By Brittany Wienke, Communications & Media Associate, Rainforest Alliance
Driving down the dirt and gravel roads that crisscross the lowlands of eastern Costa Rica, all you can see for miles are the wide leaves of banana plants. For nearly 100 years, bananas were the essential currency of this country—the crop by which companies succeeded or failed, workers made their living, and a driving force behind infrastructure and development.
But for many of those 100 years, banana farms in Latin America were infamous for their disregard for their workers and the surrounding environment. Throughout the 20th century, expansion was the name of the game in the banana industry, with little concern for how such growth would impact the local landscape and the people who lived nearby. Waterways were clogged with the plastic bags used to protect developing bunches of bananas—or worse, the bags were burned. Workers were often denied the right to organize, and wages were low. Use of agrochemicals harmed the soil, water, and threatened workers’ health. Companies continued to clear natural landscapes to make way for vast fields of banana plants.
In the early 1990s, the Rainforest Alliance decided to do something to change the business-as-usual mindset on banana farms. Chris Wille, a founder of the Rainforest Alliance, and other Rainforest Alliance staff wrote Eco-OK, the first iteration of Rainforest Alliance farm certification. Though the name of the certification program has changed in the past 25 years, the central tenets of the standard remain the same: protect landscapes, wildlife, and workers.
Back in the ‘90s, Wille called a meeting with banana growers in Costa Rica, who politely listened to his ideas for a more sustainable future. Most felt that Wille’s ideas were naïve, or too expensive to implement. But a few independent banana growers, along with Chiquita, one of the companies represented at that meeting, felt differently. They saw the potential and business sense of certification and decided to work with the Rainforest Alliance to implement more sustainable practices and get farms Rainforest Alliance Certified™, meeting the rigorous criteria for social and environmental responsibility set out in the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard.
A lot has changed in the decades since that initial meeting. On a recent trip to a certified banana farm in Costa Rica, the benefits of certification were evident from social, environmental, and economic perspectives. Drainage ditches ran clear and were filled with fish and aquatic plants, and plastic bags that once congested waterways are diverted to a recycling facility. Because of measures taken to keep the soil fertile, such as manual weed control, increased ground cover to prevent erosion, and regular applications of organic matter, the farm rarely needs renovation and old plants continue to produce at high levels throughout the years. Limited agrochemical applications help protect soil and workers alike, and outside showers and laundry facilities wash away any lingering chemicals on skin or protective equipment. Workers on this farm are paid above minimum wage, and worker housing is clean and sturdy, with flowering shrubs and fruit trees.
While it hasn’t been easy for businesses to meet the comprehensive Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agricultural Standard, improvements and investments in farms bring benefits in a myriad of different ways. Dole, as one example, has found that productivity on many farms has increased, while operational costs decreased, and the company has enjoyed recognition for its commitment to responsible social and environmental practices. Meanwhile, thousands of other banana producers have continued to adopt better management practices on farms all over the world.
When you consider bananas are the world’s fourth-biggest crop in terms of production value, and more than ten billion bananas are exported each year, the scope of this sustainability trend comes into focus. The movement towards a more responsibly grown banana, with the Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network on the front lines, grows sweeter every year.