The sprawling old compound in Honduras still houses a small set of Chiquita offices, but the company's presence in the region is better symbolized by the oversize, fading logo-a blown-up version of the sticker you find on your grocery-store fruit-painted on the side of the com-pany's now run-down country club.
Chiquita and Dole still farm thousands of acres here, but they're more absentee landlords than the all-powerful entities they once were. When I had dinner at the club, Leonel Castillo told me that the dining room we were sitting in was "the place where governments were once made-and broken." That controversial legacy, which led to the coining of the term "banana republic," is one of the reasons the major banana companies are generally unforthcoming with the media. Chiquita does nod to the old days on its Web site, where a chronology page called "Our Complex History" acknowledges, alongside more positive achievements, dubious acts: the company's participation in the 1954 overthrow of Guate- malan president Jacobo Arbenz Guzmn; the 1961 use of its corporate steamship fleet to support the failed Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion; antitrust lawsuits; the suicide of United Fruit chairman Eli Black (he jumped from the 42nd story of New York's Pan Am building) after a 1975 bribery scandal. Banana companies remain the focus of environmental and labor activism, although both Chiquita and Dole have worked in recent years to have their operations certified by groups such as the Rainforest Alliance.
There's no doubt that workers at banana plantations are better treated than they were in the 1950s, when Honduran author Ramn Amaya Amador published an allegorical novel called Green Prison, but some critics say the industry has a long way to go. The biggest problem, says Alistair Smith, coordinator of BananaLink, a British activist organization, is the continued use of pesticides, which have huge "negative human and environmental impact." His group cites instance after instance of long-term ill health effects in workers.
The pesticide issue is a big one for banana researchers as well. It isn't so much for banana consumers, at least directly, since most of the substances used on the plants don't make it into the flesh of the thick-skinned fruit. But the human and monetary cost of spraying grows higher as more chemicals are needed to battle increasingly virulent diseases. "In the 1970s we controlled Black Sigatoka by spraying 10 to 12 times a year," says FHIA director Adolfo Martnez, an agricultural economist. That frequency has jumped to almost weekly, at a cost of up to $1,000 per acre for every spraying. "There will come a point at which that is neither environmentally nor economically sustainable," Martnez says. Despite concerns over pesticides, the position of the fruit companies has been to combat disease with chemicals. David McLaughlin, Chiquita's senior director for environmental affairs, told the Boston Globe in 2003 that programs like FHIA's "cost us a lot of money for very little result. We concentrate on research into fungicides now."
The increasing possibility of problems with the Cavendish has led to a change in that position. During a 2004 conference call with shareholders, Chiquita president Fernando Aguirre said that FHIA would be "providing Chiquita with an R&D department that is working on several varieties of bananas with different sizes and tastes. They are also working on better resistance to plant diseases."
How much time is left for the Cavendish? Some scientists say five years; some say 10. Others hold out hope that it will be much longer. Aguilar has his own particular worst-case scenario, his own nightmare. "What happens," he says, with a very intent look, "is that Pan-ama disease comes before we have a good replacement. What happens then," he says, nearly shuddering in the shade of a towering banana plant, "is that people change. To apples."single page
The incredible innovations, like drone swarms and perpetual flight, bringing aviation into the world of tomorrow. Plus: today's greatest sci-fi writers predict the future, the science behind the summer's biggest blockbusters, a Doctor Who-themed DIY 'bot, the organs you can do without, and much more.