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Starved Out

Two years ago today, police opened fire on a group of striking mineworkers encamped on a koppie outside of Marikana. Mainly rock drill operators doing some of the most basic and difficult work on the mine, these men demanded that Lonmin – in whose platinum mine they worked – raise their salary to match that of literate, better skilled miners, to about R12,500 per month.

After weeks of sporadic violence on both sides – during which policemen, shop stewards, and workers were injured and killed – mine bosses urged the police to end the standoff. Jack Shenker writes:

It was the police who escalated the standoff at Marikana mountain, bringing in large numbers of reinforcements and live ammunition. Four mortuary vans were summoned before a single shot had been fired. Lonmin was liaising closely with state police, lending them the company’s own private security staff and helicopters, and ferrying in police units on corporate buses. Razor wire was rolled out by police around the outcrop to cut the miners off from Nkaneng settlement; pleas by strike leaders for a gap to be left open so that workers could depart peacefully to their homes were ignored.

Police opened fire as workers approached them. In the end, thirty-four were killed, seventeen of them at a nearby koppie where it appears that they were shot at close range. The Marikana massacre has been described as post-apartheid South Africa’s Sharpeville. As the inquiry into the events near the mine has revealed, police arrived not to keep order, but, rather, to end the strike through any means possible.

Miners-Shot-Down-March-finalweb-450x640

The poster for Rehad Desai’s documentary on the Marikana massacre, Miners Shot Down.

The killings were followed by a strike – the longest in South African history – until May. Of all the details to emerge in the coverage of life in the platinum belt, the one that seemed to encapsulate the desperation of striking miners and their families was in a 2006 report commissioned by Lonmin: researchers had discovered children suffering from kwashiorkor near the mine.

Although already identified in 1908, kwashiorkor was named by Dr Cicely Williams, a Colonial Medical Officer, in the Gold Cost during the 1930s. Tom Scott-Smith explains:

she noticed a recurring set of symptoms amongst children who were aged between one and four: oedema in the hands and feet, darkening and thickening of the skin followed by peeling, and a reddish tinge to the hair in the worst cases. There was a clear pattern in the incidence of this disease, since it occurred in children who had been weaned onto low-protein, starchy foods such as maize, after being displaced from the breast by a younger sibling. Williams’ description first appeared in print in 1933, and two years later she identified the condition by its name in the local language: kwashiorkor, the ‘disease of the deposed child’.

Williams diagnosed kwashiorkor as a from of inadequate nutrition – similar to pellagra, which is caused by a diet insufficient in vitamin B3 – related specifically to an intake of too little protein. Williams had noticed that newly weaned babies and young children – the ‘deposed’ children referred to by the word kwashiorkor – were particularly vulnerable to the condition, and surmised that longer breastfeeding or a diet rich in the nutrients non-breastfed children lacked – protein especially – would eradicate kwashiorkor.

By the 1970s, though, doctors argued that this emphasis on protein supplements – which had driven United Nations and other organisations’ efforts to address kwashiorkor – was incorrect. Kwashiorkor, they argued, was the product of under nutrition: of not consuming enough energy. Scott-Smith writes:

Evidence from the 1960s demonstrated that a less protein-rich, more balanced diet could cure kwashiorkor equally well, and by the 1970s a number of other causes for the disease were suggested – even today, the details of kwashiorkor are still not fully understood.

Had scientists paid closer attention to the name ‘kwashiorkor’ they may have come to this realisation sooner. It is a disease of poverty where adults are unable to provide weaned children with adequate nutrition. As a result, its solution is distressingly simple: better and more food.

If there is any indicator of the extent of poverty in the platinum belt, then it is the fact that children suffer from kwashiorkor. While Lonmin has ploughed some of its profits back into communities surrounding the mines – opening schools and running feeding schemes, for example – it remains the case that mineworkers and their families are still desperately poor.

