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'Green' Bananas: Unique Program Saves Rain Forests

Conservationists and farmers set standards that may revolutionize the industry

By Sheila PolsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 1996



AMERICANS love them. In fact, people in the United States enjoy on average 27 pounds of bananas per person each year. But if people care about tropical rain forests, caution some environmentalists, they would forego their favorite fruit.

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Planted often on lands cleared of primary lowland forest, banana farms have traditionally demanded high levels of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and are known to generate mountains of plastic and organic waste. So what's a concerned banana lover to do? Buy "green" bananas, advises the Rainforest Alliance - "ECO-O.K." certified green, that is, guaranteed grown in an environmentally responsible manner.

In 1991, the Rainforest Alliance, an international nonprofit organization that works to conserve tropical rain forests around the world, joined with the Costa Rican Fundacion Ambio (Environment Foundation) to launch the ECO-O.K. Banana Project. Concerned about disappearing rain forests, but convinced that boycotting tropical agricultural commodities was not a reasonable solution, the alliance set out to develop a program to promote forest conservation without destroying local farming economies.

Nearly five years later, the project seems to be working. According to project manager Elizabeth Skinner, ECO-O.K. staff members have worked to certify more than 30 banana farms (a total of more than 20,500 acres) in Costa Rica and Hawaii, including a large percentage of those owned by the world's largest banana grower, Chiquita Brands.

Though the other two major international growers, Del Monte and Dole, have so far chosen not to get involved with the project (they say their own labels are the only symbols of quality needed), they and other smaller growers are making improvements in their operations - improvements that they say meet or exceed the standards set by the alliance.

With more attention given to environmentally conscious growing methods, some say the ECO-O.K. project is already revolutionizing the industry. Not only is ECO-O.K. being praised among environmentalists for its innovative, market-driven approach to conservation, it is also gaining respect in the business world.

In October, the ECO-O.K. Banana Project became the first conservation program ever to receive the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation, an honor named after the man recognized as the "father of modern business management." Frances Hesselbein, president and head of the New York-based Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, cites the way that ECO-O.K. brings together government and industry leaders with conservationists, workers, and consumers. She calls the project a "brilliant and positive example of the emerging multisector partnerships that we believe are the future."

ECO-O.K. is a noble start at establishing a credible system of product evaluation, which is imperative in any certification program, says Theodore Panayotou, director of the International Environment Program at the Harvard Institute for International Development. "Certification provides an incentive for companies to produce in a more environmentally sustainable manner. But it must be a standardized program; otherwise its credibility will be eroded," he says.

Realizing this, the Rainforest Alliance, led by executive director Daniel Katz in New York, along with Chris Wille and Diane Jukofsky (a husband-and-wife team who now direct the ECO-O.K. Project in Costa Rica), spent more than a year meeting with other environmentalists, scientists, and banana-industry and government leaders to develop environmentally sensitive farming standards.