In the mid-1890s, just as the takeoff of the banana industry brought, for the first time, a fresh tropical fruit to the tables of the consuming masses of North America, overseers on banana plantations in Costa Rica and Panama became aware of a serious problem with their crop. Clusters of mature plants were beginning to bear deformed, stunted fruit. In some areas, the lowest leaves, normally dark green, first turned “vivid yellow,” then brown, and buckled close to the stalk, or pseudostem. The symptoms ascended over the course of a few weeks to the highest, youngest leaf. Not long thereafter: “A puff of wind, stronger than the rest, . . . sends the stately plant crashing to the earth.” Younger plants, which had not yet produced fruit to repay the cost of establishment, died more quickly and in “enormous numbers.” Outward signs of the malady seemed to indicate soil deficiencies or drought, but the pattern and rapidity of spread suggested disease.
As the United Fruit Company, the commodity’s near-monopoly producer, pushed forward with a heady expansion of operations, the banana plague kept pace. By 1910, the epidemic—dubbed “Panama disease” after the outbreak in that country’s Bocas del Toro region—had been blamed for the abandonment of approximately 8,000 hectares each in Costa Rica and Panama, and reduced production in many more. Although cultivation of new lands kept export levels ahead of the disease for a time, by the late 1920s Panama’s Atlantic production had ceased, Costa Rican exports were in precipitous decline, and the disease was beginning to make inroads in the newer plantation divisions of Honduras and Guatemala, and in the West Indies. The company would ultimately blame the disease for the closure of six divisions in four countries, along with major losses in other areas.
The almost simultaneous appearance of Panama disease throughout United’s banana empire challenged one of the company’s most fundamental corporate strategies, command of geographical space. United responded by redoubling its effort to control all of its other “factors of production,” especially its work force, agricultural systems, and the tropical environment. The effort to arrest the agro-ecological disaster of Panama disease would lead to a Faustian, ultimately futile, reshaping of huge portions of the Central American landscape, as former rain forests became the scenes of massive projects of drainage, irrigation, and the flooding of thousands of hectares of “infected” soils.
The United Fruit Company (UFCo) was a pioneer of modern tropical agro-export capitalism. In scale, managerial sophistication, and increasing technical prowess, the U.S.-owned transnational can be seen as an early exemplar of what social scientists have termed “Fordist” (mass production, mass consumption) agriculture. Indeed, many agricultural sociologists have tended to accept Carey McWilliams’s famous characterization of twentieth-century agribusiness as “factories in the field,” interpreting corporate agricultural enterprise in the same terms as other mass-production industries. The argument presented here suggests a broader analytical framework for industrial agriculture—placing alongside what David Noble calls managerial capitalism’s “ideology of control” of markets and labor a parallel, and uncertain, drive for the control of nature itself.
Environmental historians such as Donald Worster and the late Warren Dean have developed an “agroecological perspective,” emphasizing that capitalist agriculture’s “radical simplification” of ecosystems has social and historical consequences. As Dean observed, it is particularly important to stop discussing tropical plantation agriculture “as though it were a strictly industrial process, as though the ecological conditions of production were unimportant to historical outcomes.” The human-ecological interactions here should not, however, be reduced to a simple, unidirectional narrative of corporate planters degrading the environment. Ecological changes were indeed shaped and accelerated by the replacement of species-diverse tropical rainforest with a genetically uniform crop, but the processes set in motion themselves affected the subsequent human history of the plantation.
If not “strictly industrial,” Central American banana production did in fact assume an increasingly industrial character. For that reason, my argument also reflects the analysis of Harry Braverman and subsequent “labor process” historians and theorists. As used here, the term “labor process” embraces the organization of work activities and occupations, as well as the social divisions that result from that organization. More crucially, scholars working within this framework analyze change in industrial systems as a function of conflict over which group, workers or managers, controls knowledge of the production process and is able to make decisions about it. It is in this context, I argue—as United’s struggle against Panama disease led to the relocation of agricultural knowledge from the vernacular skills of the Jamaican workers, who first developed the banana as a commercial crop, to a new centralized body of agronomists and technicians—that the epidemic became a key factor in changing the work regimes of the banana industry.
When United Fruit first pointed to Panama disease as a justification for closing old operations and opening new ones, nationalist critics in Central America dismissed it as a pretext for acquiring new territories. Latin American nationalists, leftists, and their sympathizers, including many historians, have long portrayed the United Fruit Company as a corporate predator, the symbol and embodiment of voracious North American economic imperialism. UFCo’s ravenous but fickle appetite for tropical lands—manifest in serial abandonment, from 1930 through the early 1960s, of vast, once-prosperous plantation enclaves in four Central American countries, ruthless tactics for acquiring new banana lands to replace them, and the enormous territorial reserves it held uncultivated, despite land-poor peasantries, against future disease losses—is central to the historiographic “black legend” that surrounds the company’s activities in the so-called “banana republics” of Central America. Nationalists and scholars alike have been unreceptive to claims that these policies were necessary responses to crop disease. Most have viewed Panama disease as a symptom of the soil exhaustion that inevitably followed on UFCo’s failure to give “adequate attention” to its plantations.
The last decade’s flowering of scholarship on the Central American banana industry has largely continued to assume the nationalist critique. Recent work has pursued two principal lines of inquiry. One is state centered, focusing on the ruthless political means by which United and its rivals gained concessions. A second, larger current emphasizes the role of ethnicity and local identities in both constituting and limiting resistance to United’s power. Largely interpreting the history of the industry without reference to its agro-ecological context—other than taking the company to task for its wasteful use of land—researchers of both tendencies have neglected or dismissed the explanatory significance of crop disease. A well-received 1996 study of plantation worker resistance, for example, briefly asserts that Panama disease control was easily within UFCo’s power, through an “immune banana,” or simply by replanting. For many historians, the possibility that nature might have limited United’s activities seemed inconceivable, given the multinational corporation’s incontrovertible social, economic, and political power.
The banana plague deserves closer, more nuanced examination. While the unavailability of United’s internal records leaves many gaps, UFCo scientists and foreign observers did produce a substantial technical literature on the epidemic that remains largely untapped by historians. Agronomists and plant pathologists, unlike social scientists, have seen Panama disease as a major natural disaster—”green havoc” in the words of one contemporary agronomist—but their views of the nature of the disease and its possible cures changed greatly over the course of the epidemic. Much can be learned by placing the scientific literature in conversation with the company’s own publications and the mainstream of historical analysis of its activities. Using this approach, I offer a more complicated narrative than those of either the company’s defenders or its critics.
Exploration of United’s struggle with Panama disease is important for more than simply understanding the political histories of the banana industry and Central America. It also sheds light on larger questions in environmental, labor, and agricultural history. Corporate response to the epidemic altered the isthmian landscape and transformed the lives and identities of plantation laborers. This article suggests that the industry’s behavior cannot be understood without reference to its environmental context. Indeed, Panama disease can be seen as a window on the dynamic relationships among United Fruit’s corporate strategies, its workers, changing cultivation practices, shifting paradigms of agricultural health and disease, and the ecology of banana soils. Thus, rather than simply using the epidemic as evidence to further indict or exculpate banana imperialism for exploiting and abandoning tropical lands in Central America, I focus on it as a key episode in the struggle of an archetypal tropical agribusiness for control of nature and labor, and to locate sites of resistance in each.
The initial Central American land base of the United Fruit Company was formed from enormous Costa Rican railroad concessions, made in 1894 to U.S. entrepreneur Minor C. Keith. The concessions, forming the bulk of the Atlantic province of Limón, encompassed some of the finest banana lands in the world. Reaching from the flanks of the central mountain range of the isthmus to the hot, humid coastal lowlands, Keith’s exploitation rights included the drainages of the Reventazón, Pacuare, Matina, and Zent rivers, and would later enfold the Estrella, Sixaola, and more. These rivers plunge from steep Atlantic-facing slopes, carrying heavy loads of sediment. As they reach the narrow coastal plain, their courses flatten and wander, leaving deep deposits of alluvium along their shifting paths. Because of the mother rock’s largely volcanic origins, such silt deposits are rich in phosphates and magnesium, and they tend toward a fairly high acidity. Until recent times, these soils, watered by constant rains averaging more than 2,000 millimeters per year, supported complex, multi-storied forests, whose dense canopies inhibited the tendency of constant rain to rapidly leach the nutrients left by siltation and forest decay. As the workers Keith imported to build the railroad discovered, Limón’s riparian bottom lands, the end result of these processes, produced flourishing crops of exportable bananas.
Keith soon began to explore ways to export bananas to the United States, but his ability to build a major commerce in the fruit was limited by a lack of marine shipping connections and capital. These and all other barriers to the establishment of a massive international trade in the tropical fruit were swept away by the foundation of the United Fruit Company in 1899. The crop had distinct advantages as an agro-industrial commodity. Banana acreage produces huge volumes of fruit on a seasonless and potentially continuous basis. Moreover, the fruit’s extreme perishability favored, indeed mandated, a firm with access to capital-intensive locomotives and steamships, capable of coordinating precisely the timing of harvests and embarkation for northern markets.
By uniting shipping networks, Boston capital, and Keith’s vast lands and railroads, the new consortium revolutionized the trade: capitalizing market development on a scale that could in turn support a fleet of fast steamers and massive tropical cultivations to fill them, on schedules and specifications coordinated with ships and retailers. In essence, the corporation would duplicate the accomplishment of the Chicago meat-packing giants—transforming a once local crop into a hemispheric commodity. As William Cronon has written of the meat packers: “Geography no longer mattered very much except as a problem in management: time had conspired with capital to annihilate space.”
In another sense, however, space remained very much alive, as a tool for control of nature and men. United scattered its production sites widely—first in Jamaica and Costa Rica, then to regions of Panama, Honduras, Colombia, and Guatemala, where soils and climate seemed similar to those of Limón. The new corporation thus sought to ensure a predictable supply of fruit against any local disruptions, whether from environmental or political sources. Neither storm blow-downs of plantations, nor floods, nor uncooperative states or workers could stop production entirely, unless they somehow affected all of United’s far-flung territories simultaneously.
But until the 1920s, the company’s modern, rationalized approach to production was confined to the technologies of transportation and communication. More than 60 percent of its fruit was purchased from smaller “private” planters, over whose cultivation practices United had no direct control. These contract planters included smallholders of Antillean descent, along with larger estates owned by foreign investors and Hispanic entrepreneurs from the interior of the isthmus. Both United and the larger planters relied on migrants from the Caribbean for labor and often left actual production to Jamaican labor contractors. On both private and company farms, cultivation practices and technologies were little different from those that had characterized Caribbean peasant banana cultivation for decades—hardly surprising, since they were essentially determined by the industry’s Antillean labor force.
West Indians had originally come to Costa Rica to work on Keith’s rail line in the 1880s. Suffering at home from yet another slump in the world sugar market, they were simply the most “exploitable” workers available; more would arrive later from work on the Panama Canal. Many of these workers brought with them generations of experience with the commercial cultivation of bananas. The sweet, thick-skinned “Gros Michel” variety—the standard cultivar of the international trade until the 1960s—was introduced to the West Indies early in the nineteenth century, and it promptly became a fixture of the mixed cultivation systems of smallholding slaves and freedmen, especially in Jamaica. After emancipation, land for commercial production of this and other crops became available to freedmen on abandoned sugar estates, and thriving internal markets based on peasant production grew up on the island.
Island smallholders’ sales of their harvests to U.S. shipper Lorenzo Dow Baker, beginning in the 1870s, launched the North American banana trade. By the next decade, Baker’s high prices and consistent purchases had encouraged a tremendous expansion of banana cultivation. By 1883 in Jamaica’s Portland Parish, 2,883 cultivators, all with holdings of fewer than four hectares, grew bananas for export. In the early years of the banana trade, such plots produced 80 percent of the fruit reaching U.S. markets.
Charles Koch has argued convincingly that Keith’s first experiments with banana production were based on observation of the provision “grounds” planted by his workers during the rail work’s frequent delays. In the nineteenth-century Caribbean, peasant cultivation grounds were characterized by close attention to soils, careful balance of crops, and skilled siting that recognized the critical importance of good natural drainage. Former cane fields were usually prepared by burning, but elsewhere, cultivators often simply cut back underbrush, girdled large standing trees, and allowed natural decomposition gradually to add a quotient of humus. This latter technique would transfer well to the rich, newly opened soils of Central America.
It is clear that these forms of local, vernacular agricultural knowledge were the basis of United Fruit’s cultivation practices until at least the 1920s. Site selection for new UFCo plantations, for example, was intuitive rather than scientific, generally favoring bottom lands, usually avoiding or draining standing water. Only the most obvious features of topography influenced these choices: a letter from a manager in 1916 opening new land in Costa Rica assured his division manager (and future company president) Victor Cutter that, as per instructions, he was “carefully avoiding all hilly land.” As late as 1926, a forester’s report from new UFCo operations in Guatemala indicates that plantation sites were chosen by the character of the tropical forest: “at its climax in the lands best suited for banana culture.”
