It May Not Be the End of the Road for the "Banana Man" in Jamaica

Some of the happiest days of my childhood were spent on a banana plantation in Portland back in the early 1950s. The plantation belonged to Dr. Frazer McConnell and his brother, Toby, and they had hired my father as the overseer after he retired from his job with the Jamaica Agricultural Society. So I feel a special kinship with “banana men.”

My father told me our family grew bananas back in the old days before Panama Disease and later Leaf Spot wiped out the Gros Michel variety they had planted. And when my young cousin, Scott, stopped at our home in Miami on his way to England some years ago, he recited the entire “Song of the Banana Man” poem by Evan Jones. I can see Scott now, standing in our living room, raising his arm in a gesture of fierce pride, and proclaiming:

“…when you see dese ol clothes brown wid stain, an soaked right through wid de Portlan’ rain, don’t cas’ you eye nor turn you nose, don’t judge a man by his patchy clothes. I’m a strong man, a proud man, an I’m free, free as dese mountains, free as dis sea, I know myself, an I know my ways, an’ will sing wid pride to de end o’ my days: Praise God an m’big right han’. I will live an die a banana man!”

It would sadden me if the banana man disappeared from the Jamaican scene, and I read with concern a recent article in an American publication that predicted the demise of the banana. The article, by Johann Hari, originally appeared in the London Independent, and the writer seemed well versed in the history of banana cultivation. He repeated the sorry story of the United Fruit Company’s exploitation and subversion throughout Latin America over the past century. It was a familiar story to me, as my father had worked for United Fruit in Costa Rica and Panama back in the 1920s, and he had told me of wretched abuses that the company committed.

But that’s history. United Fruit is now Chiquita Banana, and it spends a lot of money cultivating a fresh, perky image. I hold my nose and buy Chiquita bananas, despite the company’s checkered past, because they are usually delicious. Reading the Johann Hari article, I found out why.

“A corporation called United Fruit took one particular type – the Gros Michel – out of the jungle and decided to mass produce it on vast plantations, shipping it on refrigerated boats across the globe.” Hari wrote. “The banana was standardized into one friendly model: yellow and creamy and handy for your lunchbox.”

As I understand it, there are no longer any Gros Michel bananas in Jamaica. I think my father grew the Lacatan and Robusta varieties, which are (were?) resistant to Panama Disease. The fruit did not look quite as good or taste quite as creamy as the Gros Michel. It was smaller and the skin was not bright golden but a greener shade of yellow. Reading Hari’s piece, I wondered whether those varieties had also succumbed to the dreaded Panama Disease.

“There is no cure,” Hari wrote. “They all die as it (Panama Disease) spreads, and it spreads quickly. Soon – in five, 10 or 30 years – the yellow creamy fruit as we know it will not exist.”

 I searched the Internet for information and found a column in the Jamaica Observer, written by Diane Abbott in April 2007. Here’s what she had to say:

“The (banana) industry still employs more than 10,000 people and accounts for $26 million of Jamaica’s Gross Domestic Product. But the end of preferential access to European markets has threatened the industry with extinction. Competing with the “dollar,” bananas produced by near-slave labor in South America seems impossible.”

Abbott’s column dealt with the Fairtrade agreement, which provides a supermarket outlet in Britain for bananas from the Eastern Caribbean.

“They have repositioned their bananas as a niche Fairtrade product,” she wrote “This way they can charge a premium. Furthermore the premium can be as much as 25 per cent higher than the market price. And earlier this year Britain’s second largest supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, announced that all the bananas it sells from now on will be Fairtrade bananas. Because Sainsbury’s sell over 1,000 bananas a minute, that is a huge amount of bananas, they have committed to buying 75 per cent of St Lucia’s banana export crop, 80 per cent of Dominica’s and much of the production of the other Windward Islands.”

Abbott was especially encouraged by a provision in the agreement that pays farmers a “social premium” that must go into community development. And she suggested that “repositioning Jamaica’s bananas as a niche product may be the way to save the industry and enable thousands of rural Jamaicans to continue to live and die as proud producers of high-quality fruit.”

I don’t see any evidence that the Jamaican government adopted Abbott’s suggestion. Instead, I found reports of devastation caused by several hurricanes and a news story, dated Sunday, September 21, 2008, announcing that Jamaica Producers Group Limited had ceased the production of bananas for export to the United Kingdom.

But there was a recent assurance of continued government support for the industry. A few weeks ago, in December 2008, the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Christopher Tufton, promised to “provide the necessary support for the banana industry, to enable it to remain a major contributor to the national economy.”

And perhaps Mother Nature is coming to the rescue of the Jamaican banana industry. If Johann Hari is to be believed, the bananas grown so profusely and cheaply – and by such questionable tactics – in mainland Latin America are doomed by disease. And it seems to me that the Jamaican industry already has been through that calamity, emerging with disease-resistant varieties. If my understanding of the situation is accurate, Jamaica’s banana producers will be in a much better competitive global position within a few years.