Revised and Updated Edition
A lively, interdisciplinary history of why the banana became America's most popular fresh fruit and how its popularity has affected the “banana republics” of Central America.
Bananas, the most frequently consumed fresh fruit in the United States, have been linked to Miss Chiquita and Carmen Miranda, "banana republics," and Banana Republic clothing stores—everything from exotic kitsch, to Third World dictatorships, to middle-class fashion. But how did the rise in banana consumption in the United States affect the banana-growing regions of Central America? In this lively, interdisciplinary study, John Soluri integrates agroecology, anthropology, political economy, and history to trace the symbiotic growth of the export banana industry in Honduras and the consumer mass market in the United States.
Beginning in the 1870s when bananas first appeared in the U.S. marketplace, Soluri examines the tensions between the small-scale growers, who dominated the trade in the early years, and the shippers. He then shows how rising demand led to changes in production that resulted in the formation of major agribusinesses, spawned international migrations, and transformed great swaths of the Honduran environment into monocultures susceptible to plant disease epidemics that in turn changed Central American livelihoods. Soluri also looks at labor practices and workers' lives, changing gender roles on the banana plantations, the effects of pesticides on the Honduran environment and people, and the mass marketing of bananas to consumers in the United States. His multifaceted account of a century of banana production and consumption adds an important chapter to the history of Honduras, as well as to the larger history of globalization and its effects on rural peoples, local economies, and biodiversity.
- Preface to the Second Edition: Bananas, Seriously
- Preface to the First Edition
- Introduction. Linking Places of Production and Consumption
- Chapter 1. Going Bananas
- Chapter 2. Space Invaders
- Chapter 3. Altered Landscapes and Transformed Livelihoods
- Chapter 4. Sigatoka, Science, and Control
- Chapter 5. Revisiting the Green Prison
- Chapter 6. The Lives and Time of Miss Chiquita
- Chapter 7. La Química
- Chapter 8. Bananas Cultures in Comparative Perspective
- Postscript to the Second Edition: Beyond Banana Cultures
The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events, for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things.
Sidney Mintz, 1985
Once they fell into United Fruit hands, tropical swamps and jungles soon blossomed into immense plots of luscious green banana plants, set out in rows, on well-drained, properly fertilized, and irrigated soil. Progressive agriculture practices never heard of before, in connection with silting, flooding, and spraying in a never-ending fight against plant disease, produced millions of stems of the golden fruit for export.
Stacy May and Galo Plaza, 1958
Chances are good that most U.S. readers who pick up this book will have eaten a banana in the recent past. Chances are equally good that they will not remember the experience because banana eating in the United States has become rather banal. But this was not always the case. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, few residents of the United States had tasted a banana and fewer still ate them on a regular basis. However, the last quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed a sharp rise in banana consumption in the United States that transcended lines of gender, class, race, and region. Entering the 1920s, the only fresh fruit eaten in greater quantities in the nation was the apple. By that time, the banana had acquired important symbolic meanings too, slipping into anglophone street slang, popular music, comedy, literature, and poetry. The slender, yellow fruit was one of a growing number of tropical commodities that helped to define everyday consumer culture in the United States.
If bananas had shed most of their exoticism by the early twentieth century, the same cannot be said of their tropical places of origin. Yankee writers, merchants, diplomats, and cartoonists tended to view the tropics as a world apart, filled with dark, sensual, and slothful people who survived largely due to the natural fecundity of the sun- and rain-drenched landscapes that they inhabited. This perception of tropical lands and peoples was captured by the phrase "banana republic," coined in a 1904 novel by O. Henry, the pseudonym of U.S. writer William Sydney Porter. The tragically powerful metaphor has served as both an explanation of and a justification for the political conflicts, poverty, and U.S. interventions that were at the center of twentieth-century Central American history. Paradoxically, many people in the United States have distanced themselves from Central America by using bananas—the very commodity that has linked the two regions for more than a century—as a symbol for "corrupt," "backward," and "underdeveloped" societies.