Workers prepared land much as they had in the most fertile areas of Jamaica, first clearing undergrowth by machete, then planting the rhizomes in shallowly dug holes. Until the mid-1920s, installed drainage was minimal and was excavated only with hand tools. As a last stage, axemen felled (or girdled and allowed to fall on their own) the great ceiba trees and other lowland forest giants, which would gradually add nutrients to the soil as they decomposed. The most significant difference between this clearing and planting process and earlier peasant practice lay in its enormous scale. Vast, newly opened plantation zones offered startling scenes of devastation and apparent chaos, as young banana stalks rose through a deep tangle of limbs and trunks.
Maintenance of the established crop was largely limited to digging and maintaining drainage ditches, periodic “cleaning” of competitive brush around the plant clusters (“mats”), and pruning of unwanted stalks. As United’s plantations aged, a few managers tried soil “improvement” practices that had, by the turn of the century, become the norm in Jamaican cultivations, such as plowing between rows, hand tilling (“grubbing”), and mulching. These innovations, however, appear to have been sporadic, short-lived, local initiatives. The company did not fertilize or irrigate any of its farms until the mid-1920s, and it introduced these practices only gradually thereafter. Like a swidden cultivator, but on an enormous scale, United relied almost entirely on the agro-ecological resources bequeathed it by the felled rainforests. With stagnant cultivation technologies, company managers obtained steady increases in banana exports (briefly interrupted by World War I) entirely by bringing more land into bearing. Yields per hectare climbed or fell only as the average age of all plantations declined or fell respectively—older plantations generally producing less fruit.
During its first quarter-century of operation, United Fruit went to considerable effort to maintain the West Indian character of its work force. The company continued actively to recruit island labor until World War I, and some immigration continued thereafter. Estimates of the pre-war percentage of Antilleans on isthmian banana plantations are necessarily speculative, but British and U.S. consular officials each put their proportion at 75 percent. Historians have offered a number of explanations for United’s long preference for island workers in its Central American operations, but a key aspect of the company’s relationship with these workers has been consistently neglected. There is considerable evidence that, during the first phase of United’s cultivation system, plantation managers preferred Caribbean workers because they relied on the agricultural knowledge and skills these workers had acquired through long experience with the tasks of banana cultivation. UFCo managers recognized that the art of pacing crop maturity by selective pruning, the “eye” for the desired thickness of fruit ready for harvest, the ability to load fruit for transport without bruising, and early recognition of plant disease and nourishment problems were not easily replaceable skills.
Until the mid-1920s, the company’s North American field managers were recruited from the social and business milieu of its Boston officers and had little agricultural background. After a tour of UFCo’s Costa Rican Division in 1929, the British banana agronomist Claude Wardlaw wrote: “The amazing thing is that very few of them [plantation overseers] possess even a smattering of real agricultural knowledge, and if they do it probably does not help them in the least . . . [The overseer] is mainly a supervisor of labour. His job is to see that a given programme is carried out. And when you are handling labour, especially native labour, that is a man’s job.” By contrast, company literature often acknowledged (albeit in a condescending, often racist way) dependence on the skills and experience of “the black Jamaican farm workers . . . who knew more about banana raising than any other people in the hemisphere.” An American hired as an overseer in Panama in the 1920s recalled that he found “planting a banana farm . . . a novel and interesting experience, since I knew nothing about it.” His admission of reliance on his “old black” Jamaican foreman echoes the advice reprinted by company apologist Samuel Crowther, in the form of a letter from an old hand to a “new man” in the tropics: “Another man who can help you [besides the farm overseer] is the Negro foreman. He is usually a Jamaican and raised among bananas.” In pre–World War II company literature, this latter phrase, “raised among bananas,” is linked as if by statute to any reference to Jamaican workers. The characterization was, in many cases, literally true. Mr. Paul, a Jamaica-born banana worker in Costa Rica, described a multi-generational tradition of banana cultivation to historian Paula Palmer: when his father left work in the Canal Zone, he sought employment with United in the Almirante Division (Panama), “because in Jamaica his family grew bananas and he knew the system.”
Like the nineteenth-century steelworker craftsmen described by U.S. labor historian David Montgomery, experienced West Indian banana workers hid “the manager’s brain under the workman’s cap,” controlling the labor process of one of the world’s emerging commodity trades. Using managerial power to overcome this gap between workers who understood “the system” and overseers who did not was thus a central part of the “man’s job” of “handling native labour.” An article in UFCo’s house organ by a manager in a Honduran division recounts his struggle with a Jamaican worker named “Jones” over routine cultivation tasks: “It is awfully hard to know what to say when a man who knows infinitely more about bananas than yourself, looks you in the eyes and assures you that obviously bad work is the only thing that will do your bananas good. And I could not deny that Jones knew bananas. He was a Jamaican Negro, tall, big-framed, very black, and with one yellow snag of a tooth that showed occasionally between his thick black lips. Like many Jamaicans, he had been born with a bunch of bananas in his mouth.” The writer, who resolves the problem by firing Jones, clearly intends to offer a paradigmatic account of a common dilemma. The frank acknowledgment that his employee’s mastery of the production process far exceeded his own does not prevent him from resolving the problem by firing Jones. To him, the skills of “very black” Jamaicans were natural (Jones was not just “raised among bananas,” they sprouted from his mouth!) and not evidence of any superiority that fundamentally challenged managerial authority. This was a stable, if uncomfortable, equilibrium. While Jamaican workers had considerable control over the labor processes of cultivation, they were held in check by their status as racially suspect aliens in Hispanic Central America and by the company’s absolute control over shipping and marketing. There is no evidence that these tensions of themselves led to significant changes in the organization of production.
It was not until environmental change and crisis, embodied in the gathering epidemic of Panama disease, exposed this system’s limitations that United began systematic intensification of its control of cultivation. During the epidemic’s first decades, plantation-level response to it actually reinforces the picture of a varied array of agricultural labor processes, under the control of the Jamaican work force rather than the company. A survey of UFCo-owned plantations in 1918 lists sixty infected farms in Costa Rica and Panama. Agricultural histories of twenty-three show no action to contain the disease. In the remainder, treatments ranged from adding lime, to digging out infected rhizomes and liming around them, to burning or bleaching diseased areas, to mulching or adding manure. The diversity of approaches shows how little the company was engaged in supervision of agricultural practices in these years. Moreover, the reappearance of many of these procedures among private planters in Jamaica in the later disease outbreak there (along with quarantining—a practice never seriously attempted in Central America) suggests that they were part of a West Indian repertoire of responses to plant failure. Unfortunately, none slowed the plague on United’s plantations.
It is important to emphasize that abandonment of banana plantations in the face of declining yields was not new: the epidemic was in this sense an acceleration of the industry’s “normal” pattern. Thus, as the disease spread, the life expectancy of a typical plantation dropped from between fifteen and twenty years to less than five, with many areas producing usable fruit for two years or less. The gradual nature of this plantation life-cycle contraction may account for the company’s rather slow response to the epidemic.
Losses from the “green havoc” of Panama disease would have to be compounded by the impact of the global Depression before United’s earnings began to drop, but signs of trouble emerged well before the world crisis. Months before the stock market crash in 1929, the Almirante Division’s accountant advised UFCo’s comptroller that United’s already high 8 percent depreciation rate for tropical lands and fixed assets had been grossly insufficient: “the banana lands have been exhausted and fact must be faced.” The division’s banana-related investments of almost 9 million dollars (which still retained a book value of $5,583,000) were now valueless except as support for a few, deeply unprofitable, cultivations of cacao on the diseased plantations. Panama, he noted, was the first operation to cease banana production, but every division had the same unrealistic depreciation policies, “and all programs should be reviewed to prevent any repetition of this Panama situation.” After a stockholders’ revolt in 1932, one of the new board’s first measures was a 50 million dollar downward revaluation of UFCo’s tropical properties.
Even though United would later claim to have begun scientific research on the problem from its first appearance, there is no evidence of serious investigations before disease losses reached major proportions in the early 1910s. By 1915, research partially funded by the company finally demonstrated the causal relationship between the wilting syndrome and Fusarium oxysporum f. cubense, a soil-dwelling fungus that invaded the roots and caused mortality by clogging the banana plant’s vascular tissues. The geographic origin of the fungus remains unknown to this day. Plant pathologists now believe that it began its Central American career in infected planting stock and was rapidly and irrevocably disseminated by the tremendous circulation of workers and tools throughout the banana empire.
As the fungus spread through the company’s domain, it found a habitat well chosen and well prepared for its widespread dispersion. The warm, lowland rainforest ecologies that the company had replaced with banana monoculture were ideal environments for—indeed, dependent on—a multitude of airborne and soil-dwelling fungi. While tropical forests, with thousands of species, were not susceptible to invasion by host-specific fungal disease, the same could not be said of the vast territories United had filled with Gros Michel “clones.” Reproducing by rhizome, rather than sexually, the plants were genetically uniform. As Warren Dean has argued, tropical agro-ecosystems are especially vulnerable to disease, since, unlike temperate zone cultivars, tropical crops have evolved in relatively stable, infrequently disturbed environments, and have developed little resistance to environmental changes like the eruption of a new fungal pathogen.
The discovery of an infectious agent did not, unfortunately, lead to a cure. Plant pathologist E. W. Brandes, whose experiments in Puerto Rico confirmed the role of Fusarium, noted that, because of its hardiness and soil-born nature, chemical attempts at control would require the fungicidal saturation of hundreds of thousands of tons of earth in each infected plantation—an impossibly expensive proposition. Although the heroic age of microbiology was but recently under way, banana agronomists reluctantly turned from any search for a chemical “magic bullet” to another current of contemporary epidemiology: the strengthening of host resistance through environmental manipulation and selective breeding. This necessitated the acquisition and application of a new body of knowledge for the crop and its tropical environment.
In 1916, United launched a sweeping inventory of conditions in all of its banana divisions. Samuel Prescott, the soil scientist who conducted the survey, immodestly proclaimed it “the most extensive study of tropical soils which has ever been made for direct comparisons.” It was also the first serious agricultural soil analysis the company had ever undertaken. Prescott and two North American assistants collected soil specimens, agricultural histories, and disease data from thirty to forty “representative” sites in each banana division, including productive farms, abandoned plantations, and “virgin woodland.” Prescott’s Examination of Tropical Soils, distributed in-house in 1918–1919, provides a fascinating window on soil use and agricultural practices on company plantations, as well as United’s early conceptualization of the agro-ecological crisis represented by fusarial wilt.
Prescott presented alarming data on disease conditions. No Central American region was disease free. In the oldest and hardest-hit divisions of Costa Rica and Panama, every plantation surveyed showed Fusarium infestation. Young plantations, the industry’s future, were especially imperiled. The survey showed “medium” to “rapid” spread of disease symptoms on almost half (46 percent) of Costa Rican plantations under ten years old.
The report’s introductory remarks leave no doubt that the twin problems of Panama disease and early plantation failure lay at the core of the survey project: “the investigation has sought to throw some light on the occurrence and spread of the special type of fungus infection known as Panama Disease by studying the character of the soils where the infection has been found and comparing directly with other locations where its ravages are not known or are less severe.” Though never made explicit, an ecological hypothesis underlay this and subsequent work: the fungus was an opportunistic agent, taking advantage of weak plants in poorly sited, exhausted, or otherwise “unhealthy” plantations. Managers hoped that research would produce a precise formula for the soil structure, mineral and organic material contents, and water regime that could guarantee a healthy plantation ecology.
Unfortunately, Prescott’s results in this regard were disappointing. No consistent correlations could be found between such soil factors and disease spread. In fact, the quandary of UFCo agricultural managers was deepened by the study’s confirmation of what had until then been reported anecdotally: some infected farms, with apparently good, well-drained soils, succumbed to the wilting syndrome almost immediately, while others, in no clear way superior, continued to produce good harvests for many years despite the presence of the fungus. In coming decades, debates over the adequacy of the company’s cultivation practices among growers, agronomists, and UFCo’s critics would return again and again to this enigma of occasional plantation “resistance” to Panama disease.
Despite the absence of an infallible formula for plantation survival, several future strategies for coping with Panama disease emerged from Prescott’s study. First, while no specific deficit in soil chemistry could yet be linked to the disease, the richest soils, “those . . . which are most heavily impregnated with food materials and where the banana has reached the highest vigor,” seemed, overall, to produce more resistant plants. Thus attention to soil composition and structure in the establishment of new plantations was likely to reward the expense. There was also a weak correlation between rapid disease spread and plantation drainage. Although good drainage could not necessarily inhibit the fungus, very badly drained farms were significantly more susceptible, underscoring the need for increased control of plantation water regimes. Finally, Prescott felt that, his inconclusive results, rather than amounting to a dead end, only emphasized the need for more intensive research on soils, “the question of fertilizers,” and the needs of the crop.
