When you eat a piece of fruit that you know comes from thousands of miles away, do you ever truly wonder about its origins? I certainly never did until I visited a banana plantation in Costa Rica. While I had spent the first couple of weeks of my study abroad program there learning about the rather sordid history of the banana crop, through the novel Mamita Yunai (considered Costa Rica’s most famous work of literature) and classes relating to economics and current events, none of the enormity surrounding this yellow staple registered until I saw the backbreaking work involved with harvesting it.
My first month of grueling classes involved extremely long days (10 hours+) and made high school days seem like a breeze (college schedules do spoil you in that regard). The visit to a banana plantation was no exception. We had to be at the center where we took classes by 6 AM to board the van that would take us to the plantation. Although Costa Rica is not a large country (it’s close in size to the state of West Virginia), roads and highways are in poor condition so it takes a while to get places even involving short distances. And so, even though we weren’t traveling too far from our starting point, the capital city of San Jose, it still took a while.
I’ve since forgotten the name of the plantation we visited, but it was located in the Siquirres vicinity (more in the central part of the country). However, it was definitely nearer to the coast than to the mountains since the humidity was significantly worse than in San Jose, which is in the Central Valley and enjoys a humidity free, temperate climate year-round.
The organization that ran my study abroad program focused on areas like sustainable development and social justice. So while Dole has an extremely large presence in Costa Rica (Dole Food Company was originally Standard Fruit Company, one of the original banana kings), we did not visit a corporation’s facility, especially one with such a dark history in regards to working conditions and labor issues. Not to mention, the facility we visited touted the fact that no pesticides are used. (The use of pesticides in Central American fruit plantations was a big deal when I was studying in the region, as workers at a plantation in neighboring Nicaragua had sued a rather large produce company, claiming they had gotten sick from handling fruits that had been sprayed with pesticides.)
If you’ve never traveled to a developing country, you have no idea about the backbreaking work that many of its citizens undertake for pitifully low wages. The banana workers were no exception. Although we were told that the workers at the site we visited were treated better than some of the workers at the larger multinational companies, the work that we saw going on was unimaginable. Laboring under the hot, scorching sun against oppressive humidity, there is a tremendous amount of work that goes on in harvesting bananas. Bananas are produced by several large kinds of herbaceous flowering plants (although they are so massive they look more like trees). The fruits grow in clusters hanging from the top of the plant. Multiple clusters will grow from the same plant with each cluster containing dozens of bananas. At the site I visited, workers used machetes to hack down clusters and placed them in a bin. Whhen the bin was full, a worker wheeled it down tracks to where other workers waiting to receive it for the next step in the harvesting process.
The men that I saw working were drenched in sweat and looked exhausted. But what was most sobering was that we were told that even given how hard and laborious banana harvesting was, harvesting pineapples, another big business in Costa Rica was even worse.
I came to the conclusion that produce is one of those things that we take for granted, just like ground meats and other food products where the consumer only sees the finished product, never the sweat and toil that goes into getting it to your table. While bananas may be cheap to buy, just remember the next time you eat one that the hard work and effort that went into harvesting them was not cheap and was more labor intensive than most people can ever fathom. Without the “lowly” workers of Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia-there would literally be no bananas.