Honduras, one of the world's leading exporters of bananas between the 1870s and 1970s, has been considered by many observers in the United States to be the "banana republic" par excellence. To be sure, Hondurans have faced more than their share of political instability, poverty, and U.S. strong-arming during the past century. Nevertheless, they have their own set of meanings for bananas. Even more so than in the United States, bananas and plantains have formed a central part of Honduran diets. Most Honduran home gardens—be they cultivated by Pech Indians in Mosquitia or urban professionals in Tegucigalpa—include at least a couple of varieties of bananas and plantains. The expansion of export production in the late nineteenth century transformed the banana from a mundane dietary staple into "green gold" (oro verde). The fruit symbolized the material riches that filled the dreams of many working people in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America. Export production gave rise to the North Coast (la costa norte), a region filled with the wonders of Yankee-style modernization: hospitals, electricity, ice factories, railroads, airplanes, radios, and imported foods, clothing, and music. The region's dynamic economy attracted a heterogeneous group of immigrants who helped to create powerful social and political movements in the twentieth century. Many Honduran writers portrayed banana workers as icons of resistance to U.S. hegemony and capitalist exploitation. In Honduras, then, the banana is an ambivalent symbol whose complexity stands in sharp contrast to the fruit's trivial status in U.S. popular culture.
The banana's late-nineteenth-century transition from an exotic novelty to a commodity of mass consumption in the United States produced much more than new symbolic meanings for the fruit. A dramatic increase in production transformed lowland tropical landscapes and livelihoods from Mexico to Ecuador. Over the span of a century, workers felled forests and drained wetlands; planted, cultivated, and harvested bananas; built railroad tracks and entire towns; and prepared meals, laundered clothes, and raised children. This was not the first time that human initiative had transformed these regions, but the rate and scale of resource use were without historical precedent. These environmental changes in turn helped to transform a low-input production process into one that was, and continues to be, both capital and labor intensive.
This book traces the entwined environmental and social transformations that shaped the North Coast of Honduras between roughly 1870 and 1975. The story takes place primarily in and around banana farms, but the setting periodically shifts to the United States, where millions of people consumed bananas physically and symbolically. I follow the banana from farm to market in order to explore the dynamic relationship between mass production and mass consumption that drove, both directly and indirectly, environmental and social change on the North Coast. This transnational perspective also reveals that the fruit companies' economic power derived from both their railroad and land monopolies in Central America and their control over mass markets in the United States. The discursive power of the "banana republic" metaphor makes it easy to overlook the ways in which monopoly capitalism in the United States shaped the twentieth-century history of the banana trade. In following the banana on its international journey, I cross the boundaries of several academic fields in order to write a history that is cross-fertilized by the perspectives of biologists and geographers in addition to those of cultural, environmental, and social historians. The study incorporates a wide range of sources, including manuscript census data from Honduras, fruit company records, published scientific papers, Honduran and U.S. government correspondence, oral testimonies, and ephemera (e.g., song lyrics, recipes, and advertisements) from U.S. mass culture. Some recent studies on bananas have worked with a subset of these sources, but few have sought to integrate them.
The "banana lands" or "enclaves" of Latin America and the Caribbean have drawn the attention of both English- and Spanish-language writers over the years, including Nobel Laureates Miguel Ángel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez, and Pablo Neruda, in addition to journalists, travelers, and scholars. Few multinational corporations operating in Latin America have generated as much controversy as the U.S. companies that dominated the twentieth-century banana trade. The companies' defenders upheld them as pillars of modernity and prosperity, pointing out that they created tens of thousands of jobs, constructed transportation infrastructure, and introduced scientific approaches to tropical agriculture and medicine. Critics countered by citing the companies' land and transportation monopolies, repression of labor movements, and tax subsidies as evidence that the companies' profits resulted from the exploitation of Latin American people. During the 1960s and 1970s, the banana companies were often at the center of debates between modernization theorists on one side, who saw the infusion of capital and technology as necessary to help Latin Americans shed their "traditional" livelihoods and ways of thinking, and their dependency school critics on the other, who claimed that foreign capital was "underdeveloping" Latin America.
The polemical debates often obscured the fact that the opposing sides shared some key assumptions. As historian Catherine LeGrand has observed, "scholars working from modernization and dependency perspectives have tended to agree that foreign companies held the power and did what they wished, while locals were passive, acted upon." LeGrand and several other scholars have successfully challenged images of omnipotent U.S. banana companies manipulating "comprador" elites and hapless peasants by showing how national banana growers in Colombia, merchants in Honduras, labor union activists in Guatemala, West Indian migrants in Costa Rica, and worker-cultivators in Ecuador challenged and at times redirected the policies pursued by government authorities and fruit company managers. This body of research has identified the agency of a wide range of actors while providing historical content to a topic long-dominated by rigid typologies such as "enclave," "proletariat," and "boom and bust" economy.
