Get on de boat, de banana boat!

Ships headed for the Panama canal

Earlier this month the banana giant Chiquita filed a lawsuit attempting to block the release of documents pertaining to the various payments it made to paramilitary groups that the U.S. considers terrorist organizations. That sounds like a tale out of a different, era, yeah?

Unfortunately, it’s all too current. Chiquita paid a $25-million fine just six years ago after admitting that it had funneled money to multiple Colombian groups. That’s part of a larger phenomenon where multinationals essentially operate above the level of governments in many parts of the world — often engaging in illegal shenanigans — precisely because the corporations have so much economic clout.

A development professor on mine has labeled countries like Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica essentially a “dessert” economies. It’s a fitting moniker given the number of bananas and pineapples they produce. What large-scale industrial fruit-culture has done to the landscapes and social organization of these countries is hard to fully comprehend without visiting. And I note that Global North citizens — particularly Americans — are complicit, what with our year-round demand for exotic fruit of uniform shapes at cheap prices. That consumer demand leads precisely to Chiquita acting like, well, Chiquita.

Fruity boat

If you think capitalism’s rising tide lifts all boats, you’ve got the wrong metaphor. Capitalism’s tsunami wave overwhelms most anything that lacks the political or financial power to get out of the way. And to understand just how far back this goes, check this history of the United Fruit Company, Chiquita’s predecessor.

You can see today just how enmeshed corporate agriculture is in the economies of Costa Rica and Panama; these images are just from my bus/boat/taxi/plane rides there in 2012 but vast swaths of the land look just like this — plantations, pesticides and underpaid workers all in the name of foreign export. It’s the same in a number of other countries in Latin America. Certainly some things have changed, but control remains highly concentrated in the hands of a few.

Where your bananas come from

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Semester research: India’s engagement with the global economy

India is one of the fastest growing major economies in the world. After the past two decades, that’s something of an old story.

Yet such a blanket statement also washes over questions about what that growth rate actually means for issues of sustainable development, broadly define. India certainly has something to be proud of, yet it also faces serious hurdles in supporting its claim to a narrative of newfound power and prosperity.

My third large semester research project involved analyzing India’s link’s with the global economy, a phenomenon that really only began in the early 1990s when India shed its autarkic ways. Though “liberalization” started with steps taken almost a decade earlier, it was the serious risk of debt service default that spurred policy makers in 1991 to adopt austerity measures, devalue the rupee and begin a steady if slow process of external economic opening.

The paper looked at four core areas of engagement — trade, investment, debt and aid — and examined implications for sustainable development. A final section offers several policy recommendations for the future.

The ultimate conclusion is that while India has liberalized its economy it has also continued to protect key sectors, producers and businesses when it sees fit. India is far from a free-market economy but it has opened doors when in the name of national interest, which has both positive and negative implications for sustainable development. Its enviable growth rate will only continue to be a valid goal if policy makers also begin to consider measures to ameliorate some of the severe negatives that come with this capitalist economic development.

UPDATE: A trimmed down version of this paper was published by the Journal of International Service in the Spring of 2013. My submitted draft can be read here. The full issue can be found here.

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