Case #385
Title: Organic Bananas Thrive in the Dominican Republic
Summary: In 1992, in the Dominican Republic mountains near the border with Haiti, there were 250 families living in a state of virtual destitution. They began to burn down the forest in which they lived, to make charcoal for sale. `We didn't really want to do it,' says Angel Custodio. The forest is a living thing, and we were killing it. We knew it couldn't last long. But we had no choice, no other way of making a living. So we asked the Government for help.'

The Government responded. On the coastal plain just outside the small town of Azua it built an entire village for Angel's community, complete with utilities, paved roads, health centre, school, church and halfway decent homes. It also handed over a plot of fallow, fertile land large enough for every family to have its own `parcel' of at least two hectares - sufficient to live from. So the erstwhile charcoal burners set to work growing maize, cassava, ground provisions - and a few bananas. They used no chemicals because, Angel Custodio freely admits, they simply didn't have the money. The area was named Finca 6.

Good natural growing conditions (a dry humidity which discouraged plant diseases and a high water table) and the help of Dutch development aid organizations, specifically a young Dutch woman called Jetta van den Berg allowed Finca 6 to expand and thrive. In 1994, van den Berg set up an export company in the town of Azua called Savid SA - an elision of salud ('health') and vida (`life'). Savid took on the tricky business of exporting an unconventional product: organic bananas. The company now exports to Europe, the US and Japan. This has helped to make the Dominican Republic the world's largest producer of organic bananas, with over 80 per cent of the total. Finca 6 began producing organic bananas for Savid when Savid needed to find additional growers.

At first, Finca 6 wasn?t quite sure how to sort themselves out. Jetta van den Berg and Savid were insistent that they should make up their minds: dealing with each one of them individually would be impossible. `We thought about forming a co-operative,' says Angel Custodio. `But, well, our experience of rural co-operatives hasn't always been very positive. Too much cheating, I'm afraid. So we decided to set up an Association. Each of us still owns our "parcel", but we all belong to the Association, which meets regularly, elects officers to deal with Savid and things that affect us all. For example, if one parcelero doesn't tend the plants properly there's a risk of disease spreading to all of us.' We have to remain organized. We shouldn't think as if the Association won't last long, for just ten years, say. We want it to last much longer than that, and to develop.'

Finca 6 has achieved something very rare: an organic and fairly traded product. (Please see the Full Text Section for details on both organic and fairly traded products.)
Comments: Finca 6 has dedicated itself to the now successful production of organic bananas, proving that both organic and fair trade agricultural products are viable. Some possible problems of their situation: plots are almost entirely dedicated to the production of bananas, creating dependency on a single export crop. The production area is subject to hurricanes. Organic methods are not completely effective against Black Sigatoga - the worst banana disease - or fungus. Sooner or later, the market for organic bananas will prove as treacherous as any other. The packing and refrigerated transport operation is contracted out, so at the heart of the plantation there are low-paid laborers at work. Savid SA itself has just one shareholder - Jetta van den Berg ? and a great deal seems to depend on her. Still, the Finca 6 organic banana experiment is a success at this time and is a good example to other groups wanting to try this type of agricultural production.
Location: Dominican Republic
Action: Agriculture
Setting: Third World
Extent of Action: Local
Categories: Agriculture
Year(s): 1994
Outcome in progress
Source: New Internationalist, October 1999, p.20
Prepared By: sl 1/02
Rating: 1