Recent scholarship on export banana production has devoted less attention to the shared assumptions held by modernization and dependency theorists about lowland tropical landscapes. With few exceptions, writers from both theoretical camps have placed great faith in the capacity of science and technology to enable the efficient utilization of natural resources. Both Spanish- and English-language sources from the early twentieth century frequently praised foreign capital and technologies for turning unhealthy "wastelands" into productive gardens. Modernizationists and dependentistas considered the transformation of tropical landscapes as progress toward different imagined ends (a stable middle class for the former, and a revolutionary proletariat in the case of the latter). Once again, the shared assumption is that tropical landscapes, not unlike their inhabitants, are essentially passive, acted upon.
The story that follows challenges this assumption by exploring the interactions among diverse and often divided people, not-so-diverse banana plants, and persistent yet unpredictable pathogens that formed and reformed tropical landscapes and livelihoods in export banana zones. In other words, I try to put the agriculture back into banana plantation history in order to pay critical attention to both scientific ideas about tropical landscapes and the everyday cultivation practices that absorbed so much of working people's time and energy. I am less interested in arguing for the primacy of cultural or biological processes than in demonstrating their historical entanglement. In order to do so, I borrow concepts from agroecology, an emerging field of research that studies interactions between cropping systems and their surrounding environments. Agroecosystems are places created and transformed by fluid processes that are subject to change over time and space and therefore possess both dynamic pasts and uncertain futures rooted in an eco-social ecosocial realm of possibilities. In emphasizing the role of contingency, or the historicity of agroecological systems, I am not suggesting that people-plant interactions take place in an "anything goes" world without limits. The qualitative differences between a banana plantation and a lowland tropical forest cannot be denied; indeed, their disparate qualities are central to this book's overarching argument. Nevertheless, attempts to draw well-defined borders between natural spaces and cultural places run the peril of ignoring all-important interactions between fields, forests, and waterways; and between cultivated, wild, and hybrid organisms.
Banana plants, like most crop plants, are at once biological organisms and cultural artifacts—products of both evolutionary contingencies and human agency. Early cultivators in Southeast Asia first domesticated bananas several thousand years ago. Dozens of varieties subsequently diffused throughout South Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. How and when banana cultivars reached the Americas is subject to debate, but they have been widely cultivated in the hemisphere for at least 400 years. Between 1500 and 1850, their consumption was largely confined to the tropics; in the sugarcane-growing regions of Brazil and the Caribbean, slaves routinely grew bananas and plantains on provision grounds. The self-propagating, high-yielding herbaceous plants were well suited to meet the needs of slaves because they required little labor to cultivate and transform into food. In addition, the fast-growing, tall and leafy plants provided shade for ground crops. The dynamics of the post-emancipation period in the Caribbean helped to set the stage for export banana growing in the region. In the struggle to find dignified livelihoods, the descendants of slaves would be among the first to sell bananas to itinerant North American schooner captains in the mid-nineteenth century.
The export banana trade formed around a single variety: Gros Michel. The variety apparently did not reach the Americas until the early nineteenth century. In 1837, Jean Pouyat, a coffee planter in Jamaica, introduced a Gros Michel rhizome that he had acquired in Martinique. The variety soon flourished in Jamaica and later spread throughout Central America. Although this "creation story" may be apocryphal, it suggests that the variety's genetic base was exceedingly narrow, a condition that would shape export production in crucial ways. As both small- and large-scale Gros Michel monocultures replaced lowland forests and wetlands, a qualitatively different agroecosystem took form that "invite[d] the development of disease epidemics by providing high densities of genetically uniform hosts." In addition, the railroads and shipping lines that linked production zones facilitated the movement of pathogens across localities and regions.
Two plant pathogens—popularly known as Panama and Sigatoka diseases—have played leading roles in the history of export banana growing in the Caribbean and Latin America. The significance of the two diseases varied over time and space. In the early twentieth century, the fruit companies responded to Panama disease, a soil-borne pathogen, by practicing what I call "shifting plantation agriculture," abandoning infected soils and removing infrastructure for reuse in areas where the disease was not present. When Sigatoka appeared in the 1930s, banana producers did not have time to run from the air-borne fungal pathogen. Instead, United Fruit Company scientists in Honduras devised a capital- and labor-intensive control system based on high-volume Bordeaux spray (copper sulfate), the costs of which forced many small-scale growers to abandon the trade. For farmworkers and other North Coast residents, the fruit companies' efforts to control the two plant disease epidemics shaped livelihoods in important and long-lasting ways. Although human diseases such as malaria have received more scholarly attention, the fungal pathogens that invaded Gros Michel banana plantations have arguably played a larger, albeit indirect role in shaping the daily lives of people in the North Coast's zonas bananeras.
