Almost all of us pick up bananas at the grocery store without giving it a second thought. Well, I have to tell you that bananas may forever make me nostalgic now that I have had the opportunity to visit the Empresa de Servicios de San Alberto SA in Siquirres, Costa Rica.
The Empresa de Servicios de San Alberto SA is a group of Rainforest Alliance Certified banana farms that covers 690 acres. To earn the Rainforest Alliance Certification they must meet extensive guidelines that show environmental, social and economic sustainability. The group of banana farms I visited first achieved certification in 1998. They have about 450 workers total with about 55 of those being administrative. They pack about 500,000 boxes of bananas annually.
The press group I was with interviewed Jorge Guerrero Hernandez, Coordinator for sustainability. The 3 owners of the group of banana farms started Empresa de Servicios. to do the all the logistics for the farms including harvesting and accountability for certification. After the interview, we got to tour a bit of the farm and tour the banana packing plant. It was so awesome to see how it all worked from field to stickered bananas in boxes.
Why Were The Banana Farmers Interested in Certification?
In Jorge’s words, “From the beginning the owners wanted to care for the workers and the health of the farms but they didn’t have records or rules. They felt that they didn’t get any recognition for their extra work so they began working with ECO-OK through EARTH university so that people would know their sustainable work. The Rainforest Alliance Provided the first guidance and they were able to track and document how workers were being treated and learn sustainable methods for farming.”
What Changes Did Rainforest Alliance Certification Bring?
One of the most important changes were controls on using Agro chemicals.
Savings on cost of agrochemicals is a benefit because now we know we don’t have to use as much for them to still be effective.
Also protection of the workers, benefits for the workers, protecting the roadways between the crop and the infrastructure with barriers, protection of water sources,
reduction of water use, soil analysis, and water analysis.
Certification requires minimum wage and regulates limits on hours worked. On a conventional plantation there is 30 percent turnover, on a certified farm the turnover is only 5%. (That goes to show that social sustainability can equal economic sustainability.)
The Rainforest Alliance requires that they document worker benefits and some of these are a doctor for the workers and community, donated land for the community school, night school classes, workshops for the community on waste management, and a sports field.
Chiquita buys the banana farmers’ best quality bananas, about 95%. Chiquita requires certification to work with the farms, so this is another benefit of getting Rainforest Certification which is an ongoing process to stay qualified and able to use the certification seal.
Rainforest Alliance Certified Banana Farm and Packing Plant Tour
We arrived at the packing plant and then we walked out into the fields to watch them harvest and pull the bananas back into the packing plant on metal tracks. Above you can see a load of bananas that has just been pulled into the plant and is about to be processed.
Below is a worker using a swing on the track to return to the fields. I can’t help but picture myself running and jumping on the grocery cart and riding it across the parking lot. It looks like the same kind of fun. I wanted to ask if he liked it but he had swooshed by the question felt a little silly.
My group walked out into nearby banana fields and we followed the track until we caught up with some workers harvesting the bananas.
The bananas are covered in a blue perforated plastic to protect them from the sun and from bugs. This plastic is collected later in the processing and recycled. The workers select a bunch of bananas that are ready and two or three of them work together. One uses a machete to place a few hacks into the banana truck, as it begins to fall the other worker places inserts between the banana bunches to protect them then the bunch is cut off and haled to the metal tracks and hung on a chain. Some Rainforest Alliance Certification things to notice in the photo below is that they do a ground cover between the banana trees to prevent erosion and they will use the banana plant they cut down for compost.
In the photo below, Jorge tells us about the machete safety guard that is one tiny part of certification. It helps ensure that the worker’s hand does not slide from the handle down to the blade.
Next a worker will unwrap the bananas and remove the foam layers from between the bananas.
Workers then slice the bananas off the bunch as they go by and place them in water trays that wash them as they slide to the other side where they are any bananas with marks are removed an tossed onto a conveyor belt above them. The imperfect bananas are sold for making banana chutneys.
Bananas get a water bath, sorting and trimming of bunch sizes.
Then the bananas get stickers.
This dude packaged the bananas so fast all my photos were blurred!
Then the boxes go up a roller and onto the truck.
As a consumer, supporting Rainforest Alliance Certified products means that you are supporting companies that chose sustainable practices in the areas of the environment, social, and economic. That feels good! You can Shop The Frog by keeping an eye open for the seal and/ or searching to find certified products.
You may also want to read my post on a visit to a passionfruit farm in Costa Rica that is working to become Rainforest Alliance certified.