Keith Breckenridge argues that the wealth generated by workers operating in exceptionally dangerous conditions is channelled largely to a small group of beneficiaries. He adds:

Under the current arrangements in the platinum belt there is almost no movement of resources from mining to the wider problem of maintaining the physical and emotional well-being of the general population working in the mines. Mine managers have retreated from maintaining order and health in the hostels, and they have ceded control over the key human resource questions – employment and housing – to union officials and their allies. Like foreign shareholders and local royalty owners, these union leaders, using their monopoly over jobs and housing, have tapped into the demand for employment to enrich themselves (often at the expense of the working and living conditions of union members). Local government – caught between the mines and the prerogatives of tribal authorities – has all but abandoned the project of regulating the living spaces around the mines.

Where once miners were coralled into the prison-like conditions of single-sex hostels where their food, accommodation, and other expenses were covered by mining companies, now meagre housing allowances are meant to support these workers and their families in the otherwise badly provisioned and serviced towns and villages in the platinum belt. Salaries tend to go straight to pay interest on loans granted by micro lenders, charging exorbitant interest rates.

As the incidences of kwashiorkor reported to Lonmin suggest, these men were not earning enough to feed themselves and their children. While under cross examination at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana massacre, Cyril Ramaphosa – current Deputy President and Lonmin board member who had emailed the then-Police Minister, demanding an end to the workers’ strike – remarked:

The responsibility has to be collective. As a nation, we should dip our heads and accept that we failed the people of Marikana, particularly the families, the workers, and those that died.

I dispute the ‘we,’ Mr Deputy President.

Further Reading

Keith Breckenridge, ‘Marikana and the Limits of Biopolitics: Themes in the Recent Scholarship of South African Mining,’ Africa, vol. 84 (2014), pp. 151-161.

Keith Breckenridge, ‘Revenge of the Commons: The Crisis in the South African Mining Industry,’ History Workshop Journal Blog, 5 November 2012.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A Cup of Coffee

One of the best articles explaining the context in which the recent Western Cape farm workers’ strike occurred, notes that even the new minimum wage introduced as a result of the action is

not enough to make ends meet, some Western Cape farmworkers subsist on little else but black coffee during the last few days of each month.

This piece in the Mail and Guardian drew my attention because it resonates with another description of poverty in rural South Africa. During the early decades of the twentieth century, C. Louis Leipoldt – medical doctor, eugenicist, food anthropologist, proto-Afrikaner nationalist, writer, Buddhist, and poet – worked as the Medical Inspector for Schools in the Transvaal province of the newly created Union of South Africa. He described his experiences of working in the lowveld – the hot, humid and, formerly, malaria-infested region in present day Mpumalanga – in Bushveld Doctor (1937).

Much of the focus of this collection of essays is a description of the everyday life, beliefs, and struggles of a population of impoverished whites scratching a miserable existence in a disease-riddled area. He ascribed the poor health of the children to endemic malaria and bilharzia, and also malnutrition. Leipoldt described one nine year-old patient:

When he left home in the morning his father gave him an inch of twist tobacco which he put into his mouth and chewed on his way to school. That and a cup of coffee (made from the root of a Bushveld tree) constituted his breakfast. There were other lads in the school who did the same to stay the pangs of incipient hunger.

Leipoldt observed that these Bushveld children were shorter than their better-fed and altogether healthier urban contemporaries. The problem was that good, nutritious food was in short supply. These subsistence farmers simply could not afford to eat well:

Malnutrition is prevalent because food is scarce in the Bushveld, where fresh fruit and vegetables are difficult to obtain, and because the children exist on an unbalanced diet. Their staple food is mielie meal, which has a low nutritive value. Milk and fresh meat are scarce. Wheaten bread is common enough, and of fair quality when obtainable, but it is not a staple article of diet. Fats are rarely included in the diet, and fresh butter is a comparative rarity.

In today’s language, these families were food insecure. Indeed, as are the farm workers described by the Mail and Guardian:

many farmworkers … are dependent on on-the-farm stores for food. Many farmworkers and NGOs accuse farmers of pricing foodstuffs higher than commercial shops.