The historical significance of Panama and Sigatoka diseases cannot be explained entirely in terms of regional agroecological dynamics. Complex interactions between pathogen, plant host, and agroecosystem shaped the epidemics, but so too did the cultural, economic, and social processes that gave rise to mass markets for bananas in the United States. Economic historians have written extensively about the "boom and bust" cycles that characterized Latin American export production during the past 150 years, but they have devoted little attention to understanding how mass markets affected the agroecological resources upon which export economies have been based. I describe the formation and evolution of U.S. mass markets for bananas in both socioeconomic and cultural terms in order to shed light on both who could afford to eat bananas and why people chose to eat them in the first place. In other words, this book examines the transformation of a tropical plant into a food commodity. Taking an excursion into banana cuisine is pleasurable and at times amusing, but my primary reason for paying critical attention to mass markets and consumer culture is to explain the transformation of export banana agriculture in the tropics.
If this study aspires to operate on a transnational level, it also seeks to shed light on the history of a specific region: the North Coast of Honduras. Approaching the region from the Caribbean Sea, a nineteenth-century traveler first encountered miles of sandy beaches, mangrove swamps, and stands of coconut palms cultivated primarily by the Garífuna people, who had inhabited the coastline since the late eighteenth century. Beyond the littoral zone lay a narrow plain that quickly gave way to foothills and mountain ranges whose highest peaks exceeded 2,500 meters. Xicaque Indians and mestizo cattle ranchers inhabited the sparsely populated lowlands. Numerous rivers descended from the highlands and meandered toward the sea. The alluvial valleys carved by the largest rivers—the Aguán and the Ulúa—were the sites of pre-Columbian settlements. The region appears to have been a dividing line of sorts between Mayan and Xicaque indigenous groups. Important crops included cacao, cassava and other tubers, and seed crops such as maize and beans. The drastic demographic decline among indigenous populations following sustained contact with Europeans and Africans contributed to an expansion of forest cover in lowland areas. By the late 1800s, all that remained of the region's pre-Columbian settlements were the ceramic artifacts that export banana growers frequently unearthed when planting their farms.
Unfortunately, exceedingly few scholarly histories on this region have been published in English. With the notable exception of Darío Euraque, historians working in the United States have focused their attention on banana enclaves located elsewhere in Central America, notably Costa Rica and Guatemala. Honduran researchers, often working with limited financial and archival resources, have produced a small number of valuable studies that have not circulated widely. As a result, scholarly analyses of the export banana trade have been formulated with limited knowledge of the region that probably shipped more export bananas between 1870 and 1950 than any other place in the world. In 1929, Honduran exports far exceeded the combined exports from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama. Honduras remained the leading Central American exporter of bananas through 1970.
But the importance of the North Coast of Honduras extends beyond the sheer volume of bananas that left its shores; the region's history sheds light on a number of issues central to understanding the banana trade's trajectory. For example, many studies on export banana production tend to conflate the formation of the United Fruit Company in 1899 with the beginning of "modern" export banana production. This periodization overlooks the fact that a heterogeneous group of growers along the Caribbean coast of Honduras and elsewhere in Central America and the Caribbean began selling bananas for export no later than the early 1870s. These seldom-acknowledged cultivators helped to set the export trade in motion some twenty-five years before the incorporation of the United Fruit Company. In fact, United Fruit did not secure its first railroad concession in Honduras until 1913, approximately forty years after individuals in Honduras began growing bananas for U.S. markets. The cursory accounts of the late-nineteenth-century banana trade generally portray the period as either a "golden age" for growers or a "chaotic" period characterized by unsophisticated production and shipping practices. Both views oversimplify a complex dynamic between growers, shippers, and the Honduran state. They also downplay the continuities in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century trades. Although the early twentieth century witnessed a dramatic increase in the scale of production, cultivation practices remained relatively unchanged during the first half-century of trade.
Scholars have also underestimated the persistence of non-company growers in Honduras during the years when the U.S. fruit companies began to integrate vertically. For writers who have portrayed the fruit companies as introducing advances in agriculture, medicine, education, and economic organization, small-scale cultivators and their low-input agricultural methods have often symbolized the non-modern "other" with which the virtues of the banana companies' modernizing projects are contrasted. On the other hand, many Marxist critiques, endeavoring to fit the banana industry's history into linear models of proletarianization, have focused on the emergence of a class-conscious proletariat disposed to organizing strikes, trade unions, and communist movements. Both of these approaches generally fail to account for the dynamic presence of small-scale cultivators whose initiative, persistence, and unpredictability undermine both liberal and Marxist visions of modernity.
