Green bananas? Chiquita teams up with the Rainforest Alliance.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.
Neither Ortega nor Torrente belongs to a union. Gigena says simply that his workers must not be interested in unions. Besides, he says, the corporation hosts periodic sessions about worker rights and offers employees participation on worker committees.
Standards set by RA demand that "farms have an auditable social plan ... and that workers have the right to organize, to join a union," according to Chris Wille, RA's chief of sustainable agriculture. Wille also says that Chiquita has "more union members than any other banana company."
But Ramon Barrantes, general coordinator of the Costa Rican branch of the Latin American Regional Coordination of Banana Workers' Unions, or COLSIBA, said many workers in Costa Rica are afraid to join a union, and that "permanent committees" meant to represent workers' rights are manipulated by Chiquita.
COLSIBA claims in a document: "The workers, especially the union workers, are not taken into consideration, and for that reason the certifiers never see the many violations [of] human rights, nor do they ... reference ... the freedom to unionize or [pursue] collective bargaining."
Alistair Smith of the British-based Banana Link nonprofit group supports Barrantes' claims. "In Chiquita farms in Costa Rica, there is a strong and ingrained anti-trade union culture," says Smith, who is in daily contact with banana union representatives. "Members are discriminated against ... and encouraged to give up union membership by their supervisors and plantation management, despite the agreement that unions have [with the company] at the regional level."
Barrantes spends his days between the COLSIBA offices in Costa Rica's capital of San Jose, and a tiny office behind a restaurant in a small town, where he is the secretary general of a union called Sitagah. On a bright Saturday morning in July, two Chiquita workers approached his office--one man on crutches, and one with a bandaged arm. Both say they were injured at work. Both say Chiquita wouldn't help.
Union member Marcial Navarro Aroaz laughed when asked about Chiquita's efforts to avoid hitting workers during aerial sprayings. "I've been sprayed a million times," he says. When asked about safety equipment used for spraying, one worker said the plastic gloves he's given wear out too quickly to be practical.
RA spokesman Robert Goodier said that union members can file complaints with the Alliance. "Many union heads are not aware they have that option" Goodier says. "This year, RA has tried to meet with [labor union leaders] most vocally opposed to Chiquita." Wille adds that through a landmark 2001 agreement with the International Union of Food and Farmworkers, based in Switzerland, any complaint from COLSIBA "goes all the way to Geneva, 'to the top.' No other banana company has anything like this," he says.
Despite complaints from union leaders, Chiquita workers interviewed for this story expressed widely varying opinions about their employer. While some complained about confusion over their pay and contracts, or pressure to stay out of the unions, others said they were satisfied working for the company.
"I make more money than I did five years ago," says Milton Benavidez, 23, while he cleared banana fields. Upon hearing his positive comments, union member Marcial Navarro told him not to lie, to tell it like it is. Benavidez looked him straight in the eye and told him that if he complained about the company, then he would be lying. CONTACT: Banana Link, (011) 44-1603-765670, www.bananalink.org. uk; Rainforest Alliance, (212)677-1900, www.rainforest-alliance.org.