The Bananeros - or "Banana Men" - were the gringos who tamed the Central American jungle and established the banana industry that we know today. They were railroad builders and cowboys, botanists and explorers. In my book, I explain the more-than-problematic history of the bananero culture, and how it led to a century of misery and bloodshed. Here's a first-hand account by one of the few surviving bananeros I met during a visit to Honduras...
THE NIGHT AFTER I VISITED FHIA, THE EXPERIMENTAL BANANA FARM IN HONDURAS, Juan Fernando Aguilar and his wife picked me up in their battered pickup truck; we drove past a few roadside markets – huge bunches of plantain hung, old style, in open-front, tin and plywood shacks – to meet one of the last “United Fruit” men living in Honduras; "George" (I've changed his name) was burly and cheerful, and I instantly recognized a New York accent, surprising him, because he hadn’t been to the city in 50 years. We sat on the patio of tiny restaurant outside of San Pedro Sula, the city closest to Chiquita’s old La Lima compound. We ate fried fish and salad with shredded cabbage and tomatoes, washed down with bottles of the local Salva Vida – “Lifesaver” – beer. I found myself alternately charmed and horrified as he described his four decades working for the big banana company. The tale wasn’t terribly heavy with political awareness. It felt more like I was listening to a nostalgic boy, spinning tales of the Wild West.
“United Fruit came to this country,” he told me, “and brought money and jobs – and all we took out were bananas.”
George raised his family here; his children spoke fluent Spanish. He’d been recruited directly out of college, working in the Chiquita research department in pest control; one of his experiments involved figuring out exactly how much leaf a banana plant needed before its productivity was reduced. This was key, because many banana diseases attack – and destroy – leaves. “We spent day after day in the fields, cutting the plants down with scissors,” he said.
A jukebox near us was playing loud, Latin American rap, but the crowd at the restaurant was thinning out, so the waiter turned the music down, which meant that George didn’t have to shout. As he spoke, I noticed Aguilar, and several FHIA colleagues who’d joined us, listening intently. None of them had worked for the big banana company. They were native Latin Americans, coming from academic backgrounds.
I sensed that they’d heard these stories before, but that each time, they found them incredible – and, at times, horrifyingly compelling.
“At United Fruit,” he said, “we were like Gods. We could do anything we wanted. In most companies, drinking and whoring costs you your career – but not this one!” George took another sip of beer. I felt a little embarrassed, knowing that Honduras, today, has more HIV infections than any other nation in our hemisphere, with the exception of Haiti. George continued his story.
“We made this country a colorful damn place,” he said. “The company had guest houses stocked with booze, and women for the visitors. I was a very strict Baptist growing up, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.” He smiled. “The company supplied everything – right down to silverware and maids, to cabins at Lake Yojoa. It was a Country Club.” He’d spent time helping the company map out new banana plantations, and new banana towns. It was nothing less than taming the jungle, and everything around it. “When we went into a new place, we did two things right away – we put in a golf course, and we planted bananas.”
George smiled again; I’d ordered another round of beers, and the music had stopped. Our group was alone in the restaurant, now, but there was no sign that we were being hurried out. For the moment, george seemed to be retaking the country, single-handedly, for just an evening. “You might get the feeling I like this place,” he said, pausing to fill his glass. He sighed, then smiled. “I love this place,” he said.
HIS AFFECTION FOR HONDURAS WAS BUILT ON COLOSSAL HEARTBREAK, of course; but it wasn’t hard to see why it existed. He’d spent almost every minute of his adult life being treated like a king. The Gros Michel era – from the moment Lorenzo Dow Baker shipped his first load of bananas to Boston, until the final changeover to Cavendish – had been an adventure.
But it wasn’t honest, George said. He knew that. George arrived at La Lima just as the Gros Michel crisis was reaching its final act. “The farms were starting to look ratty,” he said. “That was a surprise, because the Gros Michel banana was a tough, tough mother fucker.”
That was true. But george was also talking about the company that was made by the banana – about the people who built it, who had learned nothing but ruthlessness, and so believed that there was nothing but ruthlessness, with other options so inconceivable that they didn’t exist. And somehow, deep within, george knew that. After the changeover to Cavendish, he’d been a victim cuts in United Fruit’s research budget, and was kicked upstairs. “Once I became a manager,” he said, “I understood something: that science is the only honest job in this world. It’s the only place where the only thing you do is look for the truth.”
George comes into FHIA every few days, now; his old office is kept for him, and he’s occasionally called on to identify an odd insect – one often brought in by a local coffee or cocoa farmer, concerned that a new parasite may have arrived. But he understood what the banana faces today, and fifty years after the end of the Gros Michel, had understood the urgency.
“To this day,” he said, “the company forgets that the banana is a living thing, and not just something that a business manufactures. I saw how the old timers resisted the change to Cavendish until it was almost too late – and it wasn’t certain, after we switched, that we’d be able to save anything. We were lucky to do it.”
THE BOTTOM LINE WAS ALWAYS THE SAME, whether it came from an old banana man, like George, or a biotech researcher who’d never set foot on a banana plantation. The key to a stronger banana comes from the past, from thousands of years of stored genetic material, and from the future - from understand what technology can do, and what people need. “To make a new banana,” George said, “you have to go back in time – and forward – all at once.”
Is it possible?
I noticed that the FHIA researchers were now listening very carefully. I thought about their success rate, which was better than any other conventional breeder in the world, but which still had yielded less than two dozen viable hybrids since Phil Rowe arrived just around the time George had.
Over the course of several hours, I’d come to expect – and even appreciate – George's bluntness: the truthfulness, I suppose, of a scientist, even when he was speaking of things that had little to do with science. But now, he was talking about evolution and biology, about the way things grow around the world. In just a few words, he summed up everything I’d understood, or would understood, about bananas. “The problem is that things like Panama Disease change, just like everything does – except our bananas. We’ve made them so that they don’t change. That’s what makes them what they are. That’s what I meant about the past and the future. We’re trying to change something that we’ve made perfect, in the past; that has become imperfect, today; and that will need to be more perfect tomorrow.”
He shook his head.
“One day, it will come here,” he said.
But won’t a better banana stop it?
George sighed. “Of course,” he said. He stared at his friends, and lowered his voice a little. “But I learned something when we started trying to replace the Gros Michel. After all the work we did, the Cavendish wasn’t something we made – it was something we found. It was in somebody’s garden. I watched scientists come and go. What we all came to understand was that no other banana was possible.”
The check arrived; the director of FHIA quickly grabbed it; the table was cleared, and we were almost ready to go. George leaned across the table at me, lowering his voice for the first time.
“No other banana was possible,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll live to find out if it ever will be.”
Dinner was over. George seemed a bit abashed; he didn’t want to end our conversation on such a downward note. He shook my hand an smiled. “Remember,” he said. “We were banana men. Colorful, colorful banana men.”