The World Banana Forum is the outcome of a decade-long process to bring together the various stakeholders of the global banana supply chain. In 1998, the participants to the first International Banana Conference convened by a consortium of civil society organizations agreed that the difficulties and challenges facing the banana industry were considerable. At the time, however, the industry tended to favour systems of self-regulation.
At the second conference held in 2005, there was general agreement that conditions in the banana industry had mostly deteriorated since the first conference, partly due to falling prices. It was also recognized that low prices reduce the capacity of producers to invest in more sustainable production systems. The conference ended with a decision to establish a permanent multi-stakeholder forum to undertake the challenging task of reversing this decline and raising standards across the industry. At the time, there was no place where all the stakeholders could meet since membership to the FAO’s Inter-Governmental Group on bananas (IGG) is restricted to governments.
The mission of the Forum is “to inspire collaboration between stakeholders that produces pragmatic outcomes for the betterment of the banana industry; and to achieve an industry-wide consensus of best practices regarding workplace issues, gender equity, environmental impact, sustainable production and economic issues”.
The December meeting, which brought together more than 150 participants (producers, their organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, exporter groups, trading companies, retailers, public agencies, governments, research institutions and civil society organizations), was the first time for the Latin American workers' delegation to meet with the government of the United States of America. Global retailers like Walmart and Tesco, and the large fruit brands like Chiquita, Dole, Fyffes and Bonita, joined trade unions and small farmers' organisations in welcoming the Forum's focus on creating a socially, economically and ecologically sustainable banana industry. The IGG confirmed its support for the Forum during its meeting held two days later.
Recognised for its technical expertise in banana production and trade issues, FAO’s Trade and Markets Division will act as the Forum facilitator. The Forum will create permanent working groups to identify best practices in the field, validate them and disseminate them throughout the banana sector. During the meeting, five working groups were agreed on: Sustainable Production Systems, Distribution of Value, Agrochemical Use, Certification and Workplace Issues.
The Forum will be active in:
Exchanging information on best practices and sustainable development projects (e.g. techniques and systems for sustainable banana production);
Designing and implementing field research projects to produce best practices in banana production (these projects will be based on collaboration in the field among all relevant actors, including governments and their technical agencies; e.g. research institutes, extension services);
Assessing workplace issues and encouraging the adoption of practices that are consistent with ILO core conventions and recommendations and guarantee gender equity;
Suggesting strategies which correct inefficiencies in the banana value chain while guaranteeing fair prices and earnings for all the relevant actors.
^Views from participants
Alistair Smith, the International Coordinator of Banana Link and member of the Steering Committee of the Forum, commented that “the Forum achieved what nobody thought possible a few years ago: all the players in the global industry – from plantation and laboratory to supermarket warehouse, shelf and fruit-bowl – have come around the same table to talk about the issues that many agro-industries have so much difficulty broaching: trade union rights and collective bargaining, decent wages and fair prices, health & safety at work, women's employment, reducing chemical use, the value of other banana and plantain varieties, and improving the industry's impact on the natural environment on which we all depend.
The challenges are not only for those working directly in the industry, their employers and those whose buying power gives them the privilege of setting certain standards. The challenge is also for those committed scientists, who for years have suffered from a feeling of marginalisation by a globalised industry that did not take plant science very seriously. The World Banana Forum gives research scientists the chance to really make their contribution tangible for current and future generations of banana growers, their families and their employees in all five continents. For a crop that is more important to food security across the world than maize, this potential breakthrough has not come too soon."
In the conclusion of his opening speech made on behalf of the five largest banana companies, Sylvain Cuperlier of Dole said: “We support the idea of the World Banana Forum and will continue participating actively in it. We are confident that, by sharing our different backgrounds and expertise in a constructive manner and with mutual trust and respect, we will achieve our ambition to define and implement a new banana model for the twenty-first century.”
For Adela Torres, Colombian trade union leader, Women's Secretary of the Latin American Agro-industrial Workers' Union Coordinating Body and member of IUF's Global Agricultural Workers' Trade Group, the Forum was truly historic: “For the tens of thousands of men and women plantation workers that we represent, this is a very important moment in an industry that has an infamously violent and exploitative history. Our challenge now is to translate the commitments made by all the major players to work together to really change things for people on the ground in their workplace, in their farms.”
According to Carolina Valarezo of the Regional Union of Campesino Organisations of the Coastal Plain in Ecuador and another member of the Forum’s Steering Committee, the significance of a multi-stakeholder dialogue cannot be exaggerated: “The creation of this permanent space means that all our organisation's painstaking work on developing sustainable and biodiverse production systems in the last 20 years can be shared and improved through a far more structured contact with other players, including the big companies and buyers.