U. Michigan biologist speaks about impact of banana production

John Vandermeer, a biologist from the University of Michigan and author of the book Breakfast of Biodiversity, spoke to a full Griffin, Room 6 about the complexities of the relationship between banana production and deforestation in Costa Rica last Friday afternoon.

Vandermeer opened his talk by stating that he was working under the assumptions that deforestation is a negative force, and that intervention in deforestation is a worthwhile goal. He said that in order to intervene, it is necessary to make rational decisions based on a thorough understanding of the issue.

Vandermeer explained the issue by unraveling what he termed the “web of causality” of deforestation. He began with logging.

“Most logging operations are ‘mom and pop’ type organizations and very few of the trees that grow in rainforests are commercially viable,” he said.

As a result, loggers will clear roads into the forests and then cut out only the trees that they will be able to sell. The overall impact to the health of the forest is very limited.

The banana market is highly volatile and, as a result, workers on banana plantations are often laid off. These workers essentially have two options: to go live in the poverty of the squatter towns or to attempt to farm. Most choose the latter.

In order to farm, land must be possessed and, in most cases, the method of gaining possession of land is clearing it. The land that is cleared must be accessible, so the cleared land is most often found along the banks of the river or along the roads that the loggers have created.

The banana industry, primarily the United Fruit Company, producer of Chiquita bananas along with Dole and other large companies, predicted in the early 1990s that there would be a boom in the banana market as a result of the collapse of communism. At this time, Costa Rica was industrializing rapidly and the labor force that the banana producers sought was not available, so they imported workers from Nicaragua.

Thus far, the anticipated rise in demand has not materialized. Vandermeer asked numerous Nicaraguans whether or not they plan on returning to Nicaragua if they lose their jobs, as, he claimed, they almost certainly will.

“They laughed,” he said, “The Nicaraguan economy is in shambles and there is nothing for these men to go back to.”

Instead, according to Vandermeer, the men will follow the paths of the Costa Rican workers before them: cutting down land in the rainforest.

Vandermeer rejected the idea of boycotting bananas, as a fall in the banana market would cause more layoffs at the plantations, in turn leading to more deforestation. Conversely, if banana consumption increased, Nicaraguan workers would likely be imported, and when consumption fell again, these workers would also contribute to deforestation.

Vandermeer said that in order to stop the destruction caused by modern agriculture, logging and peasant farmers, rainforest countries need to initiate a shift away from a poor agrarian economy. He pointed to industrialization in Puerto Rico as a model.

“If you want to save the rainforests, take political action to benefit the people who live in them,” he recommended.

He identified the policies of international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as exacerbating the problem through their policies, favoring wealthy, industrialized nations. He advocated reform policies, favoring sustainable development and trade policies that protect developing markets.

The lecture was part of the “Whose Responsibility Is It?” project.