Spare a thought for the banana workers of Central America

Few of us who read a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch television on any kind of a regular basis, can plead ignorance about the scandalous rate of pay and dire working conditions that many people in the third world endure, to provide us with the daily luxuries that so many of us now take for granted.

Knowing what we now know it is difficult to really enjoy a cup of coffee, tea or cocoa unless one has found a Fair Trade brand. 44% of Irish people now recognise the Fair Trade label as opposed to 16% in 2002.

Not only has awareness increased, but the quality and variety of the produce has also improved enormously. Sales of some Fair Trade mark coffee and tea grew by 50% last year, its no longer just worthy, it tastes good.

Fair Trade standards also exist for sugar, lovely bananas, fresh fruit and vegetables, dried fruit, fruit juices, rice, wine, nuts and oilseeds, cut flowers, ornamental plants, cotton and sports balls.

Standards for other items, eg tropical fruit, are in development. 

Having travelled to both Guatemala and Costa Rica, and seen at first hand the conditions of the coffee and banana workers, I am acutely aware not only of the hardships they endure, but also the phenomenal amount of pesticides that are used in conventional production, so its good to see that more and more Fair Trade products are also organic.

Next time you slice a banana over your breakfast muesli, or complain about the price, spare a thought for the banana workers of Central America. 

In April 2002 I spent a couple of weeks on an eco-tourism adventure in Costa Rica. Having trudged through rainforests and whizzed passed acres of fincas, bananas will never seem quite the same again. Costa Rica is the world’s second largest banana producer. The fruit counters of the supermarkets are indeed a million miles from the banana plantations. Its so amazing to think of the journey this fruit has made to our local shop.

In recent years Costa Rica has chosen the path of eco-tourism with considerable success. This tiny country with a population similar to Ireland has about 5% of the world’s total biodiversity. This biological abundance is now safeguarded by one of the world’s most enlightened conservation programmes, consequently eco-tourism is Costa Rica’s number one earner, followed by bananas and coffee. However, pollution caused by the agro-export industry is threatening the image of the Garden of Eden.

Over this side of the world we seem to attach considerable importance to perfectly shaped, unblemished fruits. A huge cocktail of potentially dangerous chemicals are used in banana cultivation (over 50 are authorised), 20% of which serve only to improve the appearance of the fruit and are not essential for disease control.

Eco-travellers who pass through the banana plantations of Costa Rica or who take river trips, especially along the Rio Sarapiqui can’t fail to spot the ubiquitous blue plastic bags which cover the bunches of fruit on every tree. The perfect appearance of Costa Rica’s bananas is due largely to the fact that they grow inside these pesticide lined bags, some of which inevitably make their way into the rivers and lakes where they are consumed by the fish, mammals and iguanas. In fact in the Rio Tempisque basin, armadillos and crocodiles are thought to be virtually exterminated by agricultural pesticides. Fertilisers washing downstream have resulted in a proliferation of water hyacinths and reeds which have choked up channels and changed habitats, while the silt washing out to sea has destroyed much of the offshore coral reefs. Some of the blue plastic bags also float out to sea where the already endangered marine turtles mistake them for jelly fish and choke.

Unfortunately animals are not alone in being at risk from the pesticides. In 1987 a hundred Costa Rican banana plantation workers sued Dow Chemicals, Shell and Standard Fruit for producing and using a chemical which is known to cause sterility. Although they won the case in the US Courts the companies appealed. However since then several harmful pesticides have been banned, nonetheless every year 6% of all Costa Rican banana workers present claims for incidents involving exposure to pesticides, the highest such rate in the world.

On a day trip to Kekoldi Reserve, home to the indigenous Bribri Tribe, we drove on dusty mud roads through miles and miles of banana fincas. All along the way we saw people working in the plantations. Months of hard work goes into growing the crops. Today they were harvesting – chopping the still green bananas with their machetes. They carried the huge bunches to the roadside where they were piled up to be transported by mule or canoe, then by lorry to the packing station and onwards to the port at Limon where the huge big banana boats were waiting to transport them across the world.

Down by the edge of the Sarapiqui river we watched as the bananas and plantains (a larger variety) were weighed and the farmers were paid in cash on the spot. Most, then had a simple meal of beans and rice in the rustic palapa by the water’s edge before walking back to their farms.

They waved us all goodbye as we piled into wooden canoes to go body-rafting down the river. If only they knew what a bunch of bananas costs in our shops.