This, compounded with low wages, further promotes food insecurity. ‘Prices in rural areas are always slightly higher than they are in urban areas. So if farmers are charging more than the market price, which is already high, farmworkers just can’t afford food,’ says [Colette Solomon, of the NGO Women on Farms], and explains that average household income is R1 500 a month. ‘Many farmworkers buy on credit, but the prices are so high that … when they get paid, they have to pay their debts back and basically don’t have money left.’

As a result of this

Stunted growth is not unusual: a study done by the University of Cape Town in the 1990s showed that farmworkers in the province are, on average, an inch (2.5cm) shorter than city dwellers.

In November last year, grape pickers in the Hex River Valley went on strike. Demanding higher wages – R150 an hour, rather than the minimum wage of R70 – the strike spread from De Doorns to Robertson, Wolesley, Ceres, Prince Alfred Hamlet, and elsewhere. Hundreds of strikers marched, gathered, and erected barricades. In some townships, the stand-off between strikers and police turned violent, as protestors pelted cops with rocks, and the police used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water canons to disperse the crowds. Shops were looted, and vines set alight. Two people were killed. There were allegations of police brutality.

The strike was called off in December and then resumed in January this year. In the meanwhile, efforts to mediate between farm workers, farmers, and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries were not productive. The Department’s decision to raise the minimum wage to R105 – thus ending the strike – was met with a lukewarm reaction from nearly everyone connected to the strike, with some farmers arguing that higher wages will force them to retrench workers.

What was so surprising about the strike was that it happened at all. Alongside domestic workers, farm labourers have one of the lowest rates of union membership in South Africa. When the strike began, both the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance – which controls the Western Cape – accused each other of organising the workers. The union alliance Cosatu was caught unwares and scrambled to take control of the strike, but with limited success. The strike in January was more formally organised by both Cosatu and the more radical Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa led by Nosey Pieterse, but, even so, these two organisations’ mandate for representing the strikers is shaky. (Pieterse is currently under investigation for intimidating non-striking workers. He is also suing the Cape Times for describing him as a member of the ‘lumpenproletariat.’)

This is a very cursory overview of the strike. As Rebecca Davis’s excellent reporting for the Daily Maverick shows, workers went on strike for a range of reasons – from genuine anger at low wages, to disputes around municipal politics.

It’s partly because of the complexity of the strike that I’ve avoided writing about it. Also, I’ve been concerned that I am too close to the issue to view it dispassionately. I grew up in Paarl and Stellenbosch, two towns in the Boland’s wine-producing area. I went to school with the daughters of farmers and, later, farm workers. (Our primary school opened to all races in 1992.) On Saturday mornings in the early- and mid-1990s, my father used to take my sister and I around local wine estates. We fed oak leaves to the goats at Fairview, and chatted to old Mrs Back in the cheese shop.

As daughters of politically aware and active parents, we knew how to identify ‘good’ from ‘bad’ farmers. We could spot which farms allowed labourers to live in damp, tumbledown cottages without running water and electricity.  We saw which farms had legions of children not in school. It’s likely that those farmers may still have paid their workers in the form of alcohol, usually cheap brandy. The ‘dop’ (or ‘tot’) system originated during the nineteenth century on wine farms in the Boland as a means both of paying workers, as well as ensuring their dependency on farmers: alcoholic labourers would be less likely to move to Cape Town in search of better-paid work in the Cape Colony’s burgeoning industry.

Since 1994, the dop system has been banned, legislation restricting child labour introduced, and a minimum wage – now raised as a result of the strike – enforced. But these new laws have had a limited impact on farm workers: they have not reduced astronomically high rates of alcoholism which have caused the region to have one of the highest incidences of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in the world; they have not compensated families for the loss of income brought in by children; they have not ended the cycle of domestic violence which disproportionately effects women on farms; many workers still live in appalling conditions, often with no access to electricity and running water. NGOs like Women on Farms have collected horrific testimony of women raped by their employers; of families being turned out of houses without warning and for, apparently, no reason; and of labourers overworked and maimed by machinery.

