By Richy Richo
For many reasons, some complimentary and others not, Ecuador is referred to allegorically as a Banana Republic. The truth remains that Ecuador is the number one exporter of bananas worldwide and is said to produce some of the best tasting bananas.
Bananas were first cultivated on the fertile coastal region of Ecuador in the 1700's but the plantations were small. Bananas only became a major export item for Ecuador after World War II after the involvement of multinationals such as Dole.
The importance of bananas, to Ecuador and to the world, cannot be underestimated. Bananas are the fourth most important staple crop in world food production. Bananas are a primary source of income to the Ecuadorian economy second only to the revenue produced by oil.
Unfortunately, banana workers, specially in the larger plantations, "suffer from long hours, low pay, forced overtime, massive exposure to dangerous pesticides, and lack of job security. In many countries such as Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama, workers have struggled to form unions and raise wages to as much as $11 a day. But in Ecuador temporary subcontracted laborers are not allowed to form unions and are earning an average of less than $6 a day." (Cited from Human Rights Watch publications, April 2002)
In addition, human rights groups have recently denounced many of the larger banana plantations in Ecuador for employing children sometimes even as young as 10 years old. For the land owner, this practice cuts down operating expenses, for the families of the children, sadly, it helps put food on the table.
With all this in mind, I decided to visit a plantation in the city of Santo Domingo de los Colorados, in the province of Pichincha. My intent was just to observe the process of banana production, learn about Ecuadorian agriculture and not, for the moment, social activism. I took time to visit diverse places of interest in this lush and steamy zone whose economy depends mainly on agriculture, livestock, and tourism.
My curiosity brought me to the Hacienda San Cristobal, one of the most important banana producing haciendas in Santo Domingo, located at km 50 on the road to Quininde. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Byron Gomez, who kindly took me on a banana tour. The tour proved most valuable because I was given a step-by-step explanation of the process of banana cultivation.
A banana plantation requires basic infrastructure. This infrastructure is composed of land for the plantation; this land must be fertile and full of nutrients so that the banana plant will seed. Also necessary is a packing area where the banana is processed that has at least two large tubs to treat the fruit, a transport line which fumigates the banana for preservation and stickers it for exportation. The final step is the packing table. Here, the fruit is sealed into airtight bags and weighed into 43-pound boxes.
A funicular, part of the necessary infrastructure to take the fruit out of the field with the least possible damage, consists of a steel cable that is strategically located in the plantation. It is held up by two arches that are ten meters apart and 2.80 meters high. The field-cut branches are hung onto the funicular with a hook which allows them to slide along the cable. This is how the branches arrive to their final destination, packaging. They are then put through a series of quality-control checks.
The process begins with the planting of the banana seed in the field. It is important to obtain a high quality seed because it helps to guarantee a successful harvest. The seed is known as a strain, which is a transplanted shoot. In order to plant the banana, the soil must be prepared. This entails planting the strains 2.60 meters apart so that they form an equilateral triangle. Once the strain is planted, a new plant begins to grow. When the plant becomes an adult, it will grow a branch that produces the equivalent of a box and a half of exportable bananas.
After seven months, the plant reaches an average height of four meters. It is also at this time that the plant produces its first bananas, although small. They are approximately the size of a man's fingers. At this time the banana bunch is wrapped in plastic not only for a greenhouse effect but also for protection from insects. Twelve weeks after being bagged, the banana is mature enough to be harvested, processed, packaged, and sent to port for exportation to different destinations around the world.
The process sounds easy enough, but it includes a series of administrative tasks and backbreaking field work. It is as necessary to have a reliable staff in the human resource department as field workers. The Hacienda San Cristobal, for example, has a total of 70 hectares of Cavendish bananas planted and twelve people in charge of the plantation. Some of the duties that the staff are responsible for are detailed below.
Offspring Stripper, or deshije- The process in which the offspring are selected from the banana plant. The offspring or shoots come from the base of the stalk. Sometimes a plant can have more than six shoots. It is at this time that the deshije expert chooses the most presentable shoots and gets rid of the others. This assures proper growth for the baby shoot.
Leaf Stripper- A worker who dedicates himself solely to the cutting of leaves infected with fungus. This disease yellows the foliage and harms the fruit. This is a continuous job so that the fungus does not spread and destroy the entire plantation.
Fumigation- Air fumigation takes place in 15 or 25-day cycles, depending on the degree of infection in the plantation. This is one of the most expensive steps because of the high chemical and plane rental costs.
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