What happened to forests when Ecuador went bananas?


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Bananas boomed in Ecuador’s coastal lowlands after World War II. Tens ofthousands of people swarmed down from the highlands to work on theplantations and colonized the coastal region. The government built roads tohelp growers transport their fruit. Growing bananas depleted the soils andyields were low, so farmers constantly searched for large new areas fortheir plantations. Gros Michel, the predominant variety at the time, was notvery delicate, so even farmers in remote areas could get it to marketwithout ruining the fruit. The international market seemed practicallyunlimited, and large and small farmers all got into the act. The result was massive deforestation.

Then, in the late 1960s and 1970s, Ecuador’s banana growers lost marketshare to the Central Americans, who were the first to mechanize and to adoptthe high-yielding Cavendish variety. Ecuador eventually followed suit, butby then it lagged far behind in the race to conquer the world’s banana markets. In a context of stagnant or shrinking markets, improvedproductivity on Ecuador’s own plantations meant that farmers needed lessland to grow their bananas. The Cavendish variety was also much more fragilethan the Gros Michel variety was, so banana production concentrated near theports. As the business got more complex and required higher investments,most small farmers got out. These trends made banana growing more intensiveand took pressure off forests. Displaced banana workers who lost their jobsdue to mechanization cleared some forest to grow food crops, but on the whole deforestation on the coast declined.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Eastern Europeans startedeating eat more bananas. That, along with a currency devaluation, revived Ecuador’s banana exports. This time, however, the boom did not provoke deforestation. Heavy investments in drainage and irrigation made it harder for growers to shift locations, so they found ways to solve their soilproblems that did not require moving to new fields. To meet rising demandgrowers increased yields or expanded production in existing agriculturalareas, rather than clear additional forest.

’Ecuador Goes Bananas: Incremental Technological Change and Forest Loss’ by Sven Wunder from CIFOR tells how the changes in Ecuador’s banana industry over the last half century directly and indirectly affected forest clearing. In this case, technological change eventually led to a happy ending, at least for the forests. But many forests lost in the early period never returned.


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Further reading

If you would like send comments on this message or to request a free electronic copy of Wunder’s paper, you can write the author at mailto:s.wunder@cgiar.org