Sunday, October 24, 1999

Honduras' bananas coming back

Chiquita work proves fruitful

The Associated Press

        LA LIMA, Honduras — Like a proud father, Jason Green traipses through the Mopala banana farm in search of the famous mother: the first plant to give “birth” to a fruit-producing stem since Hurricane Mitch wiped out nearly all of Chiquita Brands International's operation here a year ago.

        Mr. Green, a brawny American, manages three farms that make up the 1,420-acre Cormo plantation, Cincinnati-based Chiquita's largest in Honduras.

        Swinging his machete, he gestures toward the endless rows of wide, flat, green leaves and sturdy trunks, the result of a huge replanting project Chiquita launched late last year to bring back its lost bananas.

        Mr. Green says Honduras' first post-Mitch bananas should be harvested and exported by the end of the year and be in the stores of the United States and other importers by the first week of the new millennium.

        The “birth” comes a year after many thought Chiquita and the other major banana producer in Honduras, Dole Food Co. Inc., might not plant another banana on Honduran soil again.

        Mitch destroyed nearly all 18,500 acres operated in Honduras by Chiquita, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in losses, Steve Warshaw, the company's president and chief operating officer, said in an interview from the company's headquarters in Cincinnati.

        Dole lost about 7,900 of its 13,600 acres of bananas, the Honduran Ministry of Industry and Commerce said.

        In addition to the damage to the companies, the hurricane stripped thousands of Hondurans of the only source of income they had ever known.

        “The world just fell in on top of us,” said Rolando Rodriguez, 43, who started working on the Chiquita plantations when he was a teen-ager. “All of our lives had always been dependent on bananas, and only bananas.”

        Before Mitch, as many as 15,000 to 20,000 people worked at peak production times for Chiquita in the north and Dole on the Atlantic coast, said Rodimiro Zelaya, a commerce ministry official. He estimates 70 percent no longer work in the industry.

        At Chiquita alone, Mitch resulted in the immediate suspension of at least 5,500 workers, more than 1,000 of whom ended up quitting or retiring, union and company representatives say.

        Juan Funez, president of Chiquita's banana workers union, said only 2,000 of the 6,300 pre-Mitch banana workers have jobs today. Jimmy Zonta Sing, labor relations manager for Chiquita's Honduras division, said the number of workers before Mitch was closer to 5,500, but agreed only about 2,000 are working again.

        Numbers could not be obtained from Dole. The company's Westlake Village, Calif., headquarters said only chief executive officer David H. Murdock could speak to the news media. Repeated attempts to schedule an interview with Mr. Murdock over the course of two weeks were unsuccessful.

        Mr. Zelaya expects that as rehabilitation efforts progress on the banana plantations in the short term, about half of the previous work force will return to the fields. “I hope they get back up to 70 percent during the next three or four years,” he said.

        Chiquita has replanted 5,400 acres of bananas since May and will have planted 2,000 more by the end of the year, with additional planting set for next year, Mr. Warshaw said. Although the company has not decided exactly how much of the total property it will replant, the goal is to “return to the levels of productivity we had before Mitch,” he said.

        Dole planned to replant a little over 2,600 acres this year and more next year, Mr. Zelaya said.

        Mitch couldn't have hit at a worse time for the Latin American banana industry, which has been badly bruised by a worldwide drop in demand, European Union import restrictions and previous flooding in Central America.

        “It's not exactly the time that anyone in the industry wants to make a huge reinvestment,” Mr. Warshaw said.

        But Chiquita did reinvest — to the tune of at least $100 million to date, after concluding that new technology would allow it to bring its Honduran operations back to a globally competitive level.

        The company is focusing on modernizing its plantations with innovations such as laboratory-produced plants, double-row planting, deep soil-tilling, new irrigation and drainage systems, aerial cables to protect plants from damaging winds, and rebuilt river levees, said Mr. Green, the plantation manager.

        Mr. Zonta said the efforts have cost the company about $8,500 an acre. “We contracted 40 percent of all bulldozers in the country to help rebuild,” he said.

        The bananas can't pop up soon enough for the companies — or for the country.

        Banana exports plunged 86 percent from 20 million 40-pound boxes in the first seven months of 1998 to 2.8 million boxes during the same period this year. Honduras' Central Bank says. The value of the exports fell from $132.8 million to $17.1 million.

        The bank does not yet have estimates for production in 2000, which will depend on the results of this year's replanting.

        At the Cormo plantation managed by Mr. Green, double rows of plants are in different stages of growth, with the youngest standing at 11/2 feet and those planted in April and May approaching 14 feet.

        This year's heavy rains at the end of September and early October spared Chiquita's plantations, flooding only one that was not yet being replanted, Mr. Zonta said.

        But the fields that have been replanted are still in danger, both because of the threat of additional rain and because the government has failed to fortify levees along the rivers to prevent future flooding, Warshaw said.

        The company has strengthened levees on its own land and beyond to prevent further damage. In the meantime, executives are keeping an eye on the restoration work, carefully watching the fields and waiting for the workers' yearlong labors to bear fruit.

        “We were pretty excited about that first stem,” Mr. Green said.


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- Honduras' bananas coming back