In concluding, Prescott offered a suggestive summary of the unscientific cultivation system that had heretofore prevailed in United’s banana empire: “The fact is that the banana lands of the Caribbean Sea region are so fertile and in general so easily cultivated that no special pains have had to be taken to secure good agricultural return.” However, he argued, “with the advent of diseases,” the easy bounty of nature and traditional crafts of Caribbean laborers would no longer suffice. Intensive agronomic study and systematic application of the results would now be mandatory. With this in mind, as a first step toward placing the company’s agriculture on a scientific basis, UFCo Vice-President Cutter made it the “policy of the Company” to require tropical managers to “study carefully [Prescott’s] report.”
Prescott’s survey opened a long-term, multifaceted corporate campaign against Panama disease. UFCo technicians sought answers in banana genetics, soil, water, and labor regimes. The first of these initiatives is, in retrospect, the most ironic. Company researchers examined and rejected what would ultimately prove to be the solution—switching to a resistant strain of banana. Sometime between 1920 and 1922, United launched a systematic drive to find or breed a banana variety that could replace the Gros Michel. UFCo’s future research chief, Vining Dunlap, headed the project, which was based in a new Agricultural Research Station quietly established in Farm 6 in Changuinola, Panama.
True breeding quickly proved (and has continued to prove) to be beyond the ability of plant scientists, as edible bananas are by definition sterile, propagating through rhizomes rather than seeds. Selecting survivors in diseased plantations proved futile as well, since these plants quickly succumbed when inoculated with Fusarium. Finally, researchers established a secret island nursery where they conducted exhaustive trials for disease resistance, productivity, and marketability on over 150 existing banana strains brought at considerable expense from Africa, the Pacific, and Asia. Clyde Stephens, whose dual status as company scientist and amateur historian allowed him to consult the project’s files, reports that the Dunlap team isolated two of three high-yield, flavorful, disease-resistant “Cavendish” varieties that would dominate the world banana trade by the 1960s: the “Valery” and the “Lacatan.” Nonetheless, the work was shelved when the researchers reported that, because these fruits bruised easily and needed to be shipped and marketed in boxes, rather than loose on large stems like the Gros Michel, they could never be “economically profitable.” United had invested great effort in creating a U.S. market for the thick-skinned Gros Michel banana, which middlemen (“jobbers”) knew how to ripen on the stem. Changing these characteristics put consumer preference for the fruit at risk. Judging the U.S. market to be inflexible, the company did not give serious consideration to planting “varieties” again until the late 1950s.
United’s more sustained (and better-funded) research focused on soil ecology, continuing Prescott’s quest for a formula for disease resistance. Beginning in 1922, research projects at the Changuinola station and in the Motagua Valley of Guatemala sought to slow the spread of disease through the use of mineral and organic fertilizers and the reduction of soil acidity through the addition of lime. None of these attempts actively to combat Panama disease through soil amendments succeeded. Nonetheless, this work, as well as experimentation in Honduras and Jamaica later in the decade, found a rough, never entirely consistent correlation between the natural acidity of soils and the rapidity with which infection would destroy a plantation.
By 1925, this imperfect, nearly anecdotal association became the basis of UFCo’s soil selection system for new lands, and company agronomists estimated the productive “life” of potential plantation sites through pH testing, declining to plant “third-class” soils whose probable life was under five years. Even government inspectors, using the company’s formula, agreed that most of the soils remaining in older UFCo divisions fell into this category. As a modest stride in disease predictability, the pH finding was helpful, but the limits it placed on United’s operations were unacceptable. In research and in practice from the 1920s through the 1950s, the company continued to pursue a new science of cultivation that could allow it to grow bananas wherever it chose.
Despite, or because of, the continuing inconclusiveness of United’s research, its managers increasingly viewed the “backwardness” of the company’s old cultivation methods as the cause of the epidemic, and agronomic science as the solution. When Victor Cutter, Prescott’s principal backer, became UFCo’s second corporate president in late 1924, his first major policy initiative was the consolidation of research into a single department, which he achieved two years later. At the same time, the company centralized field studies under the new department’s auspices in its new, expansive, lavishly appointed Lancetilla Research Station in La Lima, Honduras. Unsurprisingly, the new department’s central mission was investigation of “the relation between the character of soils and the spread of Panama disease.” The elevation of research to departmental status, with in-house programs and laboratories, was something of a U.S. corporate fad in the 1920s, but—undoubtedly because of the challenge posed by the epidemic—UFCo’s was probably the first in an agricultural firm. In European and North American agriculture, scientific research and innovation were promoted by sectors external to the farm itself, including universities, chemical corporations, and makers of agricultural machinery. Thanks to Panama disease, United’s new stratum of scientists and technicians now occupied a relatively privileged position within the apparatus of production. The move was a striking indication of United’s new determination to rationalize its cultivation systems.
Thus, in addition to basic research, the new department was charged with modernizing cultivation practices in the field. Henceforth, extensive soil surveys and analyses would precede planting. Technicians, especially in the Tela Division of Honduras (which benefited from the proximity of the Lancetilla Station’s staff), would conduct extensive field fertilizer trials, establish an elaborate apparatus of plant-performance recordkeeping, and experiment on a large scale with new systems of water management. Moreover, the company’s next generation of field managers would be well trained to cooperate in these technical initiatives: in the mid-1920s, United began for the first time to recruit plantation staff for all divisions from agricultural and engineering schools. But United also brought its older management corps up to date. Even those in regions whose decline seemed irreversible were gathered together at considerable cost and logistical exertion for lectures by Research Department agronomists and visiting experts on photosynthesis, disease symptoms, and “Why it is important to study soils.”
Among the visiting lecturers was an investigative mission of agronomists in 1928 from the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA) in Trinidad. The British researchers, hoping to learn from the Central American experience as they confronted the more recent outbreak in Jamaica, shared data with United’s agronomists and gave demonstrations of “proper” cultivation techniques in many plantations. The leader of the ICTA group was Claude Wardlaw, a garrulous Scottish plant pathologist who went on to write the next decade’s standard work on banana diseases. Wardlaw apparently enjoyed considerable cooperation from upper-level UFCo managers and agronomists: he claimed that the latter were in “substantial agreement” with him on the correct approach to Panama disease. With few UFCo documents on cultivation and disease-control strategies available for this period, the reports of the ICTA team thus offer valuable insights into the company’s view of its problems.
Wardlaw’s study stridently echoed the ecological assumption that had prevailed at least since Prescott: the disease was a “conditional infection” of badly cultivated or deficient, exhausted soils. After lengthy tours of both abandoned and still-productive plantations throughout United’s dominions, Wardlaw concluded that the Central American banana industry had been engaged in soil mining: “exploitation of the native fertility of virgin soil with the minimum amount of detailed treatment.” Once the vitality bequeathed by the region’s former “giant forests” was used up, disease set in, and the “pioneer” industry moved on. But the ICTA agronomists believed that, even on inferior sites, ecologically healthy, disease-resistant soils could be created (or prolonged) through a more intensive application of labor. A program of “sound agricultural treatment” would include: careful soil analysis and plantation siting; provision of deeper, better-maintained drainage systems; active soil improvement through tillage, liming (to reduce acidity), and fertilization; far more attention to brush control and pruning; and, perhaps, irrigation. These methods could not eliminate Panama disease, but, by creating vital, healthy conditions for the crop, they could almost certainly hold it “in check.” The implementation of most of this program on United’s plantations during the following years indicates the extent to which company managers and agronomists shared Wardlaw’s perspective.
Wardlaw was shocked at the agricultural indifference of old-line overseers: most of the elements of “sound treatment” were already in use on the farms of developed nations. In this sense, United had indeed lagged behind the practices of contemporary capitalist agriculture. Yet farmers in North America and Europe largely adopted these “sound” practices on a piecemeal basis, empirically, or on the advice of non-farmers. When the company’s management interpreted the epidemic as a clarion call to modernize its cultivations, it did not just catch up but moved well beyond other agricultural operations on the road to fully rationalized production. As United integrated agricultural research and expertise into the heart of its tropical operations, it attempted to apply all relevant agricultural and managerial technologies in an integrated, planned approach, on a highly regimented, transnational level. This scientific approach extended far beyond the concerns of contemporary agricultural producers to embrace the “scientific management” of labor, though not (as in Taylorized industrial manufacturing) to curb the autonomy of craftsmen and thus extract greater efficiency in a competitive market. After 1929, United’s monopoly was more secure than ever. Instead, the rationalization of the work regime of banana cultivation aimed at more precise control of the crop’s biological underpinnings than could be achieved by relying on West Indians “raised among bananas.” Despite this divergent end-goal, the transformation of the plantation labor process followed the same principle as deskilling in other industries—the separation of conception and execution.
In fact, United’s managers, engineers, and agronomists increasingly saw workers’ autonomy on the job as a big part of the problem. As the company overhauled the cultivation techniques that had originated in the practices of West Indian peasants, knowledge and day-to-day control of the work process began passing to United’s new body of experts. New plantation siting, the layout of drainage systems, the timing and requirements of maintenance tasks, and even the evaluation of fruit readiness for harvest were all now specified by technicians. At the same time, the company’s predominantly task-based wage system (the tarea) came increasingly to take on the characteristics of piecework, with exacting specifications for compliance. Overseers were encouraged to experiment with the development of specialized crews for tasks such as pruning, brushing, and drain maintenance—splitting the tasks of cultivation into smaller units and handing down detailed research-based instructions for jobs that had previously been left largely to workers’ own judgment and experience.
The ethnic recomposition of United’s isthmian work force during this period, with native Central American mestizos replacing West Indian workers, smoothed the transition to the new labor regime. No company payroll census exists, but all available evidence indicates a steep decline in the proportion of West Indian workers on company plantations and an equally steep rise in the proportion of Hispanic Central Americans between the beginning of World War I and the end of the 1920s. The new workers, migrants from arid, cattle-ranching regions of the isthmus and the relatively temperate interior, lacked the Antilleans’ generations of familiarity with commercial banana cultivation. One Jamaican-born former banana worker in Limón recalled for an anthropologist: “The Spaniards when them come they work, but they don’t know the work. They can’t dig drain, they can’t grade a banana.” The new workers—”inexperienced mozos,” in the words of one overseer—were particularly apt for the deskilled, directed division of labor that company agronomists believed (paradoxically) would raise cultivation standards.
The actual patterns of change in ethnicity and labor regime, however, were more complex than the above sketch suggests. The company’s expanding Honduran operations, for example, saw steady intensification of labor and cultivation systems in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but this process was not directly linked to work- force ethnic change. Instead, it was the widening gap between the dynamism of the banana sector and languishing subsistence economies in the interior that attracted waves of highland Hondurans and immigrant Salvadorans to banana payrolls. As racially inflected nationalist pressure slowed new Jamaican immigration, Hispanics came to predominate.
In diseased divisions like Limón, on the other hand, where surveys suggested that remaining soils were short-lived, and Panama disease was pervasive, the company did not risk investment in more intensive cultivation. Instead, United increased the share of fruit purchased from planters under contract. While Honduran contract production fell to less than 20 percent by 1930, in Costa Rica the percentage of UFCo bananas grown by “private” planters rose from less than 50 percent before World War I to 75 percent by 1930. Paradoxically, among workers on United’s own plantations, falling in-house production contributed to the same kind of ethnic transition that increased investment had yielded in Honduras. Vacated lands and rising fruit purchases offered West Indians the opportunity to leave company payrolls and use their skills on their own small farms. Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans took their places on United’s plantations. As fruit production shifted to Jamaican smallholders, pouring family labor into “third-class” reserve lands, or into abandoned but still marginally viable plantations, Limón’s labor process actually became, overall, less integrated and more “traditional.”
The long survival of pockets of smallholder banana production, like the relatively slow pace of the fusarial epidemic in Jamaica (where large, corporate plantations were the exception), points to a major irony in the banana industry’s struggle with Panama disease. Scattered “peasant” producers, by mixing their cultivations and separating them from United’s vast monocultural operations, were more capable of resisting disease spread than the company’s modern, agronomically “sound” (but monocultural) operations. Had it not been for the appearance in 1935 of another fungal epidemic, sigatoka (a disease amenable to chemical treatment, but only through installation of a costly fumigation infrastructure), this vestigial contract production might have persisted for many years in Limón and perhaps in Panama.
For workers who remained on the dwindling percentage of plantations operated by the company, as well as workers on the larger “private” plantations, the decay of the Costa Rican Atlantic banana industry brought dismissals, wage cuts, the decay of company housing, and the virtual abandonment of hospitals and clinics. A spiral of production decline set in as overseers on afflicted plantations drew out the intervals between such elements of routine agricultural maintenance as pruning, weed control, and drain clearance. Without upkeep, plantation yields dropped even more precipitously, while workers’ piece-rate tasks grew ever-more arduous and less remunerative. Many factors—including the general economic stress of the Depression and aggressive Communist organizing—contributed to the famous 1934 general strike of Costa Rican banana workers. Nonetheless, the disinvestment and corporate pressure on work regimes inspired by Panama disease played a central, if seldom-recognized, role. Further research may clarify whether neglect of older diseased plantations and the pressures of expansion in areas of “first-class” soils played a similar part in the violent series of banana strikes in Honduras in 1930–1931, but these events of the 1930s, and the second isthmus-wide upsurge of banana strikes during the epidemic’s resurgence after World War II (discussed below), suggest a larger relationship between disease-caused plantation decline, intensified labor exploitation, and worker protest.
