Coobana: Project of the social economy committed against child labor andabusive workingconditions
Coobana : bananas, men andcommunities
"We must take care of banana trees, but also men," Carmen said simply, one of the leaders of the banana cooperative Coobana, in the northeast of Panama. A claim which covers a reality of every day, both in management and in the tasks performed by agricultural workers, or the life of the surrounding communities, note the French and American NGOs HRWB (Human Resources Without Borders and IIECL ( international Initiative to End Child Labor ).
The road winds down from the Cordillera de Chiriqui. Coming out of a turn, below the Caribbean Sea, blue, and green ocean appear banana plantations of Changuinola, near the area where Columbus docked in 1503, during his fourth journey.
In the plain of the province of Bocas del Toro, it is impossible to ignore what is the main activity. Trucks filled to the brim with bananas and loaded trucks filled with thousands of these fruits for export ply the narrow roads fringed with banana trees.
Spread, kilometer after kilometer, the plantations of Chiquita Brands International, is one of the largest banana producers in the world. It monopolizes markets and his power seems irresistible.
Yet, an economic and human success, Coobana (Cooperativa Bananera multiple servicios Del Atlantico) is developing alongside this giant. With an exploitation of nearly 550 hectares of banana trees, this cooperative has triumphed over the worst difficulties to stand out with quality products sold internationally, a genuine policy of social responsibility for its employees and to aid policy for local communities.
In the late 1980s, the Panamanian State decided to sell its private banana plantations, including one near Changuinola. Twenty employees, mere laborers, decide to buy it. Faced with all the dirty tricks used by competition, they start a real obstacle course to obtain funds and operating rights.
Thanks to a loan from the Boston Bank, the cooperative may be launched in 1991 on three plots of 72, 76 and 80 hectares. Today, with 500 employees of which 220 are members, Coobana annually produces several tons of bananas and 15-20 containers every week go to Europe, to countries such as Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark...
In 2013, it increased its business sales by 7%, reaching $ 7.5 million in revenue, according to the website FreshPlaza.
"We all earn the same salary," says Julio Quintero, one of the founding members of the cooperative. "The rights are the same for temporary workers, permanent workers and responsible," he says again.
Each plot or “fincas”, several kilometers away from each other, is organized in the same way: the banana plantation, an administrative building, a local area for tools and chemicals, and finally the packing shed.
HRWB ‘s team examines governance and administrative services, transparency while IIECL’s team the job hazards and risks.
«Child labor risk is limited because each person has a contract, a pay slip and a bank account. In addition, the harvesting season is smoothed over the year, avoiding massive arrivals of seasonal workers. Finally, the salary is calculated for the task, based on the legal minimum wage and rates for overtime, "said Martine Combemale.
While there are still areas needing improvement, the “fair trade” approach also limits the health and safety risks, «said Diane Mull.
Trade unions and the regional delegation of the Ministry of Labor, finally declared that there was no child labor.
In each "finca» is a representative of the banana industry SITRAPI union (Union of Workers for Independent Banana Producers). »The presence of such a union can limit the risks, especially as he is very vigilant about child labor," admits the director of HRWB.
At a meeting with the management of SITRAPI and its representatives working on Coobana properties, HRWB and IIECL found that the only complaints of the trade unionists were for wage increases, scholarships for schools or a bonus for Christmas...
In the banana plantation, walkways are generally well drawn, without obstacles that may bring down farm workers, the leaves are used as fertilizer. Stems of bananas, before the end of their growth, are surrounded by a bag impregnated with insecticides, a work made with protection and for which staff is regularly trained, say Antonio, in charge of thesecurity.
"They have also replaced the planes in charge of pesticide applications by helicopters to avoid excessive dissemination of the pesticide products," notes Diane Mull, Director of IIECL, while a ballet aircraft snores above competitors plantations, not far away. In addition, a dedicated site is being built to make compost with all greenwaste.
Handling is also improved steadily. Stems of bananas, once picked, are suspended from cables and pulled by mules, and not by men. In conditioning buildings, "chemicals" panels or recalling security measures are visible. According to areas, each are wearing a helmet, protection for hair, mask, gloves... for washing fruits, sorting them, protecting them conservatively, placing them in cartons and then onto pallets and trucks.
And this happens all year. Because the banana is a strange plant. First, contrary to its appearance, Musa paradisiacal, its scientific name, is not a tree. The visible portion of this herb is a set of sheets, which can reach 4 m long and 1 m wide, partially overlapping. In the center is a false trunk, formed by leafs talk.
When the banana produces a stem, it dies and has to be cut. But a replacement grows very quickly on a rhizome, and this "son" will produce three months later a stem of up to 200 fruits.
As in all the banana plantations in the Changuinola region, some 85% of Coobana’s agricultural workers are Ngöbe, Amerindians people. The common goals of the cooperative include “improvement of social living conditions, following the precepts of the sustainable economy of its members and employees, and encouraging change in its environment".
Improving services in villages (replacing wood ovens with gas installations...), schools, drinking water, housing construction, establishment of women's associations to develop crafts (NOBA Balen for chocolate products...)... the cooperative multiplies its actions to improve its environment.
In all its activities, the cooperative benefits of Fairtrade International label and the Rainforest Alliance label, an international NGO working to conserve biodiversity and ensure livelihoods for local people.
"Our products are more expensive than those of competitors,” admits Julio Quintero, “but our customers know and appreciate, that we contribute to the well-being of communities." “There is still some room for improvement, particularly in the management system," said Martine Combemale. “But it is a remarkable example of how social responsibility and supportive measures can be set up, it can avoid the abusive child labor, without harming the economic efficiency of the business ".