In some instances, the extension of company railroads actually stimulated small-scale production by providing cultivators with vital links to seaports. Non-company growers continued to produce and sell significant quantities of bananas through the 1930s. Both the scope and persistence of non-company production on the North Coast call into question the distinctions often drawn between Honduras and export banana zones in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Jamaica, where the presence of non-company growers has been widely acknowledged. For example, banana exports from Honduras and Costa Rica were on a par around 1900. By the 1930s, non-company production in Costa Rica accounted for a much larger proportion of that nation's banana exports (75 percent) than non-company exports accounted for in Honduras (30 percent), but the quantity of bananas sold by non-company growers in the latter country exceeded the quantity sold by non-company producers in the former. The point is not to diminish the significance of non-company growers in Costa Rica but rather to suggest that scholars working within national frameworks have made cases for "exceptionalism" by assuming that somewhere (and Honduras is often that place) an archetype enclave existed consisting of company-controlled plantations and proletariat.
In fact, not one but three major U.S. fruit companies (United, Standard, and Cuyamel) operated in Honduras between 1900 and 1930. On the one hand, this fact can be used to lend support to that nation's status as the ultimate banana republic. On the other hand, it suggests that the United Fruit Company was unable to establish an absolute monopoly in Honduras such as it enjoyed in Guatemala and Costa Rica during the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, evidence suggests that North Coast elites were able to leverage power by playing the fruit companies against one another. This ability diminished considerably following United Fruit's purchase of Samuel Zemurray's Cuyamel Fruit Company in 1929. However, Zemurray would wrest control of United Fruit in 1933, using his enormous stock holdings to force the board of directors to recognize him as a de facto chief executive officer. He remained a powerful figure in the company until he resigned from the board in 1957. If banana men in Costa Rica (Minor Keith) and Jamaica (Lorenzo Dow Baker) played leading roles in founding United Fruit, Zemurray—who built his fortune primarily in Honduras—presided over the restoration of the company's economic power following the crisis of the early 1930s.
All three U.S. fruit companies operating in Honduras made important innovations in both production and marketing processes that transformed the entire export banana industry. Between 1930 and 1984, Honduras was the home of United Fruit's tropical research department, which, along with British research programs in Jamaica and Trinidad, set the agenda for banana research for most of the twentieth century. Among the most significant innovations made by United Fruit scientists was the Bordeaux spray system devised in 1935 to control Sigatoka. The system diffused rapidly throughout export banana zones in the Caribbean and Latin America and set an important precedent for the large-scale use of chemical fungicides in tropical agriculture. Although the New Orleans-based Standard Fruit Company did not establish a research department in Honduras until the early 1950s, the company initiated one of the most important changes in the twentieth-century trade when it began shipping Panama disease-resistant Cavendish bananas in cardboard boxes in 1957. Within ten years, virtually all bananas bound for the United States traveled in boxes, an innovation that would alter both the production and marketing of the fruit.
The North Coast was also the site of numerous challenges to the fruit companies' power. People living in banana zones struggled to establish and maintain livelihoods by forming grower associations, challenging the fruit companies' claims to the region's resources, and by "voting with their feet" when plantation working conditions became intolerable. In the 1920s, a dramatic expansion of banana exports coincided with rising labor militancy: dozens of strikes took place over a range of issues, including wages and the companies' use of Caribbean laborers. In 1932, banana company workers went on strike in response to wage cuts. In the case of the Truxillo Railroad Company (a United Fruit subsidiary), a two-month-long strike involving some 3,000 laborers did not end until government and company officials cooperated in the arrest and temporary removal of the strike leaders. That same year, National Party candidate Tiburcio Carías Andino was elected president, initiating sixteen years of authoritarian rule. When Carías finally stepped down from power in 1948, labor organizers wasted little time in pushing for reforms. Then in 1954, United Fruit workers walked off the job en masse. The strike quickly spread to Standard Fruit's operations and eventually to other sectors of the economy. The Gran huelga of 1954 gave rise to powerful union and campesino movements that, in alliance with liberal North Coast merchants, succeeded in reforming Honduran labor codes, agrarian laws, social welfare, and tax structures. The fruit companies responded to the rising power of Honduran workers by cutting jobs. They closed farms, mechanized Sigatoka control, and contracted out labor-intensive production processes via "associate grower" programs. These changes accelerated an industrywide shift to a heavy reliance on both agrochemicals and contract farming. In sum, many of the environmental and social transformations that took place on the North Coast of Honduras affected the trajectory of the entire export banana trade during the twentieth century.