For the company, ceasing to invest in older plantations seemed an economically rational policy. It was, as Wardlaw observed, “undecided and doubtful” that older diseased regions could be profitably rehabilitated. Instead, the principal investments of capital, technology, and expertise flowed into new regions opened by United from the mid-1920s through the late 1930s. In Puerto Armuelles, Panama (1927), the upper Ulúa Valley, Honduras (late 1920s), Tiquisate, Guatemala (1936), Quepos and Golfito, Costa Rica (1938), United Fruit could put in place centralized, technically efficient operations on soils minutely surveyed for maximum disease resistance as determined by the latest agricultural research. This also meant, of course, the initiation of new cycles of deforestation, monocultural production, and worker migration.
It was not coincidental that three of the new operations were located on the “comparatively arid” Pacific littoral of the Central American isthmus, and all (unlike United’s older regions) had distinct, if brief, dry seasons and required irrigation. The prolonged Panama disease–free state of irrigated plantations in Santa Marta, Colombia, and the St. Catherine district of Jamaica, along with suggestive laboratory experiments, had fostered a tentative agronomic consensus during the early 1920s that close control of soil moisture through a combination of irrigation and elaborate drainage systems—possible only in a somewhat drier environment—could inhibit Fusarium infection. Despite a subsequent outbreak of Panama disease in St. Catherine in 1926, banana agronomists clung for a considerable time thereafter to the hypothesis that dry seasons and irrigation prevented disease. Meanwhile, investment and planning for the company’s Pacific littoral expansion became irreversible.
The new regions’ revolution in control of soil-water relations went well beyond irrigation. Bad drainage had been associated with the exceptionally rapid spread of disease from the epidemic’s earliest phases. The company’s expansion zones would no longer rely on hand shovels and natural drainage; in the new Panamanian division of Chiriqui, huge diesel-powered drag-lines excavated well over three million cubic meters of earth to install a network of eighty kilometers of main drainage canals before planting. North American technicians described such work as a sort of redemptive, mechanized war against tropical nature: “a drag-line . . . hissing and snorting like some huge monster, pushes its way through the jungle and digs a wide drainage canal through the swamp. It crushes in its path the luxuriant tropical vegetation and bites the black mud with huge crunching teeth—teeth of steel . . . parts of a process that will metamorphose the tropical swamplands into richly productive areas.” Human drain-diggers would now build only secondary systems, or clean behind the great machines—themselves operated by North Americans and Europeans.
As the 1920s wore on, United’s engineers and agronomists began putting earth-moving machinery to work for an even more ambitious goal. Extensive systems of dams, canals, and levees in Chiriqui and Tela, Honduras (later in Golfito and Tiquisate), directed silt-laden runoff over plantation sites judged insufficiently endowed, in order to create artificially the rich, theoretically disease-resistant plantation sites that nature had neglected to provide. Workers in all divisions now routinely spread nitrogen and calcium fertilizers, and they “forked” (hand tilled) soil between mats. Where terrain made it practical, the company began turning the soil with heavy machinery. Although the precise links between soil deficiencies and Panama disease still eluded company researchers, United nonetheless tried to duplicate the soil ecology of resistant plantations by both large-scale and incremental measures. As Thomas O’Brien and Ana Luisa Cerdas Albertazzi have shown for Honduras and Golfito respectively, the company’s new operations were marked by a heightened quest for control of all aspects of life within the enclaves. That quest began with a drive for control of the plants, soils, and waters of the plantations.
Former critics applauded what they saw as a revolution in cultivation practices. In 1940, Wardlaw was invited to tour United’s showplace operations on the Ulúa in Honduras. After describing with awe the new cultivation technologies he observed there—careful soil surveys, overhead spray irrigation systems, elaborate drainage, siltation, and diversion earthworks—as well as the new supervisory role of agronomists and the implicit subordination of “native labor,” Wardlaw hailed the end of the era of plantation abandonment. “Such innovations are of the greatest significance in the agricultural development of Central America. They mark the transition from the impermanence and rough-and-ready exploitation of other days to the rational utilization of natural resources and to . . . permanence.” United’s own publicists were even less restrained. The “jungle” that company discourse had long depicted as implacably hostile, chanting a “hymn of hate,” was now portrayed as a vanquished foe. An article published in 1948, on the occasion of United Fruit’s fiftieth year of corporate life, explicitly linked the company’s new “permanent” cultivation system, control of “creeping progress-consuming tropical Mother Nature,” and a supposed modern, industrial division of labor. “Virtually overnight, tens of thousands of machete swingers have become spray men, mechanics, tractor operators and technicians. This is the significant achievement of the last 20 years: control.” But deep contradictions lay behind such public-relations boasts. United’s new agricultural and managerial practices had indeed fostered an increasingly elaborate labor regime, including new kinds of work, and old tasks now subdivided and technically defined. Not only were new job categories created by drag-line canal construction, earthworks excavation, overhead irrigation, fertilizer broadcast, and mechanical tillage, but old jobs now had a multiplicity of new, differential piece-rates and compliance requirements. Comparison of a plantation task-wage schedule from 1931 with the task rates over which banana workers and managers bargained twenty years later shows job and wage categories more than doubling. Despite (or perhaps because of) the growing corporate specification and control over the plantation labor process, the post–World War II decade would see more sustained and successful labor militancy than United Fruit had ever faced. Moreover, during the same period, United’s real ability to contain its Panama disease losses became more tenuous and the consequences of failure more disastrous than ever.
While the new technologies raised yields somewhat on uninfected lands, Panama disease appeared in most of the new “agriculturally sound” operations almost immediately. As with the earlier period, detailed records of Panama disease–related abandonments are mostly unavailable, but the broad outlines of the problem demonstrate its seriousness. The most striking disease casualty was Costa Rica’s relatively new Quepos Division, where reserve banana lands ran out by 1947 and banana exports ended altogether in 1956. At its peak, the division had supported over 5,400 hectares and 5,700 workers in banana production. Tiquisate, on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, also suffered enormous losses, declining throughout the 1950s and finally closing entirely in 1964. Figures on yearly abandonments are available for one of several regions that suffered but did not close operations—the Ulúa Valley in Honduras, which Wardlaw had praised in 1940 as a model of the new “permanent” cultivation. According to UFCo plant pathologist R. H. Stover, between 1940 and 1948, Panama disease destroyed between 450 and 850 hectares per year in the Ulúa. In 1949, the infection exploded, and it devastated over 1,600 hectares per year between that year and 1960. Moreover, many measures such as irrigation and silting projects had apparently been more effective in spreading the fungus to uninfected areas than in building resistance to it.
The failure of the whole technical and managerial apparatus aimed at fostering plantation resistance refocused the attention of the company’s agronomists from the ecology of cultivation to Fusarium oxysporum f. cubense, the disease pathogen. The titles of scientific publications on the disease capture this shift. Between 1917 and 1940, of twenty-six Panama disease–related research papers written by scientists associated with the United Fruit Company, the name of the pathogen (or a variant of it) appears in the titles of only eight. By contrast, in twenty-seven Panama-disease titles written by UFCo researchers from 1940 to 1960, the full Latin name of the fungus appears in twenty-three. In fact, the term “Panama disease” all but disappears during this period, replaced by “Fusarium wilt.”
The new concentration on the fungus reflected a new paradigm for the disease. Rather than a symptom of unhealthy agro-ecological conditions, managers and technicians increasingly equated the disease with its pathogen. As a consequence, researchers again sought a chemical or mechanical means of destroying the disease organism—a cure rather than the failed project of building disease-resistant “vigor.” World War II–era advances in the agricultural and life sciences made the times propitious for such a change. Just as antibiotics had quickly replaced more indirect means of fighting human diseases, DDT and a new generation of insecticides were proving to be remarkably effective “magic bullets” against once-devastating agricultural pests. In fact, United’s own scientists (the same corps in charge of fighting Panama disease) were flush with their recent success in using a chemical spray to turn back the potentially catastrophic leaf infection, sigatoka.
In the early 1940s, Fusarium researchers again began to experiment with chemical fungicides, including formaldehyde, despite the clear impossibility of soaking all 9,215 cubic meters of soil per hectare that potentially harbored the fungus. But United’s most sustained and serious experiment in curing Panama disease involved what it called flood-fallowing: using earth-moving equipment to create meter-deep artificial lakes to drown the oxygen-loving Fusarium spores. The pharaonic scale of the work—flooding, draining, and reflooding thousands of hectares for many months—made it only slightly less ambitious, costly, and environmentally reckless than chemical treatment would have been. Nonetheless, Vining Dunlap’s pilot experiment at the Lancetilla Station in 1939 showed sufficient promise for the company to rush it into use after World War II, submerging over 4,000 hectares in Panama and 6,100 hectares in Honduras between 1945 and 1955. In 1951, the company’s president announced to stockholders that flood-fallowing had solved the problem of abandonments: “it is now possible to plant sizable acreages to bananas on lands formerly considered unsuitable for bananas and to recover certain acreages previously abandoned.”
United planned to recover the abandoned acreage of its first mainland division as well. In 1952, the company proposed, and Costa Rica’s Ulate administration accepted, an agreement for the “rehabilitation of the Province of Limón” in which United would have the right to “freely exploit waters in the public domain . . . for the flooding of lands belonging to it, or which it possesses through any title, or which belong to other persons or entities with whom it makes arrangements for that end, for the rehabilitation of the lands of that industry, and may for these purposes build and exploit channels, reservoirs, defensive dikes, levees to retain waters, dams, drains, pumps and other works of temporary or permanent character.” But despite its very substantial investment in studies and designs, the company withdrew from the project during the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly’s long deliberations on ratification.
Although political tensions with the new José Figueres administration over export taxes may have contributed, mounting evidence that flood-fallowing did not “cure” Panama disease undoubtedly played the most significant role in United’s decision in 1954 to abandon (again) the Atlantic zone of Costa Rica. As “rehabilitated” plantations increasingly succumbed once more to the disease in the early 1950s, researchers found they had again underestimated the complexity of tropical soil ecology. Although flooding reduced Fusarium populations to very low levels, it was even more deadly to microbial competitors. The aggressive pathogen thus recolonized flood-sterilized soils with astonishing speed. Ultimately, disease rendered reinfected plantations unproductive far too quickly to justify the herculean effort and expense of the procedure, and flood-fallowing of new areas ceased after 1955. Inexorable environmental change, in the form of a lowly fungus, continued to frustrate the corporate giant’s ability to produce its product wherever it wished.
Although United frantically accelerated research into new chemical treatments, cover crops, and deep-cultivation systems, a “cure” for the disease in susceptible banana varieties has yet to be found. The failure of flood-fallowing came at a moment of acute corporate crisis for the United Fruit Company. The extremely high fixed costs of the new intensive cultivation methods, along with the mounting reluctance of tropical governments to furnish United with new sections of their national territories, meant that migration from diseased areas to “virgin” lands was very costly. As the disease advanced in all of United’s host countries (for it had finally appeared in Colombia), the company’s control of geographic space slipped away, and its profits followed. The company’s postwar financial problems were compounded as labor crisis and agro-ecological crisis converged again. Workers in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras, organized for the first time in relatively durable unions, staged repeated, division-wide strikes, primarily over rates of pay in the piecework system that had been put in place to strengthen control of cultivation. Net corporate earnings plummeted from $35 million in 1950 to less than $5 million in 1956, while the value per share of UFCo stock dropped from $71 in 1951 to less than $40 in 1957. Most distressing for the company’s management, failure to control Panama disease precipitated the loss of United’s cherished monopoly in the North American banana trade.
As the company later acknowledged, UFCo’s withdrawal from the “rehabilitation” of the Atlantic zone in Costa Rica was a key decision in its loss of control over banana markets and geographic space. United’s only competitor in the U.S. market, Standard Fruit, a comparatively tiny firm whose isthmian land base was confined to a limited area in Honduras, had experimented with Panama disease–resistant Cavendish varieties since World War II. Finally, in the early 1950s, Standard developed a simple boxing procedure that would allow these easily bruised fruits to survive shipping. In 1956, Standard and the Costa Rican government came to an “extraordinarily rapid” agreement to allow the firm, and other companies as well, to reopen Limón to banana production with disease-resistant bananas. A U.S. antitrust suit prevented UFCo from flexing its political muscle to squelch the challenge, and thus Standard finally broke out of Honduras, and United faced the specter of competitive banana production throughout Central America.
