Green Bananas? Chiquita Teams Up with the Rainforest Alliance
Jackson, Rachael, E Magazine
When Chiquita Brands International started selling bananas with "Rainforest Alliance Certified" stickers in European stores last year, the company expected a positive reaction. But when the bananas--which bear the environmental group's green frog logo--hit grocers' shelves, some people suspected that Chiquita, with a documented history of worker abuse and environmental damage, was participating in a little "greenwashing."
E recently toured two Chiquita plantations in Costa Pica and found that the company has taken major steps to improve the environment. However, some Costa Rican workers still feel they are treated unfairly by the banana giant.
Chiquita admitted to damaging business practices in its 2000 Corporate Responsibility Report, including "improper government influence, antagonism toward organized labor and disregard for the environment." But the company assures consumers it has changed.
According to the Rainforest Alliance (RA), a nonprofit dedicated to protecting tropical forests, the banana company has made significant strides. The two organizations began talks in the early 1990s about reducing pesticide use, recycling, eliminating deforestation and respecting workers' rights.
In 1994, RA started certifying Chiquita's plantations as meeting its social and environmental standards, and in 2005, Chiquita began selling bananas in Europe with the rainforest-safe label. (The bananas are sold in the U.S., but not labeled here.) Now all Chiquita farms and most of its independent suppliers are certified by the group.
But banana union members, who make up a small portion of Chiquita's Costa Rican workers, said they were left out of the certification process, adding that Chiquita still discourages union membership and targets union members for layoffs.
Twenty years ago, Raul Gigena Pazos, superintendent for corporate responsibility in Chiquita's Costa Rica office, would probably not have worked for the banana producer. A graduate of Earth University in Costa Rica, which promotes sustainable farming, Pazos gestures toward trees that create buffers around banana plantings and riverbeds while touring a company plantation. According to the Rainforest Alliance, more than 800,000 trees and bushes have been planted on Chiquita farms since certification began. Chiquita also reforested and owns a 247-acre reserve in the eastern region of Costa Rica.
"The idea is to always be improving," Gigena says, pointing to the recycling center, where the blue plastic bags that protect growing bananas are collected. Chiquita recycles about 3,100 tons of bags and twine per year. At one Costa Rica farm the blue plastic was recycled into floor-boards for a bridge, according to RA.
Gigena bent down next to a banana tree to explain "kidney weed" a plant that discourages weeds without affecting the banana plants. Oliver Bach, RA's standards and policy manager, said the tiny cover plant has eliminated the need for herbicides at some plantations in Panama and Colombia.
In the packing area, a schedule warns workers which areas to avoid during aerial spraying. According to Bach, Chiquita has reduced pesticide use by 80 percent, saving $4.8 million annually since 1997.
At this plantation, some workers praise the company's practices. "They used to treat the environment badly," says Nuria Torrente Ovando, a 37-year-old mother of five who has worked at the plantation for 14 years. But she says that the company no longer uses excessive amounts of plastic and has started recycling.
Luis Ortega Salas, 24, says that Chiquita gave him four paid days off after his child's birth. "Compared to other places, it's better here," he says. …