I began by drawing attention to two examples of South African rural poverty – one from the beginning of the twentieth century, another a hundred years later – to demonstrate the relative usefulness of understanding contemporary events in historical context. I don’t pretend to know enough about the wine and fruit industries in the Western Cape to be able to account for the strike itself, but I was struck by how often journalists, strikers, politicians, and others referred to slavery and apartheid when trying to understand the strike and the unique relationship between farmers and their labourers in this region.

The South African wine industry was profitable during the twentieth century partly because it could rely on a steady supply of cheap – even free – labour. Farmers could justify labourers’ exceptionally low wages on the grounds of the paternalistic system of employment which existed – and still exists, to some extent – on the farms:

The relationships between farm-owners and workers have not been simply exploitative, but were shaped by the discourses of paternalism. The notion of themselves as benevolent but firm protectors and disciplinarians of a grateful and appreciative population of on-farm servants has been an important part of the self-conception of farmers in the Western Cape and elsewhere in South Africa since the eighteenth century. Ultimately, however, it was a hierarchical relationship, marginalising and silencing the voices of those whose labour helped create the wealth of the sector.

Although it’s debatable if the Cape Colony’s system of slavery could accurately be described as ‘paternalistic’ (and this is still the subject of some debate among historians), it was certainly the case that an inherently unequal, dependent relationship developed over time between farmers and farmworkers. Although paid and treated appallingly badly, farmworkers were usually provided with (rudimentary) housing, some food, and other basics.

Boschendal, Stellenbosch

Boschendal, Stellenbosch

My point is that however terrible the circumstances in which farmers may work and live – and Human Rights Watch released a damning report into them in 2011 – to argue that we need to understand the relationship between farmers and their workers in the context of nineteenth- or, even, early twentieth-century labour politics is mistaken. We need to look at the more recent past.

The South African wine industry has changed significantly since the mid-90s, from selling what was, often, so-so plonk to the locals, to a massive tourism concern and export business. As Joachim Ewert and Andries du Toit have demonstrated, since the beginning of the deregulation of the industry in the early 1980s, South African producers have become subject to the vagaries of the international export market, new estates have emerged as new wine growing regions have been planted, yields have increased, and previously powerful co-operatives have amalgamated and disappeared.

Although there were efforts to reform labour relations during the 1980s, led largely by the Rural Foundation, and in response to changes in the wine industry, it was only after 1994 that there was adequate political will radically to do away with the old paternalism:

A paternalist state has stepped in to push back the paternalist authority of the farmer, and has created new limits to farmers’ control over workers’ lives. These changes seriously challenge the legal and formal underpinnings of traditional farm paternalism.

But challenging paternalism is not the same as replacing it. There is considerable evidence that many farmers are reluctant to comply with labour legislation, if not downright hostile to it.

There has been a major change in how wine, and also fruit, farmers employ labour since the end of the 1990s. This is partly the result of mechanisation and more efficient farming methods, but it is also the product of farmers’ resistance to legislation which raises the wages and living standards of workers:

Facing a sustained challenge to their power as employers and feeling increasing competitive pressures, many farmers seem to be opting for the one measure sill within their power: restructuring their businesses. Many are resorting to casualization, externalisation, and contractualisation, deepening an already segmented labour market and further deepening the divide between ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’

Johan Fourie has shown that the numbers of workers employed on farms in the Cape Winelands District Municipality has declined dramatically since 1995:

even while output has increased by 1.4% annually over the entire period …, employment has fallen from more than 120 000 jobs to fewer than 50 000 today.

Loss of permanent jobs on farms also means eviction, and over the past decade or so, the numbers of employed former farm workers living in desperate poverty in shacks or overcrowded homes on the fringes of picturesque winelands towns and villages, have swelled. They are dependent on seasonal work and on social grants. Alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and child abuse are rife.

