Bangladesh. He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity in the USA.