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Going bananas August 9th, 2015 by

It is one thing to organize smallholders, and quite another to tell them what to do, as we see in this story of how commercial banana growing in Bolivia succeeded and failed at the same time.

The rain forest of central Bolivia, in an area called the Chapare or “the Tropics of Cochabamba” was home to Amazonian peoples like the Yuqui and the Yuracaré until the 1960s, when Bolivia started an ambitious colonization program, supported by USAID, to send Andean peoples to clear the forest and grow crops. One of the most successful of these crops was coca, the raw material for cocaine. A few coca bushes had been grown in the Chapare since the 1700s, and possibly for a long time before that. But that coca was used to make a stimulating chew. By the 20th century coca was entering the global narcotics trade, as cocaine.

Pushed out by drought and closing tin mines, colonists flooded into the Chapare and the coca supply blossomed. This was too much for the US government which in 1983 started a new policy based on the big stick of police repression of coca, and the carrot of “Alternative Development” which meant growing other crops, like bananas and peach palm. USAID built all-weather, cobblestone roads, and organized some of the colonists in associations to grow bananas.

In her 2004 book on the School of the Americas (a US military training camp for Latin American soldiers), anthropologist Leslie Gill discusses Alternative Development. On page 194 she wrote:

“Replacing coca with bananas is in fact a peculiar proposition. In the Chapare there are no stable roads or packing facilities, and technological assistance through the alternative crop development program is rudimentary or non-existent. To believe that peasants of a remote inland region could become competitive exporters is therefore a difficult stretch of the imagination.”

Yet agriculture thrives on imagination, and even at the time Gill’s book was published, the packing sheds were up and running. Gill is an expert on soldiers, not farmers.

Going bananas 1Up to now, all of the association members have access to a packing shed. Little hand rails running from the groves to the sheds make it easier to carry the banana bunches to be packed. The members own their own individual patches of bananas, planted next to each other in large contiguous blocks, near the packing sheds.

If the bananas were real, so was the police repression of coca, and much more brutal. President Evo Morales tells that when he was a young, local leader and a coca grower, the narcotics police (UMOPAR, trained by the US DEA—Drug Enforcement Administration) took him to the woods and beat him senseless, and left him there. He would have died if his friends had not gone looking for him, he told historian Martín Sivak. Other settlers have told me similar stories, about being beaten and robbed by UMOPAR.

The coca growers responded to the repression by organizing roadblocks that shut down all traffic in and out of the region, blocking the main industrial city of Santa Cruz from the government in La Paz, but incidentally forcing the banana growers to watch their fruit rot on the plants.

aa Going bananas 2When Evo became president of Bolivia in 2006; he threw out the DEA, tamed UMOPAR, and in 2008 forced USAID to close its operations in the Chapare, but that was for political not agronomic reasons. The fruit growers’ associations continued, and the extension work to support them was taken over by the local municipal governments, which have always been allied with the coca growers and with Evo. The national government created a program to inspect the bananas, train growers, and certify that the bananas were disease and insect-free, which also eases exports.

The FAO estimates that Bolivia produced 210,000 tons of bananas in 2012. Exports in 2013 were worth $27 million (mostly by truck, to Argentina). Bananas are a success story, but they haven’t eliminated coca, as the US government hoped. Coca and bananas have now found a peaceful coexistence in the Chapare. The local municipalities are intimately tied to their peasant constituents; the mayors are farmers themselves. The local people easily saw that new crops created a diverse, healthier local economy. They opted for bananas and coca, not instead of.

Further reading

Blanes, José 1983 De los Valles al Chapare: Estrategias Familiares en un Contexto de Cambios. Cochabamba: CERES. 191 pp.

Gill, Lesley 2004 The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press. 281 pp.

Jones, James C. 1990 “The Chapare: Farmer Perspectives on the Economics and Sociology of Coca Production.” Binghampton, New York: SARSA/IDA. 86 pp.

Sivak, MartĂ­n 2008 Jefazo: Retrato ĂŤntimo de Evo Morales. Santa Cruz, Bolivia: El PaĂ­s. 336 pp.

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