Finally, the North Coast is important not only because of its relationship to the rest of Honduras, but also because of its close historical ties to the United States. Although far greater attention has been given to the role played by the United States elsewhere in Central America, the North Coast was the site of at least seven military interventions during the early twentieth century. In 1928, U.S. President-elect Herbert Hoover visited Arepala, Honduras, where he gave a speech calling for cooperation and understanding among the nations of the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. government under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt supported Honduran President Tiburcio Carías Andino through World War II, less for his commitment to democracy than for his ability to bring "stability" during a period when the United States sought to create a hemispheric alliance of "good neighbors" against Nazi Germany. Following 1945, the defeat of fascist governments, combined with rising fears about the spread of communism, led the United States to play a much more active role in the Caribbean and Central America. This took many forms on the North Coast, ranging from seminars for union leaders on how to build anticommunist labor movements to covert activities including "Operation PB Success," the CIA-planned overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala that used Honduras as a staging ground. More recently, the U.S. State Department pressured Honduran leaders into providing assistance for its covert operations carried out against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador.
But interactions between the United States and the North Coast of Honduras have not been restricted to diplomats and military officials. This book reveals some of the "everyday" encounters between people in Honduras and the United States that resulted from the mass production and mass consumption of an agricultural commodity. These routine—even mundane—exchanges were seldom as dramatic as a CIA-financed coup d'état, but they nevertheless changed life in zonas bananeras in lasting ways.
Before outlining the organization of the book, I offer some final remarks on the unconventional cast of characters awaiting the reader. Political leaders, customarily assigned leading roles in historical drama, are here upstaged by banana plants, pathogens, and working people. My decision to move politics off center stage is not to deny its importance to the story of export banana production. As many scholars have demonstrated, the profits made by U.S. fruit companies operating in Honduras resulted largely from their ability to secure generous concessions that provided them monopoly privileges over regional transportation networks, access to subsidized soil and water resources, and the ability to import workers. However, images of "banana men" cutting backroom deals with corrupt politicians obscure the fact that bananas grow in soil, not on paper; the concessions provided the banana companies with crucial advantages over potential competitors, but they did not make banana production a fait accompli. The biophysical resources needed to grow bananas were not infinitely malleable "raw materials," but components of dynamic agroecosystems. Ultimately, the fruit companies had an easier time manipulating politicians than they did controlling the people, plants, and pathogens whose daily interactions largely shaped landscapes and livelihoods on the North Coast.
The work of cultivating and processing plants has been a central endeavor—if not a defining act—of human societies for millennia. Even today, when a majority of the world's population engages in non-agrarian livelihoods, manipulating plants—be it at the cellular or landscape level—continues to occupy a central place in the material and symbolic realms of daily life. This book calls attention to the continued importance of agriculture in a postmodern age. My intent is to restore the dynamism to agriculture and to recover the livelihoods of worker/cultivators in export banana zones without romanticizing their often arduous and uncertain work, over-simplifying their lives, or inscribing political tendencies upon them. Finally, I seek to identify the human agents who collectively formed the mass market "structures" that played a central role in shaping production. These are not always easy tasks, yet they are important ones for historians (and others) seeking to interrupt discourses on development that equate progress with rising rates of consumption and technological innovation while displaying little concern for those who bear the brunt of the risks that accompany changing landscapes and livelihoods.
I have organized this rather unconventional history in a very conventional way: the chapters proceed roughly in chronological order, beginning in the nineteenth century and ending in the late twentieth century. In so doing, I intend not only to engage readers but also to place emphasis on the explanatory power of historical narrative. Quite simply, I hope to offer a new perspective on change over time in an export banana zone. That said, this project has no intentions of turning back the clock on the important exchanges that have taken place in recent years between history and other fields of study, including anthropology, literary studies, and cultural geography, which have emphasized the complex and contested nature of historical memories and meanings. I have attempted to craft a story in which both explanation and meaning exist in creative tension.
The first chapter attempts to establish an agroecological baseline for the North Coast circa 1875 from which to chart changes in production processes over time. The interactions of banana growers, exporters, consumers, and the state during this pre-United Fruit era shaped the trajectory of the trade in important and enduring ways, not the least of which was a preference for Gros Michel bananas. Expanding markets provided a heterogeneous group of cultivators with an opportunity to accumulate capital, but incessant struggles between growers and exporters over shipping schedules, purchase prices, and definitions of quality undermine images of the era as a "golden age." The chapter also argues that the expansion of export banana production cannot be attributed entirely to market forces. The Honduran state, anxious to control the people and resources of the North Coast, created liberal land and tax policies in order to stimulate export agriculture. Paradoxically, the resource-strapped state sought to achieve hegemony (and economic expansion) by granting concessions to non-nationals whose projects more closely conformed to liberal visions of fomento, or development, than did the livelihoods of many of the North Coast's resident peoples. The U.S. banana companies did not single-handedly modernize Honduras; modernity—as a set of ideas about agriculture, economic trade, and nationalism—preceded their arrival.