Nonetheless, United’s “old-line” managers continued to argue that Standard’s success was “a flash in the pan.” Eventually, they maintained, anything other than Gros Michel bananas ripened on large stems “would be thrown out of the markets” by the U.S. jobbers and warehouses with whom they had fostered a relationship based on predictable ripening and standardized appearance. A high-level manager in Honduras quipped that “varieties is a dirty word in Boston.” Ready to go to almost any length to impose its will on tropical soils, workers, and states, the United Fruit Company felt itself to be helpless in the face of perceived market preferences. United’s management agonized for six more years, during which its profits deteriorated and more competitors entered the market, before following suit and replacing its Gros Michel cultivations with the resistant Cavendish variety “Valery.” When the company finally bowed to the inevitable in 1962, the era of Panama disease came to an end (apparently), but the era of United Fruit’s absolute dominance of the banana industry was already over.
In a sense, the real protagonist of this narrative has been hidden throughout most of its pages. Fusarium oxysporum f. cubense, the microscopic causal organism of Panama disease, humbled a multinational corporate giant whose economic, social, and political powers remain legendary in the Western Hemisphere. The company’s search for a formula to achieve plantation “resistance” to Panama disease led to fundamental change in the organization and labor processes of banana production. As we have seen, United’s management shared, for a time, its detractors’ belief that “backward” and “wasteful” agricultural practices (the result, managers believed, of excessive reliance on the peasant techniques of plantation workers) were responsible for the epidemic. But their effort to respond by revolutionizing the industry’s systems of production did not follow the wishes of nationalist critics but, rather, the logic of corporate rationality and managerial control. The company’s ultimate inability to defeat the disease indicates the ironic, ecological limits of that logic.
The story of United Fruit’s confrontation with Panama disease is unique only in that the disease’s slow, sixty-year progress gave the company time to elaborate a variety of responses to it. United’s size and market position allow us to understand those responses in relative isolation from the pressures of competition or lack of resources: an agro-ecological crisis in slow motion, faced by an archetypal agribusiness. Interrelationships among ecological forces, corporate culture, labor process, and labor conflict may thus deserve scrutiny in other regions’ intensively managed agricultural sectors, where overarching theories of “Fordist” development, according to the logic of industrial capitalism alone, often do not adequately explain change. The “radical simplification” of agricultural ecologies in the cultivation of other commodity crops, such as cotton, sugar cane, and coffee, have also led to protracted struggles with pests and diseases. Attention to changing agronomic visions, technologies, and labor systems in these agricultural sectors may provide fruitful cases for comparison.
United’s struggle with the epidemic is also important for understanding the political and social history of Central America, where resistance and accommodation to the multinational corporation have helped shape class relations, the development of nationalism, and the political order of the isthmus throughout most of the twentieth century. To cite a well-known example, the resurgence of Panama disease and the failure of control measures are crucial, neglected aspects of United’s infamous support for the 1954 CIA-organized coup in Guatemala that halted redistribution of the company’s land reserves. Moreover, the relationship suggested here between agro-ecological crisis and the timing and trajectory of labor protest has important implications for the history of social movements on the isthmus, where banana workers have often been at the forefront of twentieth-century popular struggles.
On this level, as on others, Panama disease exposes the links between the labor history and the environmental history of the banana industry. At least for capitalist agricultural and extractive industries, environmental history and “labor process”–influenced labor history have much to offer one another. Environmental historians have insightfully examined the changing relationship of society to nature in rural transitions to capitalism, yet the new class created by that transition, wage workers unattached to the land, largely drops out of their analyses. Labor process analysts, on the other hand, working within the Marxist tradition, often seem to follow Marx in viewing nature as “fixed” after human labor transforms it, and thus neglect serious analysis of the dynamism of ecological change in agricultural and resource-based systems. Approaches synthesizing the insights of the two historiographies may prove valuable wherever managers simultaneously reduce nature and workers to somewhat untrustworthy “factors of production.”[114 ]
Fusarium oxysporum f. cubense is not, however, a subject of merely historiographic and scholarly interest. Although the end of Gros Michel cultivation seemed to cut short the corporate and scientific search for control of Panama disease, it is now being renewed. In the late 1980s, previously non-susceptible Cavendish banana varieties in many parts of the world (though not yet in Latin America) began to succumb to a new Fusarium mutation. Many plant pathologists believe that Panama disease is again a threat to the global banana industry, and this time there is no resistant commercializable cultivar. In the 1950s, the disease’s extraordinary adaptability and persistence led the writer of that decade’s standard text on banana cultivation to comment, “there is a sense in which the susceptible [variety] has generated its own pathogen.” In other words, Panama disease can be seen as an ecological artifact of the enormous scale and genetic uniformity of banana production. We may thus (perhaps uncomfortably) view the fungus as an unlikely environmental locus of resistance to corporate agriculture’s will to power.
The consequences of that will are now more visible than ever, in a banana plantation labor process that is literally poisoned. Even though chemical treatments for Panama disease were never successful, they were much sought after by the corps of scientists and technicians created for the battle against Fusarium. These researchers looked increasingly to chemical cures for every potential biological setback in banana production. From the 1950s through the 1990s, banana company agronomists resorted ever-more routinely to herbicides, insecticides, nematicides, and fungicide “cocktails” in plantation maintenance. In fact, their sophistication and collective expertise ultimately made them potent spokesmen for chemical control of pests in many sectors of tropical agriculture.
Banana workers have paid a physical price for the industry’s search for technological cures for agro-ecological problems. From 1938 to 1962, spraying by hand for sigatoka control probably damaged the respiratory systems of many thousands of plantation workers. In more recent years, rates of both acute and chronic pesticide poisoning among banana workers in Costa Rica (the only banana-producing country with meaningful data) have outstripped those of any other agricultural sector. The mass-sterilization of banana plantation workers in five producing countries by one pesticide became a cause célèbre among labor and environmental activists. The chemical responsible, DBCP, was applied from the 1960s through the early 1980s to combat nematode pests, to which Fusarium-resistant banana varieties are, ironically, particularly vulnerable. These human and environmental tragedies have, I believe, deep historical roots. Some of thoseroots are buried in Panama disease–infected soils.
Steve Marquardt is the director of the Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington, where he is a PhD candidate in history. He is completing, under the direction of Charles Bergquist, a dissertation on the intersections of labor and environmental history in United Fruit Company operations in Golfito and Quepos, Costa Rica.
A version of this article was presented at the Tercero Congreso de Historia Centroamericana in San José, Costa Rica, in June 1996. The author gratefully acknowledges research support grants in 1995 from the Social Science Research Council and the Institute for International Education. Special thanks are due to Steven Palmer, Charles Bergquist, Richard White, Philippe Bourgois, the editors and anonymous readers of the AHR, and my good friend Carlos Hernandez, for their invaluable advice in preparation of this essay.
1 E. W. Brandes, “Banana Wilt,” Phytopathology 9 (September 1919): 345, 350–51.
2 Claude W. Wardlaw, Diseases of the Banana and of the Manila Hemp Plant (London, 1935), 28. A list of Panama disease–destroyed banana operations compiled by one United scientist includes Almirante, Panama, abandoned in 1926, the Truxillo Division in Honduras (1939), Limón, Costa Rica (1940), Nicaragua’s entire export industry (1942), the Bananera Division in Guatemala (1955), and the Quepos Division in Costa Rica (1956). Other areas, such as Tela in Honduras and the company’s Jamaican operations, also suffered heavy damage, as did Standard Fruit’s Honduran plantings and British Commonwealth cultivations in the Caribbean and Belize. R. H. Stover, Fusarial Wilt (Panama Disease) of Bananas (Kew, 1962), 85 [table].
3 Carey McWilliams, Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California (Boston, 1939). The business historian Alfred Chandler notes that United Fruit was one of only five agricultural firms (and the only one noteworthy for its managerial innovation) on his list of the 278 largest industrial enterprises in the United States at the close of World War I. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, 1977), 346. For discussions of “Fordism” in agriculture, see Martin Kenney, Linda M. Lobao, James Curry, and Richard Goe, “Agriculture in U.S. Fordism: The Integration of the Productive Consumer,” in William H. Friedland, Lawrence Busch, Frederick H. Buttel, and Alan P. Rudy, eds., Towards a New Political Economy of Agriculture (Boulder, Colo., 1991), 173–88; Alessandro Bonano, Lawrence Busch, William H. Friedland, Lourdes Gouvelda, and Enzo Mingione, “Introduction,” From Columbus to ConAgra: The Globalization of Agriculture and Food (Lawrence, Kans., 1994), 13–14; David Goodman and Michael Redclift, Refashioning Nature: Food, Ecology, and Culture (London, 1991), 99–102.
4 David Noble, “Social Choice in Machine Design: The Case of Automatically Controlled Machine Tools,” in Andrew Zimbalist, ed., Case Studies on the Labor Process (New York, 1979), 30.
5 Donald Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” Journal of American History 76 (March 1990): 1101.
6 Warren Dean, Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History (1987; Cambridge, 1990), 6.
7 Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1974). For historical work using Braverman’s insights, see David Montgomery’s seminal works on U.S. labor history, especially Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology and Labor Struggles (Cambridge, 1979); see also Noble, “Social Choice in Machine Design.”
8 “Informe de M. Quesada a la Comisión Investigadora de la Industria Bananera,” November 11, 1932, Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (hereafter, ANCR), 1727. Pablo Neruda’s poem “La United Fruit Co.” is perhaps the most powerful literary expression of the widespread Latin American identification of UFCo with U.S. imperialism. Ben Belitt, ed., Pablo Neruda: Five Decades, a Selection (Poems, 1925–1970) (New York, 1974), 78–79. Critical works by Central American scholars on United Fruit, dismissive of Panama disease, include Reinaldo Carcanholo, “Sobre la evolución de las actividades bananeras en Costa Rica,” Estudios sociales centroamericanos 19 (1978): 170–71; Jeffrey Casey Gaspar, Limón, 1880–1940: Un estudio de la industria bananera en Costa Rica (San José, 1979), 63; Elizabeth Fonseca C., Centroamérica: Su historia (San José, 1996), 177; Edelberto Torres-Rivas, History and Society in Central America, Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez, trans. (Austin, Tex., 1993), 59–66, 78. For classic, still invaluable, North American critiques of United Fruit that view Panama disease as a symptom of UFCo’s exhaustion of tropical soils, see Charles David Kepner and Jay Henry Soothill, The Banana Empire: A Case Study of Economic Imperialism (New York, 1935), 31–32; and Kepner, Social Aspects of the Banana Industry (New York, 1936), 89. For contrasting views, casting United’s fight against Panama disease in a heroic light, see several works by authors closely associated with or on the payroll of the company: Charles Morrow Wilson, Empire in Green and Gold: The Story of the American Banana Trade (New York, 1947), 214–303; Stacy May and Galo Plaza, The United Fruit Company in Latin America (Washington, D.C., 1958), 73–94; Diane K. Stanley, For the Record: The United Fruit Company’s Sixty-six Years in Guatemala (Guatemala, 1994), 49–50.
9 Aviva Chomsky, West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, 1870–1940 (Baton Rouge, La., 1996), 66. For political histories, see Paul J. Dosal, Doing Business with the Dictators: A Political History of United Fruit in Guatemala, 1899–1944 (Wilmington, Del., 1993), 166; Lester D. Langley and Thomas Schoonover, The Banana Men: American Mercenaries and Entrepreneurs in Central America, 1880–1930 (Lexington, Ky., 1995). For social and ethnic histories, see especially Philippe I. Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work: Divided Labor on a Central American Banana Plantation (Baltimore, Md., 1989); Chomsky, West Indian Workers; Thomas F. O’Brien, The Revolutionary Mission: American Enterprise in Latin America, 1900–1945 (Cambridge, 1996); Cindy Forster, “Reforging National Revolution: Campesino Labor Struggles in Guatemala, 1944–1954,” in Aviva Chomsky and Aldo Lauria-Santiago, eds., Identity and Struggle at the Margins of the Nation-State: The Laboring Peoples of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean (Durham, N.C., 1998). Darío A. Euraque’s study of the relationship between the banana zone and the state in Honduras straddles both historiographical currents: Euraque, Reinterpreting the “Banana Republic”: Region and State in Honduras, 1870–1972 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996). In contrast to historians’ neglect of environmental factors, see a geographer’s study of present-day West Indian banana cultivation: Lawrence S. Grossman, The Political Ecology of Bananas: Contract Farming, Peasants, and Agrarian Change in the Eastern Caribbean (Chapel Hill, 1998). Grossman is also attentive to labor process issues. His case study, however, is a small-farm region on the periphery of the banana industry, with relatively low production, which entered export production after the Panama disease era, and remains viable only through EU preferential tariffs. For these reasons, Grossman could not address the historical issues considered here.
