'Green' Bananas: Unique Program Saves Rain Forests

Conservationists and farmers set standards that may revolutionize the industry

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.

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.

The final standards regulate pesticide use, ban clear-cutting of primary rain forests, require growers to plant trees to control erosion and provide wildlife habitat, and dictate the management of plastic and organic waste. The standards also require that farm workers receive safety equipment and training, health checkups, and appropriate housing.

THE broad set of standards now used by ECO-O.K. to evaluate farming operations sets the program apart. After their initial assessment, field technicians - including biologists, agronomists, geographers, and foresters - let farmers know where they fall short of standards, then work with them to develop ways to reduce the negative environmental impacts of their operation.

To meet certification standards on its farms, Chiquita has worked to protect forest preserves, plant buffer zones of trees along waterways, recycle the large blue plastic bags used to cover bunches of ripening bananas, and improve facilities for workers.

According to Dave McLaughlin, senior director of productivity and environmental affairs for Chiquita Brands in San Jose, Calif., his company will have certified all 29 of its Costa Rican banana operations early this year and is working on bringing all those in other countries up to ECO-O.K. standards.

"Certification is a long process," says Magnes Welsh, director of public relations for Chiquita, "but we feel it is very worthwhile for the long term. What's good for the environment is good for our business."

What information is ECO-O.K. giving consumers? While most certified bananas are now sold in Europe and Hawaii, expect to see them in the continental US this year, Ms. Skinner says.


Farmer is 'Top Banana' in ECO-O.K. Scoring System

Volker Ribniger owns and operates Platanera Rio Sixaola, the first ECO-O.K. banana farm, near the town of Bribri on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Certified in 1993, the 272-acre plantation is a model of responsible low-impact banana farming for the many journalists, scientists, and banana farmers who often visit. The computerized scoring system that ECO-O.K. uses to rate banana operations (a farm must earn at least 800 out of a possible 1,000 points to be certified) gave his farm the only perfect score of the 32 ECO-O.K. farms surveyed. To win that rating, Mr. Ribniger:

*Cut no primary rain forest to create his plantation.

*Uses organic waste for compost and plants a cover crop under banana plants to enrich the soil and prevent erosion.

*Uses no herbicides or insecticides, and sprays fungicide only as necessary (traditional farms routinely spray every month).

*Planted trees along the road bordering his farm to create a valuable "biological corridor" for wildlife.

*Filters the water used to wash and sort bananas before it runs into a nearby wild stream.

*Provides training, good pay, and housing for employees, as well as a packing plant deemed clean, safe, and well-organized.

Ribniger, originally from Germany, sells his bananas in Europe, where ecologically grown produce is much in demand. He's a "maverick in the banana business," says Chris Wille, ECO-O.K.'s director in Costa Rica, who recalls how Ribniger brought his workers with him to the certification ceremony in 1993 because they "shared his commitment to protecting the environment."

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