The good news is that the acreage of organic production is increasing in Costa Rica and more Fair Trade projects have been put in place to ensure that workers get a fair price and good work conditions.

Cork City, European Capital of Culture 2005, is hoping to be the first Irish Fair Trade City, so far Clonakilty is the only certified Fair Trade town in Ireland. The story of the commitment of the people of that town to the ethos of Fair Trade has been a remarkable example of a community working together to reach out to those who labour and harvest many of our favourite food and drinks for subsistence wages.

At present 30 towns and cities nationwide are seeking Fair Trade status. 

So we can all help by seeking out and buying Fair Trade products on a regular basis. Ask local shops and supermarkets to stock a range.

Check that your favourite cafes and restaurants are serving Fair Trade products. The Coffee Cuisine group (Kylemore Cafes) have just announced the decision to serve Fair Trade coffee, tea and hot chocolate in all of their eight branches. This in essence means 1.8 million cups a year which will make a real contribution.

Think of the difference it would make if all hospitals, canteens, offices, across the city served Fair Trade coffee and tea, biscuits, juices and chocolate. 

The price difference is very little, the feel good factor is immense.

Fairtrade Chocolate Cake

By Jane Asher
For the chocolate cake mixture:
150g/6 oz butter
150g/6 oz caster sugar, plus another 50g/2 oz for meringue
7 eggs, separated
175g/7 oz dark Fairtrade chocolate, melted
125g/5 oz self-raising flour, sifted

For the buttercream:
100g/4 oz butter, softened
175g/7 oz icing sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon of Fairtrade ground coffee, or 1½ teaspoons of Fairtrade instant coffee

For the chocolate cake:

Preheat oven to 190°C / 375°F/ Gas Mark 5. 
Grease and line the base of a deep 23cm/9 inch round cake tin. 
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in egg yolks one at a time, and then stir in the melted Maya Gold chocolate. 
Whisk egg whites until stiff, then fold in sugar to make meringue. 
Alternately fold in flour and meringue to the chocolate mix. 
Transfer mix to tin and bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the cake is firm to touch and a skewer can be withdrawn cleanly. 
Leave to cool in the tin, then transfer to a cooling rack until cold. 
Split cake in half and fill with Fairtrade coffee buttercream. 
For the butter cream

Infuse the ground coffee in a tablespoon of boiled water, then strain; or dissolve the instant coffee in half a teaspoon of boiling water. 
Beat the butter until light and fluffy. 
Add the icing sugar to the mix a little at the time, beating well in between. 
Gradually beat in the coffee. 

Fairtrade Banana and Toffee Pancakes

By Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.
Serves 4-6. 

The Batter:
225g plain flour
2 medium eggs
up to 500ml milk

The Filling:
250g good quality butter toffee (broken up if in a block)
3 tablespoons milk
10 ripe Fairtrade bananas, sliced

Sieve the flour and beat in the eggs. Beat in the milk a little at a time until the batter has the consistency of single cream. 
Put the toffee and 3 tablespoons of milk in a heavy pan. Stir constantly over a low heat until the toffee has melted and the sauce is smooth. It should be nice and hot. 
Fry the pancakes in a lightly oiled non-stick pan. When bubbles appear (after approx 1-1 ½) minutes turn the pancake. Stack them up and keep warm while you cook the rest. 
Place slices of banana down the middle of each pancake and pour over a generous amount of toffee sauce. Fold over each side of the pancake into the middle. Decorate with more banana slices and toffee sauce. 

Banana Choc Chip Muffins 
Makes 7-8 large muffins

100g plain flour
40g cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
90g unrefined (golden) Fairtrade sugar
40g melted butter
1 egg, beaten
2 ripe Fairtrade bananas, well mashed
80ml buttermilk
50g Fairtrade milk chocolate, chopped into small chunks

Preheat oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6. Sieve flour, cornmeal, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda together into a large bowl. Stir in sugar. In a separate bowl, mix together the butter, egg, bananas and buttermilk. Add wet ingredients to dry and mix gently (do not over-mix). Fold in the chocolate chips. Fill a muffin tin (ideally lined with muffin cases) to just under the rim. Bake for about 30 minutes until golden-brown and firm to the touch. Allow to cool in the tin.

