03 June 2008

Hey Mr Tally Man, tally me banana

Another crazy week of illness and travel. Just got back from Slovakia where I spent a very pleasant weekend with some former work colleagues, now bona fide friends. When you are in a hectic work environment, you tend to forge strong relationships with people in the heat of stress and 60 hour work weeks - let's face it, you often spend more time with your work colleagues than you do with family, friends and spouses. The true test of friendships formed in work is whether they last once you have left work, and I am pleased to say that 6 weeks on and in a whole different country I spent a very enjoyable couple of days with two such folk, one still employed by The Company, and one who left before me to form a juice-and-smoothy-bar empire in central and eastern Europe (or at least that is his plan).

After getting back from Italy on Monday I found myself seriously under the weather, and while not as bad as The Very Understanding Girlfriend, I did give some considerable consideration to cancelling my trip to Bratislava altogether, however buoyed by caffeine and the madness that comes from less than 20 hours sleep over 5 days I boarded my Sky Europe flight to Bratislava, my first time leaving the safety of my apartment since getting back from Italy (I should have just stayed in the airport, collapsed on a bench, and sweated for four days instead of coming home).

I stayed in Pezinok, about 15 mins outside of Bratislava at the foothills of the Little Carpathians, and ventured into Bratislava itself on Saturday for the obligatory sight-seeing, marvelling how urine-free the streets of yet another capital city seems in comparison to Dublin. The weather was amazing, 30C every day and clear blue skies, and I was amazed to find myself in wine-country, with vineyards hugging every hillside. The region produces some interesting varieties, and I as very impressed with a local Cabernet Sauvignon we had at dinner. Of course the location was almost incidental as the reason we were all there was to catch up, and catch up we did. All in all a very good time was had by all.

No trip would be complete without anger-inducing reading material, and thus given the juice and smoothy theme of the trip I brought along "Jungle Capitalists", by Peter Chapman, a light and engaging read chronicling the rape of Central America by the United Fruit Company, responsible for Chiquita bananas, transnational modern day slave-plantations, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA overthrow of the governments of Honduras and Guatemala, the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and O.Henry, and the rise of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in violent protest to their exploitation of the poor and the disenfranchised. Think 'Grapes of Wrath', only hotter and more yellow.

United Fruit were once the of original owners of Fyffes, now a proud Irish firm, taking over the original English importer the same name in the early 1900's, before selling them to Irish Fruit Importers in the 80's to create the Fyffes we know and love today. Fyffes buys the entire banana crop of Belize, and substantial crops from Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala. As a result of this Ireland is, in the truest sense of the world, a banana republic. Bananas are picked green, and generally ripen during shipping, or are stored in vast airtight warehouses that are pumped full of ethylene gas to artificially stimulate ripening. The EU only considers a banana to be a banana once it has ripened, therefore as all of Fyffes bananas are shipped to Ireland unripened, they only officially become bananas in Ireland, and thus can be shipped throughout the EU as a product of Ireland, not of Belize, Ecuador etc, and so are not subject to import duties and other niceties.

Oh, and if you think it odd that Ireland 'produces' bananas, Iceland actually grows them! It has massive tropical greenhouses located near hotsprings using the heat from geothermal energy to create suitable conditions. While not commercially viable yet it is a far cry from Jamaican slave-labour in Honduras.

While Fyffes has a much better track record on workers and human rights than its United Fruit predecessors, it has still come under criticism for the conditions under which labourers work on plantations that supply it. Given its complete control over the banana crop in Belize, it is in a position to exercise considerable influence over all aspects of plantation life, and ensure that workers are treated fairly. It is a position that it thus far appears reluctant to act aggressively on.

I chose not to tell my friend about the connections between his business and modern-day slavery, he seemed so happy and I didn't want to spoil the weekend.


Jungle Capitalists
Ireland and the Banana Trade


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