Posts Tagged ‘Nicaragua’

English: Cuban-American lawyer Juan J. Domingu...

Dole Food Co has copped a well-deserved one-two in two separate Swedish documentaries: Bananas!* (2010) and its unplanned sequel Big Boys Gone Bananas!* (2012)

The first film is about Dole’s continued use of DBCP, a hazardous pesticide, on its plantations in Nicaragua after the manufacturer had ceased production due to greater awareness of its safety risks. They are successfully sued in California under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) by workers who had become infertile.

The second follows the filmmakers’ travails when the company then tries every legal means imaginable to prevent the release of Bananas!* starting with its premiere at the Sundance film festival in Los Angeles. It makes an interesting study of a successful public awareness campaign, although you can see that the filmmakers were clearly not enjoying the ride.

After a long period of setbacks, an unforeseen turning point comes when a Swedish blogger Alfonso Allende hears of the story and refuses a Dole fruit salad at a local burger chain. He writes about it and the chain’s owner, on hearing this, decides he wants to take the high road and drops it from the menu. Dole then (cack-handedly) mounts a full-scale PR offensive in Sweden which is so patently orchestrated that it gets journalists’ backs up. A screening of Bananas!* is organised in the Swedish Parliament, attracting bi-partisan support and from there the film becomes unstoppable.

Order out of chaos

Big Boys Gone Bananas!* makes an interesting counterpoint to the attempted cross-border solidarity in Ericsson covered in my previous post. That too involved Swedes attempting to assist Latin American workers (in Colombia, just a few hundred miles away from the banana plantations of Nicaragua) and the events occurred around the same time, late ’70s – early ’80s.

There, the formalised nature of the attempted co-operation appeared to be its undoing. The outcome was that the Colombian union was, over time, eradicated and the workers left worse off.

In this case, the assistance was quite informal. You can tell that Bananas!* was produced on a very low budget; a lot of the footage is taken off Court TV (the court case largely tells its own story). All of these walk-on characters come together to form a very very informal coalition to get the story out. So loose that many of them have never met. The cast includes the local Nicaraguan union leaders, two American trial lawyers, the producer of The Corporation, WG Film including Erik Gertten who becomes the star of the second film, consumer activist Allende, and sundry journalists and politicians in Sweden. At the outset, no one could have predicted the outcome; I think there is a lesson in that for the campaign planners among us.

When do you decide to sue?

The second film also has a very interesting theme, which I won’t dwell on here, about the influence of PR spin and media control in the United States. A clip is shown of a commentator dismissing Bananas!* on air. If you were a viewer of that program you’d never know any different, but this person later meets Gertten in person and was quite abashed about it.

I was also struck by the hard-headed assessment of one of the lawyers that Dole is not going to be embarrassed into action: “We have to litigate.” It makes me think of the still-ongoing Adidas saga. Not even a giant projection inside London’s Olympic Park and ensuing media coverage has been enough to make that company pay unpaid wages that laid-off workers in Indonesia are owed. I don’t know if legal action is part of War on Want’s end game, but maybe it should be.

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Lobster Trap

Lobster Trap (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve started reading Conor Woodman’s recent book, Unfair Trade. Once finished, I’ll post a full review, however it’s already given me some food for thought.

In the first chapter, Conor explains the perils of lobster diving as practised near Bilwi, Nicaragua. The locals dive many times per day in total ignorance of the risk brought about by such frequent decompressions.

Lobster trapping would be a less hazardous alternative but for the locals, the cost of entry is out of their league (about $1,500: 50 traps at $25-30 a piece).

The hapless divers tried to strike to improve their conditions but their customer, an intermediary food processing company, stared them down. The only other lever that can be pulled are the CSR commitments of the companies at the other end of the supply chain, such as Red Lobster restaurants. Even assuming that a ban on dive-caught lobster is helpful, Conor quickly illustrates how it is impossible to know the origin of any particular lobster and no one has set up any serious form of monitoring.

Just when it seemed like a lost cause, enter microfinance.

Yes it will certainly be better if, in the medium-term, the divers can secure some enforceable right to collective bargaining however if you want to assist people get out of the poverty trap you can do so today by making a loan through Grameen FoundationKiva or a similar organisation. It makes the difference between the likes of Conor’s guide, Wally, having some kind of self-determination and being stuck in a vicious cycle of low wages and poor equipment.

The only criticism I’ve heard of microlending is one study which found that people who received funds easily were less inclined to take care of it. I’m not convinced that this is a widespread issue though.

You won’t see the labour movement promoting this as a solution, which is fair enough since collective bargaining would give the Miskitos the leverage to improve their lot on a widespread basis. However you have to be realistic about how attainable that is in Nicaragua in its present state of economic development. In the meantime, concerned individuals can at least “do something” to give real assistance.

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