Chapter 2 examines the profound agroecological transformations that took place between 1910 and 1940, a period when people, Gros Michel bananas, and fungal pathogens "invaded" the North Coast. At the same time, Gros Michel bananas "invaded" the United States on an unprecedented scale, triggering congressional debates over taxes, inspiring dance crazes, and nourishing tens of millions of people. I link these simultaneous invasions by examining early efforts to find a Panama disease-resistant export banana, a goal that would frustrate a generation of banana breeders who faced constraints imposed by the banana's biology, the organization of production, and the structures and aesthetics of mass markets. Unwilling to export a banana that did not closely resemble Gros Michel, the banana companies abandoned diseased farms and relocated to pathogen-free soils. In order to sustain this strategy of "shifting plantation agriculture," the companies had to secure access to large quantities of land, a need that would bring them into conflict with one another as they tried to position themselves to win additional concessions from the Honduran government.
Chapter 3 explores the effects and meanings of the agroecological changes associated with the expansion of banana production from the perspective of non-company cultivators and local communities. After documenting the persistence of non-company banana growers and the changing conditions under which they marketed their fruit during the 1920s and early 1930s, I describe struggles for resources that took place in four localities scattered across the North Coast: Cuyamel, Cortés; Mezapa, Atlántida; Sonaguera, Colón; and La Paz, Colón. These four places cannot be taken as representative of the entire region, but their linked histories reveal the cross-cutting effects of the fruit companies' shifting cultivation strategy. The practice had a devastating economic impact on local economies. But one community's bane was another's boon: the extension of railroads into places where none had previously existed created opportunities for new livelihoods. People contested the fruit companies' control over local resources in a variety of ways. In some places, they staged public protests; more often, challenges materialized in the form of individuals and small groups of people who drafted petitions and set up squatter settlements. Working people often articulated their claims to resources in terms of nationalism and social justice, creating discourses that invoked a racialized view of citizenship that excluded immigrant West Indians and others from having a claim to the North Coast's resources.
The fourth chapter focuses on the science and work of Sigatoka control following the pathogen's appearance and subsequent spread in the Sula valley in 1935. Less than one year after the initial outbreak of Sigatoka, United Fruit scientist Vining Dunlap devised a means to control the disease through the use of Bordeaux spray (copper sulfate and lime). Dunlap's innovation has been credited with saving the export banana industry in Central America, but the capital- and labor-intensive control system was not a viable option for most non-company growers, whose production collapsed in the late 1930s. Those who continued to grow and sell export bananas relinquished virtually all of their autonomy to the fruit companies in return for loans and technical assistance. Sigatoka control also changed daily work for field workers, creating hundreds of relatively high paying jobs that involved applying an aqueous solution of copper sulfate. Indirect evidence strongly suggests that prolonged exposure to Bordeaux spray caused respiratory problems. Sigatoka control, then, anticipated a trend in twentieth-century agriculture toward a greater reliance upon chemical compounds to control agroecological processes that diminished yields of export-quality fruit.
Chapter 5 revisits the plantations portrayed in Honduran writer and Communist Party organizer Ramón Amaya Amador's novel Prisión verde. First published in 1950, the novel portrayed working-class life on the North Coast during the regime of Tiburcio Carías Andino (1932-1948), a period marked by severe repression of opposition political parties and labor organizers. In fact, labor histories of Honduras tend to jump from the widespread labor unrest of 1932 to the Great Strike of 1954 because formal worker organizations were all but nonexistent during the Cariato. At times, the oral histories told to me by former fruit company employees resonated so forcefully with Amaya Amador's description of plantation life that I was left wondering to what extent the novel's characters and events had interpenetrated individual and collective memories about the past. The recollections of ex-campeños, former field hands, also diverged from Amaya Amador's account in important ways. Workers found ways to survive the often harsh conditions of plantation life by taking advantage of decentralized management structures and isolated work places to negotiate and deflect the power of their bosses. However, rather than catalog a "weapons of the weak," the chapter tries to portray campeño livelihoods as a near-constant challenge to the same structures of inequality that circumscribed worker freedoms. I also highlight the daily work with plants, soils, and mules that absorbed so much of campeños' energy and time. The chapter incorporates a handful of women's voices in order to shed light on women's work experiences. Evidence suggests that female cooks, laundresses, venders, and prostitutes forged livelihoods that generated significant incomes for women and their families, creating "micro" backward linkages in the plantation economy.
