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Blog Post
5 July 2018

Yellow, yellow, let’s rescue our fellow: Reviving banana with indigenous wisdom

Photo: Rogerio Bromfman/ Flickr.

It is hard to imagine the world without our favourite yellow fruit. A perfect snack, it also goes well with our cereal or in a shake, for baking and even crisps. Our little beloved ones enjoy eating it in puree form. You might have guessed what fruit I am talking about.

Yes! It is a banana – everyone’s darling, a staple food and a source of income for more than 400 million people.

However, few of us know that the banana is facing a severe threat. You might have noticed that the bananas we buy in the supermarket all look the same. That is because they all belong to the same type – the Cavendish banana. This variety dominates global banana production primarily due to its commercial benefits: cavendish don’t bruise as much during transportation and have the shape and the colour everyone expects from a banana. Surprisingly enough, the taste has not been a determining factor. There are many varieties of much sweeter taste and softer consistency.

Photo: Brad Knowles/Flickr.

Photo: Laura von Ketteler.

The roots of extinction

The threat to the Cavendish comes from a root fungus, namely Tropical Race 4 (TR4), commonly known as Panama disease. In the 1990s the fungus broke out in Southeast Asia before it reached Australia and made its way to African countries. It has already destroyed thousands of hectares of banana plantations and it’s only a matter of time before it reaches Latin America, a region leading the supply of Cavendish bananas.

 It is not the first time that a major banana type is at risk. The Gros Michel banana aka Big Mike, used to dominate international trade, but in the 1950s it was wiped out by the Tropical Race 1 (TR1), also a root fungus. The disease spread quickly among the farms and destroyed many livelihoods and businesses. Cavendish was found to be resistant to the TR1 and, therefore, replaced the Gros Michel. After a severe banana shortage, everyone was happy to have a banana for breakfast again. Now, history is repeating itself.

Clearly, monoculture farms, cultivating the same banana variety, increase chances for TR4 outbreaks. In other words, we need to produce and promote different varieties of bananas – diversity will make banana supplies more resilient.

Costa Rica, also known as the banana blessed country, is well-known for its banana export. Monoculture of Cavendish bananas has taken over most the country, but there is a rising awareness that Tropical Race 4 is spreading in Africa and Southeast Asia. In 2014 FAO urged to step up global efforts in monitoring, reporting and prevention of the Panama Disease. It was a global wake up call.

Photo: Michelle Callahan/ Flickr.

Photo: Laura von Ketteler.

The case of Talamanca

Out of my personal interest for crop diversity and the challenges to banana in particular, I made my way to Costa Rica. I was hoping to find out more about alternatives to monoculture and the ways to prevent the outbreak of TR4.

Along the Caribbean coast and the Panama boarder, in the Talamanca Nation Reserve indigenous farmers still follow traditional ways of farming. Here Pura Vida (Pure Life), the national Slogan of Costa Rica, reaches its extreme: time seems to stand still and any noise is absorbed by the majestic jungle.

A typical farm looks like this: walking through the jungle on a small pathway you arrive to a simply wired, hardly recognizable fence, ­ and five dogs welcoming you at the entrance. The farmers live in simple wooden houses covered by roofs made of huge banana leaves, which, to my surprise, resist heavy tropical rains. There are some pigs grunting and chickens cackling around the house, surrounded by banana plants growing next to mouth-watering fruit trees such as maracuja, orange, starfruit and papaya. During daytime, families work hard on their farm. Harvesting fruits, feeding the pigs, cutting bananas or loading them on horses is part of the everyday routine.

“Working on a farm can be really difficult, you never know what is going to happen tomorrow. There could be a flood coming, a wind storm or a disease attacking one of the plants,” says Maria Sanchez. Maria lives on a two-hectare farm which supports her family, including five children, her parents and her husband.

The Talamanca reserve is home to two tribes, Bribri and Cabecar, forming the largest population of indigenous people in Costa Rica. The Government of Costa Rica returned the land to the natives in 1977. In the 1980s, companies trading organic bananas recognized the potential of the area and started negotiating with the smallholders in the region, where farmers usually grow polycultures on one to three hectares of land.

Most farmers mainly grow two subgroups of Cavendish: Lacatan and Congo banana. So far so good, but most farmers don’t know that the plant could soon lapse into illness. Because the world’s banana trade is dominated by the Cavendish variety, the farmers continue to cultivate it because that is what the market demands, while many indigenous varieties are getting lost and forgotten.

Photo: Efraimstochter/ Pixabay.

Photo: Yi Zhang/ Wikimedia.

Consumers have the power

 Unlike the smallholder farmers in Costa Rica, European baby food companies are aware of the threat and are on the lookout for banana cultivars that would meet the requirements of the market, are resistant to diseases, are easy to grow and have the most preferable taste, shape and color. However, that is, of course, easier said than done.

For many baby food companies which source from Talamanca, the bananas must meet certain requirements. First of all, the fruit needs to have a sweet taste and the “right color”. The consistency needs to meet the requirements of processing technologies – the seeds cannot be too big because otherwise they would block the machines.

Why the right color? It appears parents prefer to buy banana puree with the perfect bright yellow color. So, it might be that banana diversification won’t see an increase unless there is demand from consumers. Why don’t we encourage parents to buy puree which is slightly more orange in color? Or, in general, why don’t we nudge consumers to buy bananas that are a bit brown or crooked. Clearly, a lot of work needs to be done in the area of consumer awareness and education.

At the same time, in my opinion, consumers have the power and the responsibility to contribute to the “banana rescue mission“. And the jump in organic banana production shows consumers can influence change on the production side. After the 1990s, when different buyers came to Talamanca and asked for organic bananas, the farmers started to adapt to the market demand and, eventually, became part of the commercial banana trade. Similarly, buyers could start to invest in different banana varieties to ensure their supply chain is resilient.

Photo: Juan Apolinar/Unsplash.

Where market meets tradition – a path to resilience

By all means, farmer is one of the main characters in the banana saga.

Bribri beliefs play a significant role in the way they farm and manage their natural resources. Farming practices here are derived from the Siwa folklore system, a spiritual teaching that has dominated the relationship between these indigenous peoples and nature.

According to these beliefs, the Bribri and Cabecar were put in charge as guardians and protectors of the natural diversity. “For thousands of years we have cared for our Mother Earth and during the next thousands of years, we will continue caring with the same zeal as our elders,” says Lisandro Dias, one of the Bribri people. He believes that plant diversity in Talamanca is well-preserved largely thanks to these principles.

So, on one hand farmers are deeply connected to family traditions and cherish indigenous knowledge of the Bribri. On the other hand, farmers want to be part of the market earn more money and enjoy a more comfortable life. Promoting indigenous underutilized banana varieties could reconcile the two worlds.

This way farmers would get to earn a living form what they know best, consumers would get great food and business would strengthen resilience of their supply chains. Working together, weaving all the connections with this visions in mind is the way forward.

And for now, I pledge to accept a more orange or more squared banana! As Maya Angelou, an American author and professor, once said: “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” I think we all need to embrace this way of thinking.