The recent, horrific rape and murder of Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp – one of these pretty rural towns – has drawn attention to the social implications of this change in rural employment.

There are many progressive wine farmers who have established crèches and primary schools, founded organisations to eradicate FAS, provided transport and bursaries to get farm children to school, and attempted to find ways of reducing alcoholism and domestic violence.

For instance, the Fair Valley Association was founded by Fairview workers in 1997, with the assistance of Charles Back, the owner of the wine farm. It helps labourers to buy land and build houses, and includes these workers in the day-to-day running of the estate. Similarly, at Solms Delta in Franschhoek, neuroscientist Mark Solms

organise[d] a loan, with his land as collateral, that allowed the 180 workers connected to his farm to buy 30 hectares connected to Solms’s land. Solms, along with his neighbour Richard Astor, joined forces with the farm workers, each a one-third partner in the Solms-Delta wine venture.

Through the Wijn de Caab Trust established in the workers’ names, Solms-Delta provides comfortable housing, health and dental benefits, plus Internet access, a full-time social worker and an afterschool teacher to help kids with their homework. One of Solms-Delta’s most successful ventures beyond the vines has been their music program: There are four bands on the farm, including an 80-person marching band. ‘A friend of mine likes to joke,’ says Solms, ‘that we don’t only farm wine, we farm music.’

The single biggest allocation from the workers’ trust has gone towards improving education.

Solms Delta is, truly, a beacon for other wine farms in the region. Its transformation is grounded in Solms’s realisation that he had no more claim to owning the farm than the generations of workers who have lived on it. The estate has acknowledged its slave past in an excellent museum, and workers’ pride in their involvement in the farm is palpable. (Do go, if you can.)

But the trouble with these – and other – laudable efforts is that they are aimed largely at those workers who remain on farms – and not the legion of unemployed, and potentially unemployable, labourers who have been pushed off farms since the late 1990s. These casual labourers constituted a significant portion of the strikers in November and January.

This returns to my original point about using the past to illuminate the present. Although slave pasts don’t really help to understand contemporary systems of employment, I think it’s worth thinking about rural poverty in the twenty-first century to that a hundred years earlier.

The emergence of a substantial population of ‘poor whites’ – like the people documented by Leipoldt – occurred as a result of many factors, including the transformation of agriculture into a capitalist enterprise. Poor white tenant and small farmers moved into towns and cities in search of work, while others lived in poverty in the countryside.

By the end of the 1920s, it was estimated that out of a total of 1,800,000 whites, 300,000 were ‘very poor’, and nearly all of these were Afrikaans. The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question (1929-1932) concluded that an inability to adapt to a changing economic climate, outdated farming methods, and poor education were to blame for the existence of such a large population of impoverished whites.

In 1929, the South African government devoted 13 per cent of its budget to the eradication of white poverty. Much of this went to education, social welfare, and housing. The introduction of more stringent segregationist legislation progressively disenfranchised blacks, and reserved skilled work for whites.

I don’t want to draw glib parallels between the 1920s and 1930s and the 2010s – after all, white poverty was eliminated by the 1960s because of the systematic marginalisation of black workers. But I think that it’s worth noting that South Africa managed to eradicate one form of rural poverty during the twentieth century. By historicising poverty, we understand that it is not the fault of the impoverished – that poverty is the product of massive social, political, and economic change. More importantly, we see that with political will, it is not impossible to do away with it. It is eminently possible to stop people from having to live on black coffee.

Sources

Joachim Ewert and Andries du Toit, ‘A Deepening Divide in the Countryside: Restructuring and Rural Livelihoods in the South African Wine Industry,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 31, no. 2 (June 2005), pp. 315-332.

Bill Freund, ‘The Poor Whites: A Social Force and a Social Problem in South Africa,’ in White but Poor: Essays on the History of Poor Whites in Southern Africa 1880-1940, ed. Robert Morrell (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 1992), pp. xiii-xxiii.

C. Louis Leipoldt, Bushveld Doctor (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, [1937] 1980).

Robert Ross, ‘Paternalism, Patriarchy, and Afrikaans,’ South African Historical Journal, vol. 32 (May 1995), pp. 34-47.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Bananas

This term a colleague and I are teaching a course on the 1960s to our third-year students (who are uniformly lovely – henceforth I shall only teach third-year students, Head of Department-willing). I’ve spent the past two lectures on the counter-cuisine, a movement located mainly in California from around 1966 onwards. Aside from the loonier fringes represented by the Diggers and some members of the back-to-the-land movement, the most durable remnant of the food counterculture was the co-operative movement. Over five thousand buying clubs and co-operative groceries were established between 1969 and 1979. Warren Belasco explains:

Although many consumers flocked to these hip stores just for the cheaper, healthier food, co-op organisers frequently had a more ambitious agenda: using socialised food distribution as a starting point, they hoped to establish a decentralised, democratic, alternative economic network that would sustain an oppositional culture and eventually subvert the wider society.

One woman, who was a member of the West Concord Food and Friendship Co-Op remembers:

Every week we picked up our orders of whole grains, nuts, oils, dried fruits, seeds, tofu, yogurt, cheese, and peanut butter, bringing our own re-used quart and gallon jars and plastic containers. When it was our turn to place and break down the order we collated all the previous week’s orders, placed the order with NEFCO, the New England Federation of Cooperatives, and then divided up the bulk goods into boxes for each member. The food was first rate: gallon jars of organic yogurt with the cream on top, vats of tofu in pound blocks bought directly from Boston’s Chinatown, and 10-pound blocks of sharp cheddar cheese from the Cabot dairy cooperative in Vermont – for we purchased from producer cooperatives whenever possible.

One of the things which struck me as I wrote these lectures was how similar the present food revolution – whatever that may be – is to the counter-cuisine: as the Diggers distributed free food at Golden Gate Park in 1966, using food discarded by supermarkets, so organisations like This is Rubbish raise awareness about food waste by ‘skipping’ – collecting fresh produce past its sell-by date and then serving it in free feasts. The amazing People’s Supermarket provides an alternative to supermarkets by being run along co-operative lines.

As the co-operatives of the 1960s went out of their way to support local producers – as Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse (founded in 1971) bases its menus on what local organic farmers are harvesting – so now eating ‘locally’ is seen as one of the best ways of eating responsibly and sustainably. ‘Locavorism’ offers an alternative to a globalised, industrialised food system which stocks supermarkets with strawberries – flown halfway across the world – in the middle of winter.

But our food supply has been globalised since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Already in the 1870s, improvements in transportation meant that Canadian and American wheat fed Europe during one of the worst harvest failures of that century. But the excitement many felt during the twentieth century at the prospect of relatively cheap pineapples and papaya grown abroad and flown and shipped to Western supermarkets, has been replaced by a deep concern about the environmental cost of unseasonal eating, and the power of Big Food.

There is another reason to think twice about food shipped in from abroad: its political cost.

I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Shaxon’s eye-poppingly good Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011). He argues that tax havens – which the International Monetary Fund estimates to hold more than a third of the world’s GDP on their balance sheets – have fundamentally undermined the world’s economic system. Not only has the legitimate, on-shore financial system become progressively deregulated to compete with offshore – helping to cause the 2008 crash – but tax avoidance keeps poor nations reliant on aid. He explains:

Offshore business is, at heart, about artificially manipulating paper trails of money across borders. To get an idea of how artificial it can be, consider the banana.

Each bunch takes two routes into your fruit bowl. The first route involves a Honduran worker employed by a multinational who picks the bananas, which are packaged and shipped to Britain. The multinational sells the fruit to a big supermarket chain, which sells it to you.

So far, so obvious. But then it becomes more interesting:

The second route – the accountants’ paper trail – is more round-about. When a Honduran banana is sold in Britain, where are the final profits generated, from a tax point of view? In Honduras? In the British supermarket? In the multinational’s US head office? How much do management expertise, the brand name, or insurance contribute to profits and costs? Nobody can say for sure. So the accountant can, more or less, make it up. They might, for example, advise the banana company to run its purchasing network from the Cayman Islands and run its financial services out of Luxembourg. The multinational might locate the company brand in Ireland; its shipping arm in the Isle of Man; ‘management expertise’ in Jersey and its insurance subsidy in Bermuda.

Say the Luxembourg financing subsidiary now lends money to the Honduras subsidiary and charges interest at $20 million per year. The Honduran subsidiary deducts this sum from its local profits, cutting or wiping them out (and its tax bill). The Luxembourg’s subsidiary’s $20 million in extra income, however, is only taxed at Luxembourg’s ultra-low tax haven rate. With a wave of an accountant’s wand, a hefty tax bill has disappeared, and capital has shifted offshore.

What are the implications of this? Most importantly, our banana multinational has managed to avoid paying the Honduran government – or indeed any government – any tax.

About two-thirds of global cross-border world trade happens inside multinational corporations. Developing countries lose an estimated $160 billion each year just to corporate trade mispricing of this kind. That much spent on health-care, Christian Aid reckons, could save the lives of 1,000 under-five children per day.

In 2006, the world’s three biggest banana companies, Del Monte, Dole, and Chiquita, paid only $235,000 tax between them – despite combined profits of nearly $750 million.

I’m sure that Shaxon chose deliberately to use Honduras as an example. Until 1970, Chiquita was known as the United Fruit Company. Fans of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have inkling about the United Fruit Company’s murky past:

The gringos…built a separate town across the railroad tracks with streets lined with palm trees…. The section was surrounded by a metal fence topped with a band of electrified chicken wire which during the cool summer mornings would be black with roasted swallows. No one knew yet what they were after, or whether they were actually nothing but philanthropists, and they had already caused a colossal disturbance…. Endowed with means that had been reserved for Divine Providence in former times, they changed the pattern of the rains, accelerated the cycle of the harvests, and moved the river from where it had always been and put it with its white stones and icy currents on the other side of the town, behind the cemetery.

The coming of the Americans – all of them employees of an unnamed banana company – is the cause of the ‘events that would deal Macondo its fatal blow’, chief of which is a massacre of striking workers. The employees of the banana company decide to down tools because of low pay and their appalling working conditions – something justified by the ‘mournful lawyers’ of the banana company on the grounds that

the banana company did not have, never had had, and never would have any workers in its service because they were all hired on a temporary and occasional basis. …it was established and set down in solemn decrees that the workers did not exist.

Caught in this ‘hermeneutical delirium’, the striking workers are at the mercy of the banana company and the army, sent to quell their action. The strike ends with a massacre in the town square, when soldiers turn their automatic weapons on an unarmed crowd.

This is a description of a real event, the massacre de las bananerasthe banana massacre – in Ciénaga, Colombia, on 6 December 1928. Garcia Marquez’s ‘banana company’ was the United Fruit Company, which hired labour only through local agents to avoid having to comply with Colombia’s labour laws. When Colombian workers demanded better conditions and formalised contracts, their strike became the biggest in Colombian history, and came to an end when the Colombian army opened fire on peaceful protestors in Ciénaga.

The term ‘banana republic’ was coined by O. Henry in his anthology Cabbages and Kings (1904) in his account of his brief stay in Honduras – on the run from an embezzling charge – to describe a country run for the profit of a small elite of politicians and businessmen. The business in question was the United Fruit Company – and the term could be used to describe most of the Latin American countries in which United Fruit operated.

Founded in 1909, United Fruit emerged as the largest North American banana importer during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Its success was due partly to its strategy of manipulating governments into allowing it to pursue its interests, mainly by excluding all other opposition. It created monopolies by paying local producers higher prices than its competitors – and then dropped these prices to well below acceptable levels once the rivals had left the market, often impoverishing its suppliers.

When United Fruit began cultivating its own plantations during the 1930s, it did so across Latin America. If one of its divisions succumbed to Panama disease (Fusarium cubens), the company simply abandoned it – and those workers – and destroyed all the infrastructure which would have allowed other companies to begin farming there again once the plants were rid of the fungus.

To top this, the company was not averse to manipulating governments through bribery and intimidation, and sponsoring the odd coup d’état. United Fruit lobbied hard for the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954, when the left-leaning Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán – who had expropriated land claimed by the company – was replaced by the rightwinger Carlos Castillo Armas.

As Pablo Neruda wrote in his poem ‘La United Fruit Co.’ (1950):

When the trumpet sounded
everything was prepared on earth,
and Jehovah gave the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
piece, the central coast of my world,
the delicate waist of America.

It rebaptised these countries
Banana Republics,
and over the sleeping dead,
over the unquiet heroes
who won greatness,
liberty, and banners,
it established an opera buffa:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns,
encouraged envy, attracted
the dictatorship of flies:

It seems that Chiquita still engages in questionable practises, other than doing its best not to pay tax. An investigation into Chiquita’s business dealings in Latin America during the late nineties alleged that the company bribed officials, used dangerous pesticides, employed its workers in appalling conditions, and illegally maintained a monopoly on banana production.

In 2003, Chiquita admitted to paying $1.7 million to the paramilitary group the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which has been listed as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department. The company also allegedly provided AK-47s to the group. Chiquita said that the payments were to protect its workers, but the Colombian authorities reject this, arguing that they were meant to allow Chiquita to continue producing bananas and to discourage labour unrest. It’s difficult to believe Chiquita’s claims as it becomes clear that nearly all of the victims of the AUC were Colombian workers.

So what are earnest locavores to do? They could stop buying bananas altogether, along with other imported produce. I have mixed feelings about this. I really like being able to support farmers in Kenya. We know that the distance that food travels between producer and plate is not necessarily linked to its impact on the environment: a ready meal made in a local factory may have a bigger carbon footprint than string beans grown in Tanzania. Another alternative would be to buy certified, Fair Trade products.

But, even so, Fair Trade can have only a limited impact. The problem with Fair Trade is that it asks consumers – those at the end of the food chain – to make the choices which will change a whole food system. This, particularly during a recession, is absolutely impossible. For real change to happen, we need a fundamental reform of both political and economic systems:

Fair trade alone cannot address the core problem of excessively concentrated markets in which a handful of overpowerful transnational corporations dictate terms of trade and suck profits up into their own coffers.

What is needed for really fair trade is a more equitable distribution of the money in the chain. That will only be achieved with a shift in power which requires political action.

Which is why, oddly, getting Chiquita to pay its taxes is the first step in creating a better and fairer food system.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Warren Belasco, Review of Storefront Revolution: Food Co-ops and the Counterculture by Craig Cox, The Journal of American History, vol. 82, no. 2 (Sep., 1995), pp. 853-854.

Marcelo Bucheli, ‘Enforcing Business Contracts in South America: The United Fruit Company and Colombian Banana Planters in the Twentieth Century,’ The Business History Review, vol. 78, no. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 181-212.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (London: Penguin, [1967] 1973).

Mark Moberg, ‘Crown Colony as Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company in British Honduras, 1900-1920,’ Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 28, no. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 357-381.

Nicholas Shaxon, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, revised ed. (London: Vintage, 2012).

Other sources:

Anthony Ashbolt, ‘From Haight-Ashbury to Soulful Socialism: Culture and Politics in the Movement,’ AJAS, vol. 1, no. 3 (July 1982), pp. 28-38.

Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 1966-1988, revised ed. (London: Cornell University Press, 2007).

Andrew Kirk, ‘Appropriating Technology: The Whole Earth Catalog and Counterculture Environmental Politics,’ Environmental History, vol. 6, no. 3 (Jul., 2001), pp. 374-394.

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