World Banana Forum: getting down to business

Alistair Smith Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Some 200 people took part in the second global conference of the World Banana Forum in Guayaquil, business capital of Ecuador, at the end of February. International fruit companies, national producers, small farmers' organisations, trade unions of plantation workers, retailers, government representatives, scientists, certification bodies and NGOs met around an agenda for change in the industry that had been set 2 years earlier in Rome at the launch of the Forum.

Comparing the situation with the tensions prevailing at the time of the first International Banana Conference in Brussels back in 1998, the welcome address on behalf of the fruit companies noted that things have indeed changed: not only are the different stakeholders now able to talk with each other, but we now have a permanent platform around which to structure the dialogue. Despite our different interests and perspectives, we are now firmly embarked on a journey to put flesh on the bones of a common agenda for change. We have a rich diversity of resources and knowledge to bring to the table and now have the responsibility of delivering tangible results for current and future generations.

"We need to step up the speed of changes. I challenge us all to ensure these changes are achieved before my grandchildren reach adulthood", said the Corporate Responsibility Manager for a major European importer, echoing the feelings of many.  The plantation and pack-house workers, who have borne the brunt of changes in the industry in the last couple of decades, and small farmers, who continue to struggle to compete with the bigger players, need to feel the difference that the Forum can make on the ground. It is good to talk, of course, but actions speak louder than words.

Progress on production issues

For a start, a simple definition of sustainable banana production has been drafted and all participants will be able to comment on it and act on it. A virtual library of good practices has also been launched in a collaborative effort between the international scientific community and major producers like Dole, Chiquita and UGPBAN (French Caribbean). Small-scale producers, who have had to innovate to survive, are also beginning to play a key role in sharing practices to minimize impacts on natural resources.

On the complex subject of carbon foot-printing, where a range of competing methodologies tend to lead to differing results, the Forum has identified the top three contributors to emissions in the life cycle of the banana from field to fruit bowl: shipping (over two thirds of all emissions in one company's study), fertilizer and the cardboard boxes. Without spending years on more resource-intensive studies, the industry can now work on these three areas in order to limit its emissions. Parallel work on 'water foot-printing' is also identifying the points in the production cycle where action can be taken to conserve this most basic resource.

In the vital area of pesticide reduction, there is now agreement between production companies and workers as to the priority areas for action. Nematicides, aerially sprayed fungicides and the insecticide chlorpyriphos are identified as the top three toxic products with very considerable negative impacts on human and environmental health. The challenge now is to mobilize a much more concerted scientific effort, to find alternatives and to involve the workers in the whole process. Some of the major multinationals are ready to pick up this challenge, but funding needs to be found to put the program developed in the Forum into practice.

It is encouraging that the Forum is not shying away from issues that were regarded as taboo by many until now. The need to look beyond the current monoculture systems for sustainable solutions was raised by several stakeholders. Can disease and pest problems really be solved just by pesticide reduction and substitution with alternative, less harmful products?  An end to monoculture may sound scary to major players, but such radical thinking cannot any longer be excluded.

Progress on economic issues

This brings us to the economic sphere where other taboo issues were also aired: unsustainably low banana retail prices in some markets can be seen to undermine efforts to redistribute value to the parts of the chain where people are not earning a decent livelihood. In some markets, value has been stripped out of the banana value chain because of price competition and intra-firm competition, even when it is shown that even cheaper bananas do not lead to increased consumption.

The Working Group on the Distribution of Value's focus on living wages has generated a wealth of new information on actual wages, with studies undertaken over the last few months in both Ecuador and Colombia. The agreement that, as a first step, filling the gap between actual wages and the cost of a basket of basic goods and services provides a very tangible target that could benefit hundreds of thousands employed in the industry. Further work in West Africa will add impetus to this process.

A study of indicators in eight banana-exporting countries exposes the gaps that exist between poverty levels and minimum wages in agriculture and will provide a benchmark for concerted action across widely differing exporting countries. The key role of good industrial relations through collective bargaining is clearly demonstrated by the example of Colombia, where actual wages are consistently higher than the cost of the government-calculated basket of basic goods and services. Over 90% of workers in the Colombian industry are union members.

On the wider issue of the distribution of value, a study by CIRAD for the Forum estimates that increasing the share of plantation workers of the price to consumers from the current level (3-4%) to just 5% would only put 2 euro cents per kilogram sold on the price.  Although the relationship between retail prices and wages is clearly not direct, it does show that the Forum's objective of a more equitable distribution of value is not utopian.

Progress on social issues

The Forum's work on labour rights has prioritized three inter-related areas: freedom of association and collective bargaining, discrimination in the workplace and in contracting, and occupational health and safety.  Research in 13 countries has underlined the importance of dialogue between employers and employees in overcoming barriers to the freedom of independent trade unions to operate and enter into collective contracts. Dialogue processes in several countries have started to bear some fruit, but need reinforcing through greater commitment from some corporate players.

The role of the ILO in facilitating dialogue in countries like the Dominican Republic, where none has previously existed, is also proving critical. Nor should the role of progressive companies be underestimated, as has been demonstrated by the resolution of recent conflicts in Peru. In countries like Guatemala, now the most dangerous by far to be a banana trade unionist, it is hoped that companies and trade unions can start to break down the barriers to social dialogue that exist in a climate of insecurity and impunity.

In the days leading up to the conference, the workshop organized by women trade unionists that brought together not just plantation workers' representatives and small producers from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean, but also women from the industry and certifiers, was able to develop common analysis and an agenda for eliminating workplace discrimination and sexual harassment. The model of the recently established Chiquita-Colsiba-IUF women's committee provides a framework which can be replicated in other companies.

Women workers' call for increased employment in the industry (currently ranging from around just 5% to over 30% of all jobs) has been backed up by one company's experiment in Ecuador: maximising the number of women employed in the plantation led to an increase in productivity and reduced absenteeism. In Colombia, employers committed themselves in the most recent collective agreement to employing more women.

In the vital area of occupational health and safety, where it should be possible to make tangible improvements on the ground without the investment of huge external resources, the call from the Working Group is to improve the functioning of joint committees at plantation level and, at a more macro level, for the Forum to lead a campaign for exporting countries to ratify and enforce ILO Conventions 184 and 187 on Health and Safety in Agriculture. So far, Ghana is the only banana-exporting country to have ratified the Conventions.

Mobilizing stakeholders

The call from the Ecuadorian industry for cooperation between leading exporters and their governments to resurrect the Union of Banana Exporting Countries and the commitment from small producers' organizations to coordinate across continents are initiatives that will clearly strengthen the Forum's future role.  But the key to further success will be the commitment of those already at the table and our ability to mobilize others whose contribution is vital to the Forum's agenda for change.  The active participation in this second global conference of Consumers International, Compagnie Fruitière in West Africa and national companies from South America was welcomed by all.  The task of mobilizing more retailers, other producer country governments and the shipping companies, which is now firmly on the international Steering Committee's agenda, is one of the challenges ahead.

The World Banana Forum is well and truly in motion; the agenda is clear. Let's all work to ensure that this early promise translates into results for all.

See also the special issue on the World Banana Forum in Banana Trade News Bulletin