10 UFCo and its corporate successors, United Brands and Chiquita, have generally maintained an aggressively secretive stance toward academics and journalists: the pressure that Chiquita recently brought to bear on one newspaper to retract its investigative reporting on Chiquita is one of many examples: “An Apology to Chiquita,” Cincinnati Enquirer (June 28, 1998): 1. A striking exception was the success of anthropologist Philippe Bourgois in photocopying selections from a cache of UFCo documents he found in a warehouse in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Unfortunately for the present inquiry, this private document collection, cited hereafter as “UFCo-Bourgois Papers,” primarily relates to Bourgois’s research focus on relations between plantation ethnic groups.
11 Claude W. Wardlaw, Green Havoc in the Lands of the Caribbean (London, 1935). For appraisals of Panama disease (by writers not associated with UFCo) that rank it with such famine-producing epidemics as wheat rust and potato blight, see Robert P. Scheffer, The Nature of Disease in Plants (Cambridge, 1997), 215; N. W. Simmonds, Bananas (London, 1959), 367; G. L. Carefoot and E. R. Sprott, Famine on the Wind: Man’s Battle against Plant Disease (Chicago, 1967), 130.
12 Carolyn Hall, Costa Rica: A Geographical Interpretation in Historical Perspective (Boulder, Colo., 1985), 15, 25, 30–32. Similar processes were at work in the other Atlantic (and a few Pacific) banana zones of Central America. Smallholders in the Bay Islands and north coast of Honduras, a high proportion of whom were of Antillean descent, with little connection with the interior of the isthmus, made similar discoveries about their alluvial and coastal soils during this period. Richard LaBarge, “A Study of United Fruit Company Operations in Isthmian America, 1946–1956” (PhD dissertation, Duke University, 1960), 10–11; Euraque, Reinterpreting the “Banana Republic,” 24–26.
13 For surveys of the requirements and potential of large-scale banana cultivation, see William Fawcett, The Banana: Its Cultivation and Commercial Uses, 2d edn. (London, 1921); Simmonds, Bananas; N. W. Simmonds and R. H. Stover, Bananas, 3d edn. (London, 1987); Moises Soto, Bananos: Cultivo y comercialización (San José, 1985).
14 LaBarge, “Study of United Fruit,” 8–16.
15 William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, 1991), 259. Indeed, as an effective monopoly, with substantial production on its own lands, UFCo had improved on Swift and Armour’s example. Victor Cutter, United’s president through most of the 1920s, explicitly looked to the meat packers as business models. Samuel Crowther, The Romance and Rise of the American Tropics (Garden City, N.Y., 1929), 226.
16 O’Brien, Revolutionary Mission, 52.
17 Casey Gaspar, Limón, 9.
18 Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work, 48. Keith originally experimented with Chinese, then Italian, workers, but neither they nor highland Costa Ricans were willing to endure exposure to yellow fever and malaria for Keith’s wages. See Carmen Murillo Chaverri, Identidades de hierro y humo: La construcción del ferrocarril al Atlántico, 1870–1890 (San José, 1995), 82–88.
19 Sidney W. Mintz, Caribbean Transformations (Baltimore, Md., 1974), 159, 186.
20 Baker’s later acquisition of land for banana production did not change the smallholding character of the early Jamaican industry, as most was rented to small farmers. W. Randolph Barlett, Jr., “Lorenzo Dow Baker and the Development of the Banana Trade between Jamaica and the United States, 1881–1890” (PhD dissertation, American University, Washington, D.C., 1977), 48–50, 76–80. For another study ascribing a foundational role in the international banana trade to Jamaican smallholders, see Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore, Md., 1992), 349–56.
21 Charles Koch, “Ethnicity and Livelihoods: A Social Geography of Costa Rica’s Atlantic Coast” (PhD dissertation, University of Kansas, 1975), 123.
22 William Fawcett, “The Banana Industry in Jamaica,” West Indian Bulletin, no. 3 (1902): 153–71; Bulletin of the Department of Agriculture (Jamaica), new ser., 22, cited in Fawcett, Banana: Its Cultivation and Uses, 56. See also Mintz, Caribbean Transformations, 236; Jean Besson, “Agrarian Relations and Perceptions of Land in a Jamaican Peasant Village,” and Theo Hills, “The Caribbean Peasant Food Forest, Ecological Artistry or Random Chaos,” in John Brierley and Hymie Rubenstein, eds., Small Farming and Peasant Resources in the Caribbean (Winnipeg, 1988).
23 Letter to Victor Cutter [author’s name illegible], Bocas del Toro, Panama, April 19, 1916, UFCo-Bourgois Papers.
24 Samuel J. Record and Henry Kuylen, “Trees of the Lower Rio Motagua Valley, Guatemala,” Tropical Woods 1 (September 1, 1926): 10. See also entomologist Amelia Calvert’s account of travel through reserve banana lands in Bananito, Costa Rica, in 1910. She describes them as dark, close-canopied, but open enough to walk through comfortably. Amelia Smith Calvert and Philip Powell Calvert, A Year of Costa Rican Natural History (New York, 1917), 290.
25 United Fruit Company Educational Department, The Story of the Banana (Boston, 1936), 17–18. One divergence from peasant planting practice should be noted: in a concession to corporate notions of good order, the planting grid on UFCo plantations was first measured and laid out with stakes. The infusion of nutrients provided by rapidly rotting downed trees was absolutely necessary for banana cultivation: their levels in uncleared soils were quite low. For a United Fruit soil scientist’s surprised reaction to this finding, see Samuel C. Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, United Fruit Company Research Laboratory Bulletin No. 3 (Boston, 1918), 571.
26 See soil comparison charts for the Costa Rican Division and the Jamaican Division in Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, 66–143, 424–83. For Jamaica, see also Fawcett, “Banana Industry,” 161.
27 The total number of Central American bananas exported increased by an average of 5.5 percent per year between 1899 and 1930. Frank Ellis, Las transnacionales del banano en Centroamérica (San José, 1983), 51.
28 On recruitment, see Chomsky, West Indian Workers, 34–35, 44. The 1908 British percentage estimate is cited in Elisavinda Echeverri-Gent, “Forgotten Workers: British West Indians and the Early Days of the Banana Industry in Costa Rica and Honduras,” Journal of Latin American Studies 24 (1992): 285; the U.S. estimate, made in 1918, is cited in Dosal, Doing Business with the Dictators, 138 n. 39. While the 75 percent figure may be exaggerated (especially for 1918), scholars are in agreement on West Indian predominance before World War I. For Guatemala, in addition to Dosal, see Forster, “Reforging National Revolution,” 200. For West Indians in Panama and Costa Rica, the literature is vast. See Koch, “Ethnicity and Livelihoods”; Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work; Chomsky, West Indian Workers; Echeverri-Gent, “Forgotten Workers”; Ronald Harpelle, “The Social and Political Integration of West Indians in Costa Rica: 1930–1950,” Journal of Latin American Studies 25 (1991). Honduras, the latest-starting UFCo operation, probably had the lowest proportion of West Indian immigrant workers, but there, too, Jamaicans and the Caribbean-descended black workers were the core of the pre–World War I labor force. In addition to Echeverri-Gent, see Darío Euraque, “Nationalism and Mestizaje in Honduras,” in Chomsky and Lauria-Santiago, Identity and Struggle at the Margins of the Nation-State, 155–57.
29 Among these explanations, the relatively greater labor-market availability of Jamaicans for lowland tropical work, compared to highland Central Americans; the greater control that West Indians’ relative political and social isolation as foreign workers gave the company; the “cultural familiarity” of English-speaking Protestant Jamaicans for North American managers compared to Hispanic and indigenous Central Americans. Quince Duncan and Carlos Meléndez, El Negro en Costa Rica, 8th edn. (San José, 1981), 104; Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work, 49–51, 75–76; Chomsky, West Indian Workers, 51.
30 Circular del gerente no. 128, Puerto Armuelles, Panama, April 26, 1932, UFCo-Bourgois Papers.
31 Vernon W. Gooch, “Letters from a Company Traveler,” Unifruitco (February 1929): 390; Stanley, For the Record, 96–97. Unifruitco, the intermittently published internal magazine of the United Fruit Company, is an interesting, under-utilized source. Especially in its early years, it appears to have been a genuine channel for pooling of information and experiences among geographically separated managers and engineers. Unfortunately, issues published after its post–World War II rebirth show much greater influence from the company’s famous public relations department, and should be consulted more cautiously.
32 Wardlaw, Green Havoc, 57.
33 Wilson, Empire in Green and Gold, 118. Wilson, whose work was sponsored by UFCo, is referring here to the success of United’s “first banana plantings.”
34 Marc Trafton, Jr., “Raising Cane and Growing Bananas,” in Clyde S. Stephens, ed., Bananeros in Central America: True Stories of the Tropics (Fort Meyers, Fla., 1989), 111.
35 Crowther, Romance and Rise, 232. By the time of Crowther’s and Trafton’s experiences in the second half of the 1920s, many Jamaicans had left the lower ranks of the work force to return home, or to establish small farms, under circumstances to be discussed below. The Jamaican presence was thus concentrated among higher level employees such as foremen.
36 Quoted in Paula Palmer, “Wa’apin Man”: La historia de la costa talamanqueña de Costa Rica, según sus protagonistas, 2d edn. (San José, 1994), 144. See also Palmer’s interview with Mr. Cyril Gray, p. 121.
37 The phrase was originally coined by the early twentieth-century radical U.S. labor leader “Big Bill” Haywood, but Montgomery has used it to characterize the control that craftsmen exercised in industry before the implementation of “scientific management.” David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (Cambridge, 1987), 9.
38 John Stuart Erskine, “Jones,” Unifruitco (August 1926): 26.
39 Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, 66–142, 160–238.
40 Claude W. Wardlaw and Laurence P. McGuire, “Panama Disease of Bananas: Reports on Scientific Visits to the Banana Growing Countries of the West Indies, Central and South America,” Empire Marketing Board Reports, no. 20 (London, 1919), 46–47. The relatively strict plantation quarantine measures adopted by Jamaican growers may have delayed the disease’s onslaught by a few years, but they did not prevent an eventual outbreak. The epidemic there did remain slower-paced than in Central America, as will be discussed below.
41 Memo from Calder to Taylor, Almirante, Panama, May 16, 1929, UFCo-Bourgois Papers.
42 Earnest Hamlin Baker, “The United Fruit Company,” Fortune (March 1933): 118, 125–26, 129. The Great Depression itself seems to have had relatively little to do with this—demand and prices for bananas remained remarkably strong.
43 “The United Fruit Company first began studies on this problem [Panama disease] in 1903, and has continued them more or less steadily since then.” J. R. Johnston, “General Tropical Research,” Unifruitco (February 1928): 395. For a rough chronology of Panama disease research, including reference to much work that remains unavailable due to the company’s obsessive secrecy, see a UFCo phytopathologist’s monograph published after the end of the epidemic: Stover, Fusarial Wilt. The bibliography is especially helpful. For the initial discovery of Fusarium’s role in Panama disease, see Brandes, “Banana Wilt,” 346.
44 Stover and Simmonds, Bananas, 317. The immunity of some wild Southeast Asian banana varieties suggests their coevolution with the pathogen, and hence an Asian origin, but spontaneous mutation of native Fusarium species in the Americas is also possible. Scheffer, Nature of Disease in Plants, 219.
45 For the mutual affinity of fungi and tropical environments, see Frederick L. Wellman, Tropical American Plant Disease (Neotropical Phytopathology Problems) (Metuchen, N.J., 1972), 67–70; Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata, Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rainforests of Central and South America (New York, 1984), 18–19. For the vulnerability of monoculture to pathogens, see Scheffer, Nature of Disease in Plants 4, 43, 144–53; Helen Miller Alexander, “Spatial Heterogeneity and Disease in Natural Populations,” in Michael J. Jeger, ed., Spatial Components of Plant Disease Epidemics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1989). Dean’s analysis can be found in Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber, 60.
46 Brandes, “Banana Wilt,” 348.
47 The relationship between the development of concepts of human and agricultural health and disease is an intriguing theme that deserves more consideration than can be given here. For suggestive treatments of the former, see Esteban Rodríguez Ocaña, Por la salud de las naciones: Higiene, microbiología y medicina social (Madrid, 1992); and Andrew Cunningham, “Transforming the Plague: The Laboratory and the Identity of Infectious Diseases,” in Cunningham and Perry Williams, eds., The Laboratory Revolution in Medicine (Cambridge, 1992). Discussions of the development of phytopathology lack, unfortunately, the depth of cultural analysis to be found in medical historiography. Nonetheless, several sources point toward phytopathology’s reflection of and links to the larger course of medical science. See Herbert Hice Hetzel, An Outline of the History of Phytopathology (London, 1918); John Charles Walker, Plant Pathology, 3d edn. (New York, 1969), 14–46; Scheffer, Nature of Disease in Plants. The latter is, intriguingly, far more influenced by ecological theory than earlier work, perhaps pointing to greater divergence in future concepts of plant and human medicine.