Banana Bread

I have always loved this moist, tasty banana bread. It keeps for up to two weeks in a tin but I doubt you will find this out as it will be gobbled up quickly. Serve it thickly sliced spread with soft butter.
Makes 1 large loaf

225g 8oz self raising flour
½ level teaspoon salt
110g 4oz butter
170g 6oz castor sugar
110g 4oz sultanas or seedless raisins
30g 1oz chopped walnuts, 
110g 4oz cherries, washed and halved
2 eggs, preferably free range
450g 1lb very ripe Fairtrade bananas (weighed out of skins) 

Loaf tin 24cm 9½ inches x 13.5cm 5½ inches x 5cm 2inches, lined with greaseproof or silicone paper.

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/regulo 4. 

In a large wide mixing bowl sieve the flour and salt. Rub in the butter, add the sugar. Stir in sultanas or seedless raisins, the walnuts and the glace cherries. Mash the bananas with a fork, add the eggs and mix this well into the other ingredients. 

The dough should be a nice soft consistency. 

Pour the mixture into the lined tin and spread evenly. Place in the centre of a moderate oven and bake for 1½ hours. It is vital that the oven door is not opened during cooking or the banana bread will collapse. 
Cool before removing from the tin.
It is even nicer served after a day or two.

Tira Misu

Serves 8
38-40 Boudoir biscuits
8 fl oz (250 ml) strong espresso coffee (if your freshly) made coffee is not strong enough, add 1 teaspoon of instant coffee) 
2 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons Jamaica rum
3 ozs (85g) dark chocolate
3 eggs, separated, preferably free range
4 tablespoons castor sugar
9 ozs (255g) Mascarpone cheese *

Unsweetened Cocoa -Fairtrade

Dish 10 x 8 inches (25.5 x 20.5cm) with low sides or 1lb loaf tin (8 x 4 inches (20.5 x 10cm) lined with cling film

Mix the coffee with the brandy and rum. Roughly grate the chocolate (we do it in the food processor with the pulse button). Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until it reaches the 'ribbon' stage and is light and fluffy, then fold in the Mascarpone a tablespoon at a time.

Whisk the egg whites stiffly and fold gently into the cheese mixture. Now you are ready to assemble the Tira Misu.

Dip each side of the boudoir biscuits one at a time into the coffee mixture and arrange side by side in the dish or tin. Spread half the Mascarpone mixture gently over the biscuits, sprinkle half the grated chocolate over the top, then another layer of soaked biscuits and finally the rest of the Mascarpone. Cover the whole bowl or loaf tin carefully with cling film or better still slide it into a plastic bag and twist the end. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours - I usually make it the day before I use it. 

Just before serving scatter the remainder of the chocolate over the top and dredge with unsweetened cocoa.

Note: Tiramisu will keep for several days in a fridge, but make sure it is covered so that it doesn't pick up 'fridgie' tastes.

Foolproof Food

Banana Smoothie

By Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. Serves one.
"I have one of these for breakfast almost every day - and I never get bored of it."

1 large or two small Fairtrade bananas 
200ml ice cold milk (skimmed if you prefer)
1 tablespoon rolled oats (porridge oats)
2 ice cubes

Place all the ingredients in a blender and whizz for approximately one minute until smooth. Pour into a tall glass and enjoy.

Hot Tips 

What you can do to help Fairtrade

· By yourself
Choose Fairtrade Mark coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate, bananas and fruit juice when doing your weekly shopping.

· At Work
Get your workplace to change over to Fairtrade Mark tea or coffee. Fairtrade Ireland can support you with samples, leaflets etc. 

· At School
Show the Fair Comment video (available from Fairtrade Ireland), have a coffee morning, start a Fairtrade tuck shop. Contact Fairtrade Ireland if you want to organise a workshop.

· Where you live
Ask your local shop or supermarket to stock Fairtrade Mark products. Convert your favourite coffee shop to Fairtrade Mark coffee or tea. See how you can help make your city or town a Fairtrade one. 

For further information:
Fairtrade Mark Ireland, Carmichael House, North Brunswick St. Dublin 7
Tel 01-4753515 info@fairtrade.ie www.fairtrade.ie
Fairtrade Cork Project, c/o Comhlamh, 55 Grand Parade, Cork. Tel. 021-4275881 info@fairtradecork.com  www.fairtradecork.com  


Thai ingredients –

New source of ingredients direct from Thailand for wholesalers – Sukunya Foods, PO Box 714, Togher, Cork, Tel 022 – 25941 sukunyafood@fastmail.fm  Also available for retail purchase from Superfruit, Douglas Shopping Centre, Douglas, Cork. Tel 021-489 4179