The sixth chapter examines the lives and time of Miss Chiquita, one of the most recognizable U.S. consumer product icons of the twentieth century. "Born" in 1944, Miss Chiquita faded from public view in the 1950s before resurfacing in the 1960s as a brand name for United Fruit's boxed Cavendish bananas. The period in between Miss Chiquita's debut and revival witnessed important transitions in the production and marketing of bananas. In Honduras, the rapid spread of Panama disease, the 1954 strike, and political changes compelled the fruit companies to replace Gros Michel plants with resistant varieties. This change, initiated by the Standard Fruit Company, brought an end to both the era of shifting plantation agriculture and the practice of exporting uncut bunches of bananas. The companies built packing plants where Cavendish fruit was cut from the stem, washed, selected, and packed into cardboard boxes prior to being shipped. The decision to box bananas resulted from a need to protect the delicate peel of Cavendish varieties, but it also reflected the post-World War II rise of self-serve supermarkets in the United States. By shipping bananas in branded, "consumer-sized" units from production zones, the fruit companies caught up with twentieth-century marketing trends. In Honduras, Miss Chiquita's rebirth as a brand name altered the lives of real women by creating hundreds of jobs in empacadoras, packing plants.
The conversion to Cavendish bananas helped to stabilize banana production, but it did not eliminate the problem of plant pathogens. Chapter 7 traces changes in production processes and their effects on workers between roughly 1945 and 1975, a period when the fruit companies turned increasingly to agrochemicals both to reduce labor costs and to control diseases and pests perceived to lower yields of high-quality fruit. For field hands, daily plantation work brought them into contact with a wide range of agrochemicals capable of producing acute and chronic health problems. The history of Nemagón (DBCP), a pesticide that produced both dramatic increases in fruit yields and reproductive health problems for hundreds of men and women in Honduras, clearly reveals the promise and perils of pesticide use. By situating the use of DBCP and other agrochemicals in the context of production-consumption dynamics, I reveal the historical and agroecological roots of practices that continue to shape the daily environments of farmworkers.
The concluding chapter places the history of the export banana trade between Honduras and the United States in comparative perspective by drawing upon scholarship on other agricultural export commodities, including coffee, deciduous fruits, and sugar. A comparative view reveals both the diversity of historical experiences spawned by the mass production and mass consumption of food commodities and some common themes upon which variations occur. Confronting the paradox of regional variation in a "global" world is central to the formulation of new explanatory models capable of informing discussions about agriculture, food, and environmental change—discussions in which I believe historians must struggle to make their voices heard.
“An historian by profession, John Soluri has written a book that defies disciplinary pigeonholing. This ambitious treatise on ‘banana cultures' links Honduran production with North American consumption, ecumenically drawing on archival records and oral histories as well as the burgeoning field of agro-ecology and the interpretive methodologies of cultural studies. . . . Soluri has accomplished what I thought impossible: writing a new and innovative book on one of the most-mined topics in Central American history. This book makes an important contribution to the field by connecting banana production and consumption, and its accessible style makes it well suited for classroom use.”
Edward F. Fischer, Journal of Latin American Studies
“[Soluri] provides a well-written, balanced, and multifaceted perspective on the banana. . . . Banana Cultures leaves the reader with an understanding of the banana export trade that combines history and the botany and agriculture of the banana with a discussion of production, economics, and the changing culture of consumption in the United States. The reader will never take a banana for granted again.”
Marcus B. Griffin, Gastronomica
“Emphasizing a dimension of banana production mentioned in passing by others—the ecological challenges posed by monoculture farming—Soluri offers a major rewriting of the industry's history. His eminently readable account starts on the north coast of Honduras, one of the first regions incorporated into the banana trade. . . . [Soluri's account] is significant both for its rethinking of industry history and its skillful integration of the material, ecological, and symbolic aspects of banana production and consumption. In sum, the book is essential reading for anyone interested in the production and social life of everyday commodities.”
Mark Moberg, American Historical Review
“[A] splendid transnational history…this is a path-breaking study that makes a major contribution to agro-ecology and to the history of business strategies, agricultural science and technology, work processes, and the marketing and consumption of tropical commodities in North America.”
“"[Banana Cultures] will be a standard-bearer in banana plantation history for years to come."”
“Soluri’s narrative, well written and informed by popular culture and oral histories, is also very engaging for readers of any background. By providing a comparative perspective in his last chapter, he also highlights the implications of his approach and points to some other commodities, such as coffee and sugar, that could benefit from his approach.”
Felipe Cruz, Not Even Past