48 The true representativeness of Prescott’s sites is, unfortunately, somewhat questionable, as some were selected by company vice-president Victor Cutter and some by managers of the respective divisions. Although some managers may well have had immediate agricultural problems in mind rather than statistical accuracy, in the absence of better data we will have to accept Prescott’s judgment that the samples “probably represent in a fair way the general soil conditions of the entire division.” Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, ix.
49 Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, 4.
50 Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, 3.
51 Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, 131–33, 592.
52 Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, x.
53 Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, 3.
54 Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, 584.
55 Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, vii, 584.
56 Clyde Stephens, “Bosquejo histórico del cultivo del banano en la provincia de Bocas del Toro (1880–1980),” Revista panameña de antropología, Publicaciones Especiales No. 1 (1987): 24, n. Experiments with small crops of resistant musae species actually began fairly early in the course of the epidemic. Prescott’s surveys, for example, list a number of plantations in which more resistant strains like “reds” or “congos” were planted in diseased areas, and Frederick Upham Adams claimed in 1914 that Cavendish species were often planted where Gros Michel failed. The varieties available at this point, however, looked very different from the Gros Michel and were not considered capable of holding their own on the U.S. market. Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, 184, 196; Adams, Conquest of the Tropics: The Story of the Creative Enterprises Conducted by the United Fruit Company (Garden City, N.J., 1914), 32.
57 E. E. Cheeseman, “Banana Research at ICTA,” Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad) 26 (July 1948): 12.
58 Quoted in Stephens, “Bosquejo,” 28.
59 The cost of boxing was an issue, but orchard owners in the United States had long shipped their tree fruit in boxes, without excessive expense. See W. A. Luce, The Washington State Fruit Industry: A Brief History (Seattle, 1972), 26; Al C. Bright, “Apples Galore!”: The History of the Apple Industry in the Wenatchee Valley (Wenatchee, Wash., 1988), 40. Much more important was the perceived inflexibility of fruit jobbers and grocers who, managers believed, would not accept a change in the fruit’s unique appearance or handling characteristics. For the importance UFCo accorded market considerations, see Adams, Conquest of the Tropics, 32; Stover, Fusarial Wilt, 102–03. For the relationship with jobbers, see E. Baker, “United Fruit Company,” 125–26.
60 A. F. Butler, “Fertilizer Experiments with the Gros Michel Banana,” Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad) 37 (January 1960): 31; Stover, Fusarial Wilt, 45–56, 101–03. The pH-longevity correlation was valid only for the soil in its natural state—soils in which the pH had been altered showed no increased resistance. This, and the large number of exceptions to the pattern, led some company researchers to conclude that alkalinity was itself a marker of some other, unknown factor leading to resistance. One striking case in which pH did not predict survival was the Esquinas district of the Golfito Division of Costa Rica, which never succumbed to disease infestation despite relatively acid soils.
61 “The majority of lands that remain are third-class . . . Today it is not possible to create a thousand hectare plantation whose soils are not mostly third class.” Viriato Espinach to Volio, February 15, 1933, Congreso 16689, ANCR, 29. See also Prescott’s comments on soils of the Costa Rica Division, which he found “rather low” in lime content. Prescott, Examination of Tropical Soils, 156.
62 “Second Annual Conference of the United Fruit Company and Subsidiary Companies at Swampscott, Mass., Oct. 5–6–7, 1927,” Unifruitco (November 1927): 201. In the same venue, Cutter laconically characterized the new department as “rather expensive.” Unfortunately, no data exist to quantify what percentage of the company’s expenditures went to the Research Department over time. Nonetheless, the establishment of very large laboratory complexes in Honduras and Boston, and the maintenance of a large number of scientists to staff them, lends credence to Cutter’s remark. May and Plaza claim an annual expenditure of “well over $1 million” on “fundamental research” (over and above control measures) by 1958. May and Plaza, United Fruit Company in Latin America, 153.
63 David F. Noble, America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism (Oxford, 1977), 110–66; Lawrence Busch, “The State of Agricultural Science and the Agricultural Science of the State,” in Bonano, From Columbus to ConAgra, 74–75.
64 “Costa Rica: Agricultural Department Holds Important Meeting,” Unifruitco (June 1929): 691. For upper management’s imprimatur on this interventionist aspect of research, see Cutter’s 1927 injunction to managers: “keep fully informed and assist in the work of this department. Modern research is not dry and theoretical. It is simply a form of insurance against mistakes in future. Our mistakes in the past have cost us more than it will to maintain this department in future.” Victor M. Cutter, “Introductory Address at the Second Annual Conference of the United Fruit Company, Oct. 5–7, 1927, Swampscott, Mass.,” Unifruitco (October 1927): 135. For claims that Research Department staff had carried out soil surveys and analyses on over 800,000 hectares in potential new expansion zones, see United Fruit Company Annual Report 29 (January 8, 1929), 3. For field experimentation and monitoring, see R. M. Beasley, “Tela Has Changed in 30 Months,” Unifruitco (May 1929): 620; Wilson Popenoe, “Plant Performance Records,” Unifruitco (May 1929): 607–09. For the recruitment of managers in agricultural and engineering schools, see Gooch, “Letters from a Company Traveler,” 390.
65 Wardlaw and McGuire, “Panama Disease of Bananas,” 33. Apparently, this unusual openness was possible because United indirectly controlled the British Caribbean banana trade, and it was thus in United’s interest to cooperate on disease control measures there. There were, nonetheless, limits to this cooperation, as Wardlaw seems to have been unable to acquire complete figures for disease losses. For the unequal relationship between UFCo and Jamaican growers, see Holt, Problem of Freedom, 354–65.
66 Wardlaw, Diseases of the Banana, 55. This reference work, along with Wardlaw’s 1935 memoir, Green Havoc, is also based in large part on his 1928 fact-finding trip to Central America, and I cite both, along with the 1929 report, in the following pages. Despite its harsh criticism of United’s cultivation practices, company managers regularly consulted Diseases of the Banana. A Honduran writer, for example, describes being referred to Wardlaw’s book when he tried to discuss the problem of Panama disease with the manager of the Tela Division in 1939. Pompilio Ortega, Las enfermedades del banano y cómo evitarlas (Tegucigalpa, 1946), 1.
67 Wardlaw and McGuire, “Panama Disease of Bananas,” 18, 66.
68 Wardlaw and McGuire, “Panama Disease of Bananas,” 46, 66.
69 Wardlaw wrote scornfully of the astonishment with which overseers in Costa Rica observed his basic soil and root evaluations: “Unless a member of the staff goes out of his way he may easily spend years on a farm without making even the most elementary botanical observations.” Wardlaw, Green Havoc, 57.
70 For a comparative historical discussion of agricultural sectors in Europe and North America, emphasizing their unintegrated nature and failure until very recently to rationalize the agricultural labor process, see Goodman and Redclift, Refashioning Nature, 97–101. See also William D. Heffernan and Douglas Constance, “Transnational Corporations and the Globalization of the Food System,” in Bonano, From Columbus to ConAgra, 29–51. Braverman’s treatment of Taylorism and “scientific management” remains essential: Labor and Monopoly Capital, 85–124.
71 The ICTA team concurred in seeing labor as a barrier to disease control. See remarks on the problems posed for better cultivation by “expensive” labor: Wardlaw and McGuire, “Panama Disease of Bananas,” 83.
72 R. H. Davis, “Pruning,” Unifruitco (January 1927): 376; H. E. Caunter, “New Pruning Methods,” Unifruitco (January 1929): 339; George S. Bennett, “Maintaining a Profitable Investment,” Unifruitco (October 1930): 130–31. Older banana workers interviewed in 1996 by the author in Golfito, Costa Rica, recall that at some time in the 1930s the “eye” of experienced workers was replaced by mechanical measuring devices in grading fruit readiness for harvest. O’Brien discusses the progressive hardening of a piecework wage regime as an aspect of the insertion of rationalistic U.S. corporate culture into the Honduran divisions, but he does not connect it with Panama disease. His argument is not inconsistent with the one presented here, since the search for solutions to agro-ecological problems was shaped by the culture he describes. O’Brien, Revolutionary Mission, 53–54, 89–90.
73 For example, death records kept by UFCo doctors from 1917 to 1931, and organized by birthplace, indicate the direction of these ethnic tides (although they cannot, of course, accurately represent the proportions of United’s living laborers). During these years, which begin well after Hispanics began to join the work force, West Indians fell from comprising nearly half of recorded deaths to less than one-fifth, while the proportion of Central American–born fatalities rose to over 80 percent. United Fruit Company Medical Department, Annual Reports, 1917–1931. This method of estimating ethnic change in United’s work force was first used by Aviva Chomsky, for the Limón Division only: Chomsky, West Indian Workers, 49.
74 Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work, 180.
75 Davis, “Pruning,” 376.
76 Euraque, “Nationalism,” 157–63; Echeverri-Gent, “Forgotten Workers,” 298–307.
77 Casey Gaspar, Limón, 90–91; Kepner and Soothill, Banana Empire, 172, 272.
78 Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work, 73–84; Chomsky, West Indian Workers, 48–50; Ronny Viales Hurtado, “La región atlántica costarricense y el enclave bananero: Del Esplendor a la crisis, 1927–1950” (Tésis de Maestria, Universidad de Costa Rica, San José, 1993), 32, 101–03; Koch, “Ethnicity and Livelihoods,” 163.
79 For separate observations on the slower pace of the epidemic and the smaller size of production units in Jamaica, see Kepner, Social Aspects of the Banana Industry, 100–01. Noting continued smallholder production in Panama and Costa Rica, Wardlaw implicitly acknowledged the superior resistance of “a well-established peasantry”: “Panama Disease of Bananas,” 62. For the post-epidemic agronomic consensus on this point, see Scheffer, Nature of Disease in Plants, 215, 220; Stover, Fusarial Wilt, 62. Although Chomsky (citing Koch’s 1975 study “Ethnicity and Livelihoods”) claims that peasant cultivators survived the disease by uprooting infected plants and replanting with healthy rhizomes, this is unlikely to have been effective in pathogen-rich soils: the scattered, mixed nature of smallholder cultivations was almost certainly the more important factor. Chomsky, West Indian Workers, 66.
80 Unfortunately, space does not permit discussion of the impact of sigatoka on United’s operations. Unlike Fusarium, the sigatoka fungus was airborne, and thus much more rapidly infectious, but ultimately controllable through heavy aerial sprays of copper sulfate solution. The most complete discussion of the disease can be found in D. S. Meredith, Banana Leaf Spot Disease (Sigatoka) Caused by Mycosphaerella musicola Leach (Kew, 1970).
81 Space permits only a sketch here of the famous Costa Rican strike of 1934 and its background. For early signs of disinvestment in plantation maintenance, see Wardlaw and McGuire, “Panama Disease of Bananas,” 25, 33, 83. For housing and medical conditions, see “Informe de la comisión investigadora de la industria bananera,” November 11, 1932, Congreso 16358, ANCR, 144. For wages and working conditions, see also Kepner, Social Aspects of the Banana Industry, 114–15. For the strike itself, see Victor H. Acuña Ortega, La huelga bananera de 1934 (San José, 1984); Chomsky, West Indian Workers, 244–53.
82 The Honduran strikes are relatively understudied. For preliminary treatments, see O’Brien, Revolutionary Mission, 99–104; Mario Posas, Luchas del movimiento obrero hondureño (San José, 1981), 76–83.
83 Wardlaw, Diseases of the Banana, 92–93.
84 Although the Depression slowed the opening of some operations, soil analyses and land acquisitions began for all of them between 1922 and 1928, the same time the company initiated its aggressive Panama-disease research program.
85 Wardlaw, Diseases of the Banana, 61; Stover, Fusarial Wilt, 61.
86 R. Jensen, “Drainage and Diversion Work in Chiriqui,” Unifruitco (January 1929): 3.
87 E. R. Patterson, “Transformation,” Unifruitco (March 1930): 481. Patterson was a company engineer in Honduras.
88 A. J. H. Hopper, “Tropical Tractoristics,” Unifruitco (December 1930): 249–51; Wilson Popenoe [Director, Lancetilla Laboratory, UFCo], “Banana Culture around the Caribbean part 2,” Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad) 18 (January 1937): 34; “Agriculture: 1899–1949,” United Fruit Company Annual Report 50 (February 20, 1950), 19–20.
