July 16, 2016
Just before noon yesterday, the very loud sound of a helicopter overhead reminded me that today was the day for the big banana meeting.
Government officials had arrived in Puerto Armuelles to tell Portenos the status of Del Monte taking over banana production on Chiquita’s old banana plantations.
A big crowd had gathered in ESPA’s high school gymnasium to hear the news. The Panamanian Minister of the Presidency, Alvaro Aleman, and other officials signed documents.
There was a very long speech by the mayor of Puerto Armuelles, Franklin Valdez, followed by a not-quite-as-long speech by Alvaro Aleman. Nothing surprising was said. Alot of talk of jobs, economic recovery, and how hard they are working to get an agreement with Del Monte to revive the banana industry in the Baru district of the Chiriqui province.
Needs Legislative Approval
Alvaro Aleman told the crowd that the first step towards reviving the banana industry in Baru was to sign an agreement with Del Monte. However, that agreement must be approved by the Council of Ministers and then ratified by the Panama National Assembly.
“I am confident that this bill, which will be presented in this legislative period, will be passed so that next summer Del Monte can begin its investments in the area,” said Aleman.
The minister said that if approved, Del Monte could make up to $220 million in investments in the Baru plantations which will provide, “important sources of work.”
He also explained that one of the outstanding issues is how and whether to allow Del Monte to buy the plantations since some of them are within 10 kilometers of the border. The Panama Constitution prohibits foreigners from owning land within 10 kilometers of the border.
Del Monte is interested in acquiring “approximately 2,572 hectares belonging to the State, 840 hectares owed by an agricultural association, and 1,771 hectares that are privately owned.” said Aleman.
Reaction of the crowd
The atmosphere of the crowd was one of muted and wary optimism. While much was made of the signing of documents, it was only another step in the long process of getting a banana company in Puerto Armuelles. The current talks with Del Monte have been going on for more than a year so far.
Progress has been made. Del Monte has asked to be allowed to hire foreign labor, but it was agreed that they would follow Panama labor laws, which makes bringing in foreign labor very difficult.
There is another company that wants to take over banana production in the plantations in the District of Baru. About a year ago, Coobana, a worker’s cooperative also expressed interest in taking over the banana plantations in the Puerto Armuelles area. That proposal was not mentioned during yesterday’s meeting.
Tale of 2 worker cooperatives
2 banana worker cooperatives started in the wake of Chiquita pulling out (in Puerto Armulles) and greatly scaling back (in Bocas del Toro). Puerto Armuelles’s worker cooperative, Coosemupar, was a dismal failure for many reasons.
On the other hand, Bocas’s cooperative, Coobana, continues to be a success. Their success is credited to the critical and successful overture Coobana made to supply bananas to Europe. Coobana has had to modify many of its labor and growing practices to comply with European standards.
Given that the Minister of President of Panama was here to announce further progress in negotiations with Del Monte, Coobana coming to Puerto seems unlikely. However, I think a company run by other Panamanian banana workers would be a good choice for Puerto. Especially a company that has improved both labor practices and safe growing methods.
I am not sure of all the details of the proposal of either Del Monte or Coobana though. I have heard some say that Coobana has already taken over some of the plantations in Baru. Perhaps those are the lands mentioned above that are owned by an “agricultural association”. Accurate information can be hard to get in Panama.
For now we will have to wait and see what develops. I know that the owners of Puerto’s newest restaurant, Cafe del Mar, are looking forward to a new banana company and the influx of money into the pockets of Portenos.
Enjoy the photo gallery of yesterday’s Del Monte meeting. Click on any photo to start the slideshow.