"Since the beginning, a century ago, the United Fruit Company developed wilderness areas where bananas would commercially grow. They always seemed to be at the end of the world…"
Clyde Stephens, a world renowned banana expert, historian, author, scientist, and gregarious frontier man, has spent decades in sweltering plantation backwaters; 'nowhere places' where the tropical jungle wrestled against the tenuous 'civilization' of United Fruit townships, and won. He looks exactly how you'd expect: undaunted by much, and seasoned.
"I was first assigned in 1959," he says, recalling a thirty-two year career in the company's research department. "I was fresh out of the University of Florida and it was my first job and I had a bachelor's degree in entomology."
Clyde was posted to Bocas del Toro province in Panama, a stretch of luxuriant Caribbean coastline near the Costa Rican border, a land disconnected from the outside world (until road connections came in the 1980s). He became fascinated by the region's dazzling ethnic and ecological enclaves, its indigenous and African-descent peoples, its teeming rainforests and mangroves, and its scintillating off-shore archipelago, dubbed "the Galapagos of Panama" for its scores of biologically unique islands and islets. Between working for the UFC and raising a family with his wife, Phyllis, Clyde penned four books on the history of the region.
Today, his wood-built home occupies the western tip of Solarte Island, a place known as Hospital Point after the pioneering United Fruit medical center which operated there in the early 20th century; remnants of its stone foundations can be discerned in the grounds. The garden is immaculately groomed and filled with botanical specimens from around the world: vivid flowers, fruit trees, and one gigantic talipot palm, Corypha umbraculifera, a species which reaches heights of 25m and takes up to 80 years to bloom.
The March of the Banana Republics
As we drink coffee in the shade of the trees, surrounded by the chatter of wild parakeets, Clyde describes the history of banana production in Bocas. The United Fruit Company formed in 1899, he explains, when Minor Keith's Central America-based Tropical Trading and Transport Company merged with its main rival, Lorenzo Baker's Caribbean-based Boston Fruit Company. Keith, an ambitious young American railroad tycoon, had laid down pioneering train lines in Costa Rica and raised a modest banana empire "along the tracks." But he soon ran into financial trouble and was forced to humble himself before his nemesis. The merger of their two companies would prove lucrative beyond all expectation. Based in Bocas del Toro, the UFC rapidly expanded through Central and South America, consuming territories and competitors on both Pacific and Caribbean shores, evolving into a behemoth empire that boasted its own railroads, steam ships, townships, and ports.
Today, United Fruit is no more; its operations have been scaled back and its holdings fragmented into a plethora of subsidiaries. Its direct successor is Cincinnati-based Chiquita brands (look for the blue stamp and the "Miss Chiquita" logo, modeled on Brazilian samba singer Carmen Miranda).
In Bocas del Toro, Chiquita's only surviving division is based in the capital of the province, Changuinola City. It is a hot, grungy, terminally shambolic town perched on the mainland between languid swamps and a cloak of dense plantations. Daily life for its 30,000 inhabitants is timed by the buzz of yellow crop dusters soaring back and forth. An island of order in a sea of dilapidation, the tranquil neighborhood of Finca 8 is the setting for Chiquita's headquarters, along with the largest and most prestigious houses in town, the sole preserve of company executives. Nearby, the leafy Changuinola Golf Club boasts a swimming pool and a nine-hole course.
"Banana divisions were always built in an orderly fashion," explains Clyde. "Well laid out, very formally, straight from the drawing board. These were attractive Company towns and designed to hold and keep professional employees and families, especially the foreigners — mostly American skilled employees. These were very isolated areas and all the amenities had to be provided to keep employees for the long term, not just a year or so.
"This means good housing, schools, hospitals, medical clinics, recreation like golf courses, country club, tennis, pool, parties, club activities to bond people. We were a special pampered breed and people like us never changed employers and retired after 40 years.
"Not only foreigners, but lower monthlies and labor classes also got good treatment for the same reasons: orderly labor camps, electricity and good water for the first time in their lives, company built and run schools, a steady job with benefits, medical care in the company hospitals and clinics, the eternal soccer field in the middle of the labor zone, a store for provisions in every camp…"
At its heyday in the early 20th century, the UFC managed its affairs from Bocas Town, a wood-built port perched on the tip of Columbus Island (today known by its Spanish name, Isla Colón). It was the epicenter of a thriving multi-cultural milieu. English and French-speaking labourers were shipped en-masse to the steamy Bocatorean shores from Caribbean colonies like Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti, and French Guadalupe. In total, more than 50 nationalities were represented. It was a swinging time, when modernity burst onto the scene with staggering new advances in technology. The company established the Tropical Radio Telegraph Company, signaling a bold new age of mass communication in Central America. Three newspapers were distributed around town, keeping the population abreast of news and social functions. There were movