Lawrence S. Grossman. The Political Ecology of Bananas: Contract Farming, Peasants, and Agrarian Change in the Eastern Caribbean. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. xv + 268 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4718-3; $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2410-8.
Reviewed by Stuart McCook (Department of History, The College of New Jersey)
Published on H-LatAm (June, 2000)
Historians of Latin America are familiar with the stories of the vertically integrated banana companies of the early twentieth century -- United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit -- that controlled all aspects of the banana industry. They controlled the land on which the bananas were grown, the labor that harvested the bananas, and the transportation and marketing of the bananas. This vertically integrated structure of production, however, represents only one possible way that banana companies could get a reliable supply of fruit. After World War Two, contract farming became common throughout the British Caribbean and Latin America. Banana companies made contracts with peasant farmers (or farmers' associations) to buy all bananas that met specified standards. The banana companies thus obtained a reliable supply of fruit while avoiding many of the costs and risks associated with owning land or hiring labor. One the other side, peasant farmers got access to credit and technology through the buyer, and had guaranteed markets for their bananas. The Political Ecology of Bananas discusses contract farming in the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent from World War Two to the mid-1990s.
Recent historical writing on the banana industry has begun to focus on fine-grained analyses of power relations in the plantations. These analyses show that local actors often exercised considerable agency and autonomy. Grossman, a geographer, explores the tensions between structural forces and local agency in contract farming by using the framework of political ecology. Political ecology "emphasizes that human-environment relations at local, regional, and global scales can be understood only by examining the relationships of patterns of resource use to political-economic forces." (p. 18) While scholars of agrarian change have often equated the growth of contract farming with the industrial process of "deskilling," Grossman argues that industry and agriculture are very different processes because agriculture, unlike industry, is environmentally rooted. Because agriculture is environmentally rooted, contract farmers must respond to a wide range of local environmental conditions. This makes it impossible to deskill the agricultural process in the same way that the industrial process has been deskilled. (p. 14) Environmental forces, therefore, help shape the relationship between peasants, the state, and capital. Grossman also uses the political ecology framework to question structural analyses of globalization, which have tended to minimize the role of state and local forces, and to paint a picture of a passive periphery. By studying agricultural production literally from the ground up, he argues that "we cannot see the patterns associated with contract farming as a reflection of the forces of globalization." (p. 18) Although globalization might seem to be a homogenizing force, at the local level of production, Grossman still finds local agency, variability, contingency, and diversity.
The first three chapters give a broad historical overview of the banana industry in the Windward Islands. Grossman locates the origins of the Windward Islands' banana industry in attempts by the British government to limit U.S. influence in the Caribbean in the twentieth century. After World War Two, Great Britain provided a protective umbrella to the banana industry in the Windward Islands by imposing tariffs and quotas on "dollar fruit," bananas grown by U.S.-owned companies in Latin America. After 1954, Geest, an English company, contracted to buy the entire banana production of the Windward Islands, distributing and marketing it exclusively in Great Britain. The guaranteed and protected British market sustained the banana industry in the Windward Islands (sometimes unsteadily) until the early 1990s. Although the protected markets offered Caribbean banana growers some security, they were still in a weak position. Grossman locates the weakness of the Vincentian producers partly in unequal relations with Geest. The company frequently dictated the terms of the contracts, shifting many of the obligations onto the contract framers. Another major source of weakness in banana production was St. Vincent's environment. Between 1955 and 1997, no fewer than twenty hurricanes or tropical storms, twelve droughts, and four large-scale outbreaks of diseases or pests struck St. Vincent. (p. 63) A new source of weakness emerged in the early 1990s. The quotas and tariff barriers that had propped up the Windward Islands' banana industry began to erode after Great Britain entered the European Common Market. Further pressures from GATT and the World Trade Organization eroded the protected markets even further.
Chapters four through seven give a fine-grained analysis of banana production in St. Vincent. Grossman's fieldwork centered on the community of Restin Hill, in a mountain valley a short drive from St. Vincent's capital city of Kingstown. After a chapter describing daily life and social structure in the village, Grossman devotes a chapter each to the questions of labor, food, and the environment. Grossman argues that the labor process in contract banana farming does not reflect "deskilling" or "disguised wage labor." (p. 152) Changing labor requirements in banana production reflected demands for higher-quality fruit from Geest. Consumers in British supermarkets came to expect fruits that were of uniform size and free of blemishes. As a result, the entire process of banana cultivation, harvesting, and packaging became much more complex. Geest shifted more of these processes to the contract farmers in St. Vincent. The efforts to standardize banana production produced more complex, rather than a simpler, organization of labor. Contract farmers relied on a combination of household labor, wage labor, and "swap labor" (in which labor is provided with the expectation of reciprocation in the near future), to undertake the increasingly complex process of growing, harvesting, and packaging the bananas.
