Food Justice Travel Log
“How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”
So goes the Wendell Berry quote that often slaps me in the face when I travel internationally (rarely these days). I recently returned from a week on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The road from San José to the port of Limón is practically ground zero for the banana monopoly created by the United Fruit Company in the late 19th century, finally morphing into Chiquita Brands International Incorporated in 1989. The history of the cultivated banana and how it became the world’s fourth major staple after rice, wheat and milk reads like a veritable soap opera; murder, suicide, labor strikes, bribery, corruption, violent coup d’état’s and an all-out banana war between the US and the European Union in the late 1990’s, making for a seemingly unbelievable story. Sadly, the same telenovela seems to constantly replay itself in the interest of vast profits for government-bought corporations and death and destruction for the earth and its’ indigenous and exploited masses.
Travels in other banana republics including Guatemala and Panama had already opened my eyes to the grand scale environmental destruction and human rights abuses multinational companies like United Fruit have wrought (and continue to wreak) on the planet, local indigenous populations, and food economies. While living with a Guatemalan family and studying Spanish in the small town of Flores, I was shocked to be drinking Nescafé instant coffee (along with the babies) in a country with some of the best coffee in the world; alas it is unaffordable for the local population. In Puerto Rico a few years back I was eager for fresh fruit and vegetables after too much easily accessible fried foods. An innkeeper handed me an avocado imported from the Dominican Republic. More than 85% of what Puerto Ricans eat is imported, although they are currently working on their minimal agricultural sector to increase healthy food production. Puerto Ricans have staggering rates of diabetes at 1 in 10 of the population.
The road from San José to Limón (a four hour drive) is literally lined with banana plantations and shipping containers. Each bunch of bananas on each tree is covered in a blue plastic bag. My local hostess/friend, Molly, said these bags are full of chemicals to protect them from disease and pests. Once you get to the port of Limón, ships loaded with refrigerated bananas are constantly departing to their various destinations around the world. I contemplated this one morning as I sipped local coffee and ate a local banana (a rare occurrence as I live in temperate Maryland) purchased from an organic farmer at the farmer’s market in Puerto Viejo. This banana was small, bruised and insanely sweet and delicious (I have to admit bananas are not at the top of my list when it comes to fruit choice.) Similarly I despised carrots for much of my life until a farming friend presented one to me fresh from the earth; again, sweet deliciousness, like no carrot I’d ever eaten before.
The morning before this contemplation over a sweet and beat up banana, I had snorkeled out to the coral reef with this warning from Molly, “our reef is in recovery from the destruction from the banana plantations, so don’t think it sucks.” Indeed, it was some of the saddest looking reef I’ve ever seen; I didn’t see even one fish. Deforestation and chemical runoff from the plantations have caused great damage, but the country is putting restrictions in place to help restoration efforts. Fortunately Costa Rica does not seem to be experiencing murders of its’ environmental activists, like other countries in Central America, Brazil, Africa and beyond; most recently the murder in Honduras of award-winning indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres, who had been organizing against a hydroelectric dam construction supported by multinational corporations as well as the Honduran and US governments. “By no means is the problem getting better,” said Billy Kyte, senior campaigner at Global Witness, an organization that has been tracking deaths of activists, whom the nonprofit calls environmental defenders. He noted the issue seems to be a growing problem, particularly in America as indigenous lands are encroached upon. “The increase in demand of natural resources is fueling ever more violence.”
By contrast, since demilitarizing in 1948, Costa Rica has become one of the more “safe” and “stable” countries in Central America, attracting loads of US investment and ex-pats. I put the words “safe” and “stable” in quotes because I feel many privileged US-ers have skewed notions of comfort and safety and thus choose to visit the Global South from the perceived safety of a cruise or a resort rather than interact with local populations. I had always heard that Costa Rica was on the cutting edge of sustainability and from my travels in other less Americanized, less expensive Central American countries, I know there is a fine line between sustainability and poverty. Many folks are forced to be sustainable because they lack resources and fossil fuel based energy sources to be anything but. Close to a quarter of the population lives in poverty, almost double the poverty rate of the US. Costa Rica fairs well internationally in sustainability measures and plans to become the 1st carbon neutral nation by 2021. It is the Global North that extracts Earth’s resources and exploits the Global South’s land and labor so that no market or desire is left unrealized. The low-income people of color of the Global South are the innocent bystanders of globalization and neo-liberal policies like NAFTA and US-backed “aid” who will continue to be disproportionately affected by climate change, food shortages, fluctuations in cost of food and energy commodities, and destruction of both the environment and indigenous sovereignty. Indeed there are many agricultural demonstration projects, education centers and non-profits doing their thing, but there is much more governments can do, not to mention entities like the World Trade Organization, to protect local land and people.
I witnessed a small slice of some great work being done in Costa Rica at Centro Ashé in Manzanillo on the south Caribbean. Director, Molly Meehan Brown, works with the local population to promote their work around ethnobotony, medicinal herbal education and application, healthy cooking, and eco-tourism that puts tourist dollars directly into the pockets of local and indigenous people. With centers in both Southern Maryland and Costa Rica, Centro Ashé is rooted in community and dedicated to keeping classes affordable & accessible in order to keep the knowledge of food, herbal medicine, seeds, and healing traditions alive and vital. Centro Ashé programs act as catalysts to build community, land-based and traditional knowledge. They celebrate the richness and diversity of folk herbalism across cultures while providing supportive and practical knowledge. Their teachers are all local herbalists, farmers, and plant people. I had the opportunity to sit in on a plant talk with a local Afro-Caribbean medicine woman and visiting Plant and Healers International, who connect people, plants and healers around the world (I’m excited to start their online botany class, a donation-based course within my price range in a time when so many courses I’d like to take are simply out of my price range.) It was cool to watch the group bouncing ideas off each other, learning different names for the same plants, critically analyzing western ideas about the safety of plant use, identifying an unfamiliar edible fruit tree in the middle of town (Screw Pine!) and building international and local place-based resilience. We have the skills, resources and creativity to make our shared lives truly amazing, diverse (both bio and beautifully human), just, healthy and delicious.
Upon our return we went to retrieve my car at the house it was parked at. On the kitchen counter was a bunch of bananas with a Chiquita sticker that read, “Costa Rica.” My partner and I looked dubiously at each other. As consumers we can choose to support equal exchange organic farmers, when it is available. We make sacrifices in our fixed income life so that we can feel good about what we put into our bodies. We don’t always get it right (near impossible to do so), but it feels right to try, for our health, the planet’s health, workers’ health, and because we know our choices aren’t just personal choices; they affect others. And what incredible collective power we DO have to shape the way the world is used by making the choices and changes we need to create a more just and environmentally friendly food system with a heavy local flavor! A delicious revolution indeed.
For more check out this article by Phyllis Robinson about the true cost of bananas.