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Chiquita Reaps Better Bananas

<p>During the past decade, Chiquita Brands International, the company that invented the banana industry, has been gradually reinventing it, one bunch at a time. By Tensie Whelan</p>

During the past decade, Chiquita Brands International, the company that invented the banana industry, has been gradually reinventing it, one bunch at a time. By Tensie Whelan

Chiquita Brands International has been gradually reinventing the banana business, one bunch at a time. Driving the company’s efforts has been the Rainforest Alliance’s environmental and social certification program monitored by local conservation groups, which in 1991 developed a set of farm-management standards. Chiquita began testing the practicality of these standards on two farms in Costa Rica shortly after they were established. Eight years later, Chiquita earned 100% certification by the Rainforest Alliance of all company-owned farms in Latin America. Today, Chiquita is the only global banana company to have undertaken and met these stringent environmental and social criteria, an achievement that is widely hailed throughout the conservation and business communities.

Growing a Better Banana

Bananas are big business. The most important export fruit in the world -- and the fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat and maize -- bananas have a market of nearly $5 billion a year. Fresh, mashed, split and in shakes, they remain a favorite in North America and Europe -- and Chiquita provides over 25% of them.

Like all other agriculture, banana production has caused a host of environmental and social problems over the years. Grown in a hot, moist climate, banana plants are vulnerable to the leaf fungus Black Sigatoka. Charges of poor waste disposal, indiscriminate use of pesticides, deforestation and poor working conditions have also plagued the industry.

In an effort to reduce environmental impacts and increase community benefits of the crop -- which is a pillar of the economy and a major employer in many tropical countries -- the Rainforest Alliance and conservation groups in Central America met with scientists, industry representatives and farmers over a two-year period to establish a set of nine guiding principles to promote the environmental sustainability of banana farms. These standards include zero tolerance for deforestation, reduction in pesticide use, protection of wildlife, conservation of water and soils, better pay, environmental education, housing and safety standards for workers.

The program is managed by the Sustainable Agriculture Network, a coalition of nonprofit conservation groups coordinated by the Rainforest Alliance. The SAN also works with certification of coffee, cacao, citrus, flowers and ferns, as well as bananas. The Rainforest Alliance and its SAN partners send specially trained inspectors to review banana farms according to the detailed, objective and comprehensive standards. Farms that meet this strict set of comprehensive agricultural standards are certified and receive the Rainforest Alliance seal of approval, a tool that helps their fruit stand out in the marketplace. Certified farmers have better access to specialty buyers and niche markets, and can get their products to eco-friendly consumers. In 1995, the Rainforest Alliance won the fifth annual Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation for this program.

In 1992, Chiquita began piloting the project in its Costa Rican operations. After implementing a host of new programs, the first Chiquita farms were certified in 1994. These improvements included planting buffer zones along streams, managing all wastes, filtering process waters from the packing plants, recycling plastics and agrochemical containers, protecting forest patches, repairing housing, sanitary facilities, storage facilities and other infrastructure, and implementing aggressive new practices to reduce and control agrochemical use. The following year, all of Chiquita’s Costa Rican operations received the Rainforest Alliance’s seal of approval.

In October 2000, Chiquita achieved certification of 100% of its company-owned farms. In 2001, the company achieved re-certification of all its 119 farms, covering 69,000 acres or 28,000 hectares. In addition, many of the independent farms that supply the company with bananas have achieved certification. The production from these farms amounts to 15% of the total bananas exported from Latin America. It covers 90% of Chiquita’s banana volume into Europe and approximately two-thirds of the volume to North America.

Annually, Chiquita recycles or reuses nearly 80%, or about 3,200 metric tons, of the plastic bags and twine used on the company’s farms. It has conserved forest patches and has planted more than 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) of trees to establish forest buffer zones along rivers and roadways. Pesticide use has been reduced and is strictly controlled. The company has planted groundcover, which reduces soil erosion and virtually eliminates the need for herbicides. Workers have clean and safe conditions, showers, bathrooms and eating areas. Workers and their families have decent housing and access to health care, education, training and recreational facilities.

A Fruitful Evolution

Chiquita has demonstrated that environmental and social issues can be constructively addressed while gaining efficiencies on the farm and keeping production high. By sharing expertise and reaching a mutual understanding of each other’s needs and constraints, it is possible for non-governmental organizations, producers and other stakeholders to achieve practical, on-the-ground solutions to complex social and environmental problems.
Rainforest Alliance-certified farms, whether managed by Chiquita or another producer, are among the most productive banana farms in the world. Although Chiquita has invested more than $20 million to make required capital improvements, it has reduced banana production costs by more than $100 million over the same period, partly due to reduced agrochemical inputs, improved worker health and safety, and other benefits of the environmental program.

“In addition to gaining improved morale and productivity in our farms, we have saved money in the process. Everybody wins -- the workers, the company, and the environment, not to mention the Rainforest Alliance, which deserves enormous credit for showing us a better way. Now we are applying a similar model to social performance in our banana divisions,” said Bob Kistinger, president and chief operating officer of the Chiquita Fresh Group.

Motivated by its experience with the Rainforest Alliance, Chiquita implemented a company-wide code of conduct and is training all employees in the company’s new core values and worker rights and responsibilities. They have published two corporate responsibility reports (the second one in November 2002), which have been widely hailed as frank, honest and straightforward. For the last few years, they have undertaken a series of regular internal social audits of all their farms, training staff to evaluate farms according to their own standards and SA8000, the most rigorous and verifiable social standard currently available. In 2001, Chiquita also signed a historic labor rights framework agreement with regional and international unions, reaffirming the company's commitment to respect the core labor conventions of the International Labour Organization and to meet regularly to discuss problems and progress.

Now that all of Chiquita’s owned farms meet the Rainforest Alliance standards, the company is encouraging and assisting its supplier farms in making the necessary environmental and social improvements. Under the watchful eye of SAN inspectors, banana farm managers in several countries, including Guatemala, the Philippines and the Ivory Coast, are cleaning up, planting trees, controlling pollution and changing long-held farm management practices. Today, 33% of the fruit supplied to Chiquita from independent growers comes from Rainforest Alliance certified farms, and the company expects that number to increase significantly in the next few years.

The Rainforest Alliance and SAN partners inspect farms at least twice annually for re-certification, and one audit per farm is a surprise. Since some farms have been meeting the standards for years, the Rainforest Alliance changed its scoring in 2001 to continue to challenge long-standing participants. The criteria are made stricter each year to take advantage of new technologies and improved practices. The company, together with NGOs and government agencies, is now tackling community development and local and regional conservation priorities as well as looking for ways to reduce water consumption.

In this era of great need for corporate responsibility, this partnership is one example of for-profit and nonprofit organizations working together to improve the environment and worker health and safety while at the same time improving bottom-line business performance.

Tensie Whelan is executive director at Rainforest Alliance. This article was first published in November 2002.

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