Growing sustainable bananas is a family business


In 1999 the Colombian department of Magdalena decreed that a Banana Growing Zone, located 87 kilometers south of its capital Santa Marta, was now a municipality. Spanning nearly 50,000 hectares and comprised mainly of the townships Ríofrío, Orihueca, Guacamayal, Guamachito, Tucurinca, Soplador, Palomar, and Sevilla, the area managed to separate itself from the Ciénaga municipality to which it had belonged. It was a class action struggle that allowed this territory to differentiate itself from a zone and become established as municipality in its own right. Today it is synonymous with sustainable banana production and the birthplace of many smallholders who have been tightly linked with this product for generations. One of them is Albeiro Alfonso Cantillo, also known as 'Foncho' to many, or simply Albeiro.


In the thick of the green banana fields of the rural district of Ríofrío, beaten by the relentless rays of the sun and bounded by brown dirt roads, lie Ana María and María Mercedes, two farms growing sustainable bananas. Foncho and his brother, who have owned these properties for more than 25 years, sell their harvest to Unibán, one of Colombia's biggest banana traders and a member of the Plataforma Comercio Sostenible.


Sporting a white polo shirt bearing the logo of Coobafrío, the cooperative he belongs to, and light blue jeans, Foncho, alongside his brother and the rest of his family, is waiting, smiling. He's ready to greet the next visitors with an offer of freshly brewed black coffee and to usher them onto these two hectares of banana plantations.





"We've had visitors from all over the place," says Foncho while getting ready to start the day, but not before explaining the history behind these farms that serve as an example of family farming in the region."


Foncho recounts that the history behind Ana María and María Mercedes, named in honor of his mother and aunt, goes back to the sixties, when his father bought a 2-hectare plot on which to build his home and continue the farming tradition of their ancestors. Growing bananas has been his family's livelihood, but now they are focusing on growing bananas that also benefit society and respect the environment. Thanks to this commitment to sustainability, for the last four years more than 80% of the bananas grown on the Ana María and María Mercedes farms are exported to international markets.




After his father passed away, both Foncho and his brother decided to continue with banana production. The business was difficult at first, he remembers, but today he is reaping the fruits of his labor: feeding his family and the entire world, providing a more dignified life for his family, and even helping finance his oldest daughter's education.


Progress in the banana plantations


When Coobafrío producers received Fairtrade certification, the good agricultural practices they incorporated allowed their hectares of bananas to achieve higher productivity levels than before. What's more, for every box of bananas sealed with that label they received a premium payment on top of their regular revenue. That little extra certainly means a lot to farmers like Foncho who make their living from this crop.


Iván Lobo, Quality and Production Coordinator at Unibán, explained that, looking back about 15 years, banana growers in the area did not practice the norms that in today's world of banana production are indispensable to ensure its sustainability, first for lack of knowledge and secondly because the market didn't require them to.


"...the worker equipped with boots, gloves, and hat did not exist 15 years ago. It wasn't like that. All of this about having to be environmentally friendly, that your packing equipment must meet certain security parameters, none of that existed," Lobo claims.

Nowadays, however, due to market demands, Lobo says that many producers are doing things the way they should be done. They know what gear to wear for cutting, washing, fumigating, and packing bananas. They know which rules they must follow. They're aware that doing the right thing means a lot to them and their families.


An example of this is evident in the washing and packing areas on small banana growing farms like Ana María. Hired workers assigned to these tasks have on their rubber boots, apron, gloves, and hairnet. Other rules they follow are practicing the required hygiene and sanitation procedures, applying the appropriate amount of fungicides, and filling the tanks with just enough water to clean the bananas and keep them fresh.





Foncho's neighbors and fellow banana growers are also committed to the sustainability of their farms and comply with the required regulations. For example, Israel Polo and his wife, also banana producers and Coobafrío members, perform a dry wash, another practice aligned with taking care of the environment and proper water use.




The fruit of sustainability


His ownership of sustainable practices, love for his work, and pride in a business inherited from his father were what brought Foncho to be named the 2014 international figure of the Fairtrade brand and the star of an awareness-raising campaign targeted to European consumers convincing them to buy sustainable bananas.




This message spotlighted the work of many banana growers in Colombia, a labor guided by commitment, collaboration, and good agricultural practices.


Farmers like Foncho not only inherited the lands of their ancestors to continue a family business; they also inherited their knowledge and have put them to test with sustainable practices. This has undoubtedly been a major factor in the Banana Growing Zone—and the Colombian banana sector in general—forging its path to progress, wellbeing, and economic health, all thanks to sustainability.