89 Ana Luisa Cerdas Albertazzi, “El surgimiento del enclave bananero en el Pacífico Sur,” Revista de historia (San José) 28 (July–December 1993): 153; O’Brien, Revolutionary Mission, 86–92. Catherine LeGrand has recently challenged the totalizing nature of United’s control of the regions within which it operated, and thus questioned the distinctiveness and importance of foreign business enclaves in Latin American history. Her argument, however, is based on UFCo’s Magdalena, Colombia, operations, which differed from the Central American banana zones in several important ways: Magdalena was one of only two regions (along with Jamaica) in which the company consistently deferred almost all production to private planters, it was an area of minimal UFCo activity in the post-1930s era of plantation modernization, and it remained Panama disease–free until the 1950s. Thus few of the patterns of the Central American operations established between 1926 and 1938—the intensification of cultivation methods and work regimes, the marginalization of independent communities, and the declining role of private planters—apply to the Magdalena case. Her problematization of enclave theory is nonetheless well taken when applied to the banana industry’s earlier decades, and its cultural dimension is probably relevant for the later era as well. See Catherine LeGrand, “Living in Macondo: Economy and Culture in a United Fruit Company Enclave in Colombia,” in Gilbert M. Joseph, LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore, eds., Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations (Durham, N.C., 1998), 333–68.
90 Claude W. Wardlaw, “The Banana in Central America,” Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad) 18 (August 1941): 159.
91 “The Jungle’s Hymn of Hate: By an Employee of the Tela Railroad Company,” Unifruitco (March 1929).
92 “Banana Division: What Makes It Tick?” Unifruitco (August 1948): 3, 7. Of course, though presented here as an increase in workers’ skill levels, I would argue that the new division of labor in fact represented a transferral of craft and agricultural judgment from workers to agronomists.
93 Job/wage categories rose from twenty-four in 1931 to fifty-two in 1951. Perhaps even more remarkably, only one year after being instructed to bring tasks and rates in line with the advanced Tela Division, the number of farm wage categories reported by the Costa Rica Division increased by over 50 percent: “Price List Effective July 1, 1932 (in colones),” UFCo-Bourgois Papers. See “Agricultural Department-Unit Prices Paid for Farm Work,” November 17, 1931, UFCo-Bourgois Papers; Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria del Banano y Similares de Quepos, “Proyecto de Convención Colectiva,” March 9, 1951, Juzgado de Trabajo de Puerto Cortés, Remesa 198, Archivo 342, Archivos Judiciales de Costa Rica. It is worth noting that new cultivation technologies such as fertilizing and tillage were well under way in 1931. The task schedules of ten years earlier are not available for consultation, but would undoubtedly have been far simpler.
94 Stover, Fusarial Wilt, 84; Ellis, Las transnacionales del banano, 127–28. Other divisions, like Golfito, Costa Rica, and Puerto Armuelles, Panama, suffered serious losses but remained in production.
95 Stover, Fusarial Wilt, 84.
96 For this exercise, I have used the comprehensive bibliography in UFCo scientist R. H. Stover’s summary of Panama-disease research: Stover, Fusarial Wilt, 107–17. His citations for non-UFCo research show the same trend, though not so markedly.
97 For the explosion in chemical pest-control use surrounding World War II, see Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT: Scientists, Citizens and Public Policy (Princeton, N.J., 1981); John H. Perkins, Insects, Experts, and the Insecticide Crisis: The Quest for New Pest Management Strategies (New York, 1982); Edmond Paul Russell III, “War on Insects: Warfare, Insecticides, and Environmental Change in the United States, 1870–1945” (PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 1993). For United’s pride in the success of anti-sigatoka fungicides, see Wardlaw, “Banana in Central America,” 344; Research Department, United Fruit Company, Problems and Progress in Banana Disease Research (Boston, 1958), 10–11. It is worth noting that without the research apparatus created to deal with Panama disease, it is unlikely that United would have found a sigatoka control method in time to forestall the devastation of its operations.
98 Stover, Fusarial Wilt, 92.
99 Kenneth M. Redmond, United Fruit Company Annual Report: 1951 52 (February 18, 1952), 7. For early flood-fallow experiments, see Claude W. Wardlaw, “Control of Banana Wilt Disease,” Nature 4064 (September 20, 1947): 405. For total flooded hectares in the two countries, see Stover, Fusarial Wilt, 97. United flooded more limited areas of its Guatemalan divisions during the same period.
100 “Contrato para la rehabilitación de tierras en el Atlántico, suscrito con los Ministerios de Obras Públicas, Agricultura e Industrias y Economia y Hacienda, pendiente por la Asamblea Legislativa,” April 9, 1953, in República de Costa Rica, Compañía Bananera de Costa Rica, Chiriqui Land Company, United Fruit Company, Leyes, contratos y resoluciones relativos a las industrias de banano, abacá, cacao y palma africana oleaginosa, 1930–1953, 92. See also La nación (San José) (November 18, 1952): 1, 33. Ramón Cabezas, one of United’s top drainage engineers, recalls participating in extensive tests, costing “millions of dollars” throughout the abandoned Atlantic littoral of Costa Rica in the early 1950s, identifying lands that would hold water when flooded. Interview by the author with Ramón Cabezas, finca Coto 53, Costa Rica, May 11, 1996.
101 R. H. Stover, N. C. Thornton, and V. C. Dunlap, “Flood-fallowing for Eradication of Fusarium oxysporum f. cubense: Effect of Flooding on Fungus Flora of Clay Loam Soils in Ulúa Valley, Honduras,” Soil Science 76 (1952): 225–38.
102 Ellis argues that rising labor costs from 1947 to 1976 were matched by rising levels of productivity, but his own evidence shows that United’s labor productivity rose by only 2 percent per year from 1947 to 1961, while it achieved nearly a 10 percent per year growth rate after the end of the Gros Michel era, from 1961 to 1976. Ellis, Las transnacionales del banano, 160–61. For Guatemalan banana worker militancy, see Forster “Reforging National Revolution.” For Costa Rica, see Carlos Abarca Vásquez, “El movimiento huelguístico en Costa Rica” (Tésis de Grado, Universidad de Costa Rica, 1978). For Honduras, see Robert MacCameron, Bananas, Labor and Politics in Honduras, 1954–1963 (Syracuse, N.Y., 1983); Marvin Barahona, ed., El silencio quedó atrás: Testimonios de la huelga bananera de 1954 (Tegucigalpa, 1994). Bourgois suggests that Panama’s relative labor quiescence can be explained by the greater degree of ethnic division within its banana work force: Ethnicity at Work, 194–212, 223–27.
103 LaBarge, “United Fruit Company Operations,” 129. “Natural” disasters such as floods and windstorms also contributed to United’s losses during this period.
104 Ellis, Las transnacionales del banano, 118–19. H. H. V. Hord, “The Conversion of Standard Fruit Company Banana Plantations from the Gros Michel to the Giant Cavendish Variety,” Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad) 43 (October 1966): 271–74; Thomas L. Karnes, Tropical Enterprise: The Standard Fruit and Steamship Company in Latin America (Baton Rouge, La., 1978), 282–86.
105 Thomas P. McCann, An American Company: The Tragedy of United Fruit (New York, 1976), 72. (McCann was a high-level UFCo manager from the late 1950s through the late 1960s.)
106 LaBarge, “United Fruit Company Operations,” 526. See also Henry B. Arthur, James P. Houck, and George L. Beckford, Tropical Agribusiness Structures and Adjustments: Bananas (Boston, 1968), 149–52.
107 Seventeen years later, United’s principal argument against further antitrust action was based on the “dramatic decline” of its “position as a holder and cultivator of tropical lands,” following Standard’s success with “varieties” in Costa Rica. “Because of the commercial success of variety bananas, the development of the box method of transporting and selling bananas, and other changes in the production situation . . . United’s position in the market has sharply decreased since 1958 and the position of its competitors has improved.” United Brands Corporation [UFCo’s name after purchase by AMK Corporation in 1969], “Memorandum of United Brands Company with Respect to Articles VIII and IX of the Consent Judgement,” March 29, 1971, U.S. Department of Justice, Anti-Trust Division, United States vs. United Fruit Co., Civil No. 4560, File 60–166–56, 24.
108 For the role of insect pest problems in changing structures of regional cotton production, see Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco and Rice Cultures since 1880 (Urbana, Ill., 1985), 3–22, 239–55; Robert G. Williams, Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1986), 13–73. For technology and crop disease in twentieth-century industrial sugar production, see Alan Dye, Cuban Sugar in the Age of Mass Production: Technology and the Economics of the Sugar Central, 1899–1929 (Stanford, Calif., 1998), 244–45. For coffee “rust” and the Latin American coffee industry, see R. H. Fulton, Coffee Rust in the Americas (St. Paul, Minn., 1984).
109 For studies of the Guatemalan coup emphasizing United’s role, see Alfonso Bauer Paiz, Cómo opera el capital yanqui en Centroamérica: El caso de Guatemala (Mexico City, 1956); Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (Garden City, N.Y., 1982); Richard Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (Austin, Tex., 1982); Piero Gleijesis, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944–1954 (Princeton, N.J., 1991).
110 In addition to the many other secondary works on banana labor struggles cited above, see the country essays in Pablo González Casanova, ed., Historia del movimiento obrero en América Latina 2: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama (Mexico City, 1985).
111 For an innovative non-agricultural synthesis of environmental history and labor process theory, see Richard A. Rajala, Clearcutting the Pacific Rain Forest: Production, Science, and Regulation (Vancouver, 1998).
112 For a critique of environmental studies literature along these same lines, see Richard White, “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?” in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York, 1995), 171–85. See also the critiques in a special issue of the journal Antipode devoted to Cronon’s environmental history classic Nature’s Metropolis, especially the remarks of Phillip Sanders and Sallie Marston, who note that Cronon’s landscape is “disturbingly empty of the people who performed the labor that enabled the transformation that occurred.” “William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, a Symposium,” Antipode 26 (April 1994): 127.
113 Karl Marx, Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy, Serge Levitsky, ed. (Chicago, 1965), chap. 7: 1, pp. 146–47. Grossman, Political Ecology of Bananas, also criticizes this tendency among theorists of agricultural labor process and rural change, primarily with reference to the role of weather in agricultural systems: 211–12, 220–22. For an influential, Braverman-influenced study of agricultural labor process that suffers from neglect of the natural and ecological processes underlying agricultural production, offering “an analysis of the social organization of lettuce production in identical fashion as, for example, the making of automobiles,” see William H. Friedland, Amy E. Barton, and Robert J. Thomas, Manufacturing Green Gold: Capital, Labor and Technology in the Lettuce Industry (New York, 1981), 6.
114 The equation of labor troubles and natural disaster is particularly striking in United’s Annual Reports of the 1950s, in which strikes, disease losses, hurricanes, and floods are often discussed within the same paragraph, as fundamentally similar factors in corporate performance.
115 See the contributions of James J. Maoris and the old Fusarium fighter R. H. Stover to a conference held at the University of Florida Tropical Research Center in Miami, August 27–30, 1989: Randy C. Ploetz, ed., Fusarial Wilt of Bananas (St. Paul, Minn., 1990).
116 Simmonds, Bananas, 372.
117 One sign of the prestige of UFCo scientists can be seen in their participation in plant disease conferences and publications, where, amid papers from government agencies, university professors, and chemical industry researchers, theirs are the only submissions representing any agricultural producer. See Norwood C. Thornton, “Introduction,” and “Pesticides in Banana Culture,” in Thornton, ed., Pesticides in Tropical Agriculture (Washington, D.C., 1954); R. H. Stover, “Growth and Survival of Root-Disease Fungi in Soil,” in C. S. Holton, G. W. Fischer, R. W. Fulton, Helen Hart, and S. E. A. McCallan, eds., Plant Pathology: Problems and Progress, 1908–1958 (Madison, Wis., 1959), 339–55; E. J. Wehunt and D. I. Edwards, “Radopholus Similis and Other Nematode Species on Banana,” in Grover C. Smart and V. C. Perry, Tropical Nematology (Gainesville, Fla., 1968), 1–19. See also the 1970s standard text on neotropical phytopathology, written by a scientist whose early work for UFCo on Panama disease led to prominent work for governmental and non-governmental organizations on diseases in other Latin American agro-export sectors: Wellman, Tropical American Plant Disease, xix–xx.
118 Author’s research in progress. For a contemporary appraisal of the respiratory damage suffered by sigatoka control workers, see Ramón Amaya Amador’s famous novel Prisión verde (1949; Comayaguela, Honduras, 1993), 71–72. See also “Los Trabajadores del Spray,” Correo del Sur (Golfito, Costa Rica), August 1, 1945.
119 Because Costa Rica does much more than other Central American republics to monitor public health, much of the data on health effects of pesticides on banana workers comes from that country, but there is no reason to believe that workers in other producing countries are less affected. See Jorge N. Jiménez, Plaguicidas y salud en las bananeras de Costa Rica (San José, 1995), 81, 91; Alfredo E. Vergara, “Agrichemical Injuries in Banana Plantations in Costa Rica: A Study of Neurobehavior and Other Health Effects” (PhD dissertation, University of Iowa, 1993); Lori Ann Thrupp, “The Political Ecology of Pesticide Use in Developing Countries: Dilemmas in the Banana Sector of Costa Rica” (PhD dissertation, University of Sussex, 1988); Karen Brown and Lori Ann Thrupp, “The Human Guinea Pigs of Rio Frio: Standard Fruit Keeps Its Eye on the Bottom Line,” The Progressive (April 1991): 28–30.