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Friday, January 9, 2009

Banana republics and capitalistic terrorism

A couple of weeks ago, browsing through the tables of leftovers from the Wellington Public Library book sale, I found a book by a favorite writer, Julian Rathbone, which I hadn't read. Hugely delighted, I paid over a one-dollar coin and bore it triumphantly home. I had first discovered Rathbone through his brilliantly written thrillers set in Turkey. The setting of this one couldn't be more different -- Zdt is set in Costa Rica, on the central American isthmus, a little country squeezed between Nicaragua and Panama that sounds (in 1986, at any rate) like a botanical paradise and remarkably well run and peaceable, compared to its contentious neighbors.

In the story, a huge international fruit conglomerate called Associated Foods International is determined to destroy this paradise, callously wiping out anyone or anything that stands in their way. Humans are stalked by hired killers, and coffee and maize plantations run by peasant cooperatives are sprayed with toxins from above. The operation, in this case, is to maintain a monoculture of maize, as monocultures reap profits more quickly. A gripping and thought-provoking scenario, embellished with striking characters, black humor, and wonderful descriptions of the primeval forest, makes this book a compelling read. If you haven't read it, hunt it down.

Coincidences happen. In Huffington Post, Johann Hari, a columnist for the London Independent, raves about a "brilliant history," Dan Koeppel's Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. It could have been the inspiration for Rathbone's thriller, only it deals with bananas instead of maize. Until 150 years ago, there were many varieties of banana, a lush product of nature that was eaten locally. Then a corporation named United Fruit took one banana variety, the Gros Michael, and mass produced it. How? By finding a poor, weak country, putting an amenable dictator in control, burning down the rainforest, and planting thousands of acres of Gros Michael. Any flicker of rebellion from the peasantry was swiftly and viciously put down, just as in Rathbone's Zdt. This is how poor, weak countries came to be called Banana Republics.
Then came a fungus. It's called "Panama Disease." It turns Gros Michael bananas brick red and inedible. So the corporation dumped thousands of tons of chemicals on hundreds of vast plantations, which proved to be a fruitless exercise. So they turned to another variety, which wasn't quite as good for your average lunchbox, being rather bruisable, but what the hell, the consumer takes what he or she can get. And guess what happened. Yup, that Panama Disease adapted. And so the quiet contest goes on, aided and abetted by the servile dictatorships. Rathbone's thriller, come to life. I can't wait to read it.

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