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Geography in the News: Bananas, the Top Fruit

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

The Banana Story

An interesting book published in 2012 detailed the life of  Samuel “Sam the Banana Man” Zemurray. Therein lies an interesting economic geography of international intrigue and business success with lessons to be learned today about international trade by large corporations.

Zemurray, a Russian immigrant and businessman, helped make the exotic banana a common food in the United States. Zemurray was a shadowy figure who ran the powerful United Fruit Company, expanding banana production into Central America—now the world’s top banana exporting region.

The banana is a fruit, whose many varieties are produced throughout the tropical world year-round. The world’s top exported fruit, the global banana trade is worth $4 billion annually.

Source: Geography in the NewsTM

Each year, almost 80 million tons (72.5 million metric tons) of bananas are grown around the world. Collectively, India, Ecuador, Brazil and China produce more than half of the world’s bananas, though most of their crops are consumed at home. In fact, slightly more than 80 percent of all of the world’s bananas are grown and consumed locally. Of the four biggest producers, only Ecuador grows bananas primarily for export.

Of the less than 20 percent of bananas exported, three-quarters go to the United States, the European Union and Japan. Seventy-five percent of all exported bananas come from plantations in only four countries: Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and The Philippines.

The banana plant thrives on tropical temperatures, high humidity and precipitation, and soft, friable, loamy soils. The plant is not woody, but has a green, pithy stem, from the crown of which issue large leaves, the flower and fruit. Its roots emerge from a bulb-like feature at the bottom of the stem.

Banana plants are vulnerable to diseases, pests and high winds, rendering them relatively delicate. When planted in a monoculture, as on a plantation with thousands of others, banana plants are even more at risk of devastation from diseases and pests.

While bananas may be the world’s oldest cultivated crop, first grown in Southeast Asia 8,000 years ago, they were not consumed in the United States until the 19th century. The first bananas arrived in the United States in 1804 from Cuba and for the next 60 years the fruit was considered a novelty.

Low-tech methods of transportation and distribution made bananas expensive to import. Furthermore, the fruit was easily bruised en route or too ripe when it arrived to make the business profitable. In the 1870s, the combination of modern transportation methods (steamships and railroads) with refrigeration technology allowed bananas to be stored longer and travel further.

One of the first shippers, Lorenzo Dow Baker, transported bananas from Jamaica, founding the Boston Fruit Company that later became the United Fruit Company. Samuel Zemurray, the subject of Rich Cohen’s new book The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, quickly surfaced as a banana entrepreneur, merging his small company with the United Fruit Company in 1930. In 1933, he toppled the board of directors of United Fruit and took over as its president. Zemurray was one of the first banana exporters to move into Central America for large-scale production.

United Fruit was an incredibly powerful organization under Zemurray. In the 1940s and ’50s, the company had close ties to the U.S. government, especially the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1953, when Zemurray sensed unrest in Guatemala—where United Fruit had owned 75 percent of all private land since 1942—he and the CIA launched a successful campaign warning that the country had become Communist. The result was a coup that ousted Guatemala’s democratically-elected president, allowing Zemurray to continue his business there.

The first multi-national corporations, the banana companies were monopolies, managing all aspects of the business from growing, processing, shipping and marketing. The companies built self-sufficient economies in the countries they inhabited. They were virtually tax exempt, exporting most of what was produced and contributing very little to the local economy.

The banana companies and their manipulation of politics helped create the “Banana Republics.” Included were countries like Honduras and Guatemala that were politically unstable, dependent on one export commodity (bananas) and whose economies were dominated by foreign interests. The days of political dominance of those countries by international banana corporations, however, have largely ended in the Twenty-first Century.

While Americans today consume an average of 26 pounds (12 kg) of bananas a year, people in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi eat almost 550 pounds (249 kg). Despite the banana’s manipulative history in Central America, the banana still reigns supreme the world over as a healthy fruit of choice.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM.

Sources: GITN #473, “Banana War of ’99,” March 12, 1999; GITN 1149 Bananas Are the World’s Top Fruit, June 8, 2012; http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Banana-King-Surviving-K2-the-Allure-of-America-and-More-Recent-Books.html; Cohen, Rich, The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012); and http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/y5143e/y5143e10.htm

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.