Similarly, Grossman finds local factors were important in explaining the decline of domestic food production. As banana exports grew, domestic food production declined, requiring an increase in food imports. Scholars have commonly argued that the growth of export crops caused the decline of domestic food production. Grossman argues that the relationship between export agriculture and domestic agriculture is much more complex. In St. Vincent, the growth of food imports was not directly linked to the growth in banana exports. Export crops and food crops did not necessarily compete for the same fields: Contract farmers in St. Vincent often intercropped their food crops and their banana crops. Grossman argues that the decline of domestic food production was at least partly a function of domestic demand. The Vincentians he interviewed found that imported food to be cheaper than domestic foods. They also claimed it had a longer shelf life, was easier to prepare, and tasted better than domestically produced food. Local environmental and cultural factors also played a role in limiting state attempts to regulate banana cultivation. As efforts to standardize the final product have grown since World War Two, so have the attempts to standardize production. While the Saint Vincent Banana Growers Association attempted to impose a 'uniform regime of agrochemical use,' Grossman found that pesticide practices in Restin Hill varied considerably depending on the individual 'preferences, needs, and perceptions,' of each farmer. Contract farmers adjusted the application of pesticides to reflect the varying environmental conditions of production on each farm. Grossman concludes with a discussion of the persistence of local forces in the face of globalization. The political ecology framework helps Grossman look at the "interaction among local and global forces, political economy, and the environment." (p. 211) While he recognizes the importance of global forces of homogenization, he argues that the process of globalization ultimately plays out in particular localities. Paradoxically, localities often react to the forces of standardization in non-standard ways.
One of the great strengths of Grossman's study is that it treats agriculture as an environmental process as well as a social process. Of the three factors of production, historians have traditionally focused on labor and capital, while placing land in the background. Grossman convincingly shows that the history of the interactions of labor and capital cannot be fully understood without also paying attention to the land, or more broadly, the environment. His presentation of the environment as source of variability shows how it is possible to discuss human-environment interactions without falling into traditional environmental determinism. In this, his analysis complements other recent histories of the banana industry which treat the environment as an integral part of the analysis, such as John Soluri's dissertation on banana agriculture in Honduras. It also complements environmental histories of tropical commodities such as Warren Dean's classic study on rubber agriculture in Brazil.
Grossman could have deepened the political ecological perspective to look at larger-scale interactions between nature and society in St. Vincent. For example, his analysis implicitly treats natural disasters as external events. Recent work in the anthropology of natural disasters, however, argues that they are never simply natural. In particular, the vulnerability of given societies (and given modes of production) to natural disasters is socially constructed.
As he notes when listing the many disasters that have struck the island, "the Windwards environment is hardly ideal for banana production" (p. 61). In spite of this, the British and St. Vincent governments continued to promote banana agriculture. Even though hurricanes that struck St. Vincent were not the result of human agency, the pattern of destruction they left behind reflected human choices about how to organize their environments and their modes of production. Root crops for domestic consumption, for example, were far less vulnerable to hurricanes than the fragile banana trees. Similarly, Grossman could have developed a more detailed environmental explanation of the spread of pesticide use (p. 192). Planters began to use more pesticides at least partly because pest infestations were becoming more commonplace. Pesticide infestations became more commonplace because the intensive nature of banana agriculture created large, homogeneous agricultural ecosystems that were ideal for promoting promoted the spread of diseases and pests. Wherever intensive banana agriculture was practiced, diseases and pests quickly became a major problem within a few years after the initial planting. The outbreaks of diseases and pests in the banana industry, then, also reflected human choices about how to organize the natural world for economic production.
The Political Ecology of Bananas is an eloquent addition to the growing literature on the history of tropical commodities. Grossman's argument moves fluidly from the local to the regional to the global, making the convincing case that scholars should not lose sight of local forces even if they are studying larger issues. It complements recent work by historians of Latin America, who have also begun to study unity and diversity in agricultural regimes. The recent volumes Coffee, Society, and Power in Latin America  and The Second Conquest of Latin America  are good examples of this new approach. Similarly, Grossman's study starts to explore similarities and differences in banana agriculture within the British Empire, and between the British Caribbean and Latin America. Comparing agricultural regimes between regions, between different political spheres of influence, is a topic that deserves much more systematic attention in the literature. Most important, however, Grossman's thorough fieldwork and sharp analysis reminds scholars that agricultural regimes develop in particular environments and particular places. Because of this, it is important not to lose sight of the local, even when analyzing the global.
. John Soluri. "Landscape and Livelihood: An Agroecological History of Export Banana Growing in the Honduras, 1870-1975." (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1998).
. Warren Dean, Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber, An Environmental History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
. William Roseberry, Lowell Gudmundson, and Mario Samper Kutschbach, eds. Coffee, Society, and Power in Latin America. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
. Steven Topik and Allen Wells, The Second Conquest of Latin America: Coffee, Henequen, and Oil during the Export Boom, 1850-1930. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
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Stuart McCook. Review of Grossman, Lawrence S., The Political Ecology of Bananas: Contract Farming, Peasants, and Agrarian Change in the Eastern Caribbean.
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