Today, our group got to visit the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and explore the Dole banana plantation in Sarapiqui. This was a nice change, as all our previous tours and studies have been focused on coffee. The banana supply chain is quite different from coffee’s, mostly because it is much simpler and has fewer steps. As bananas don’t have to be roasted or processed like coffee does, fruit companies can sell direct to grocery stores or other businesses, where coffee plantations sell first to roasters. The process of planting, harvesting, and preparing for shipment is much easier in bananas than it is in coffee.
One thing I noticed about the bananas is that they were all wrapped in plastic, even while they were still on the tree. Our tour guide told us than many visitors take note of this and voice their concern, and he understands. The plastic is meant to prevent bruising and insects from harming the plant. It’s single use, but Dole has a very good process for recycling all the plastic used, and this process has so much capacity that other fruit farms send their plastic to Dole to be recycled, too. I also noticed that as bananas were harvested, they were hung from a cable that was being pulled by a mule. Dole could easily use tractors or other motor vehicles to pull the bananas into the packing facility, but the use of animal labor reduces carbon emissions on the farm. The mule was much more exciting than a tractor, too.
The one problem with bananas is that each herb (often mistakenly called a tree) is just a clone of another plant. This means that entire plantations are full of genetically identical herbs, and if disease makes its way into the plantation, the entire crop is basically obliterated. To combat this, Dole had very strict safety protocol in place. Anyone who had traveled to a country known to have banana disease in the past six months couldn’t go in. Before we went anywhere, our shoes had to be washed off and we had to step through iodine solution to disinfect them. This protocol was recently implemented by the Costa Rican government to protect the crop from visitors who might accidentally spread disease.
As for the lives of the workers themselves, it seems like banana farmers have a much easier life than coffee farmers do. Dole pays their workers by the day, at around $28. Coffee plantations all pay their workers by the cajuela, a measurement of coffee cherries being picked by one worker. This wage is about $2 per cajuela. I’d rather have the financial security of a banana worker, who wouldn’t need to rely on a good harvesting day to be able to feed their family, and who can work all year round, whereas coffee harvests are only for a few months out of the year. I also found the banana workers to have an easier job, as most didn’t have to lift heavy loads and were working under a roof to protect from the hot sun and hard rains. Neither job would be my dream, but if I had no other opportunities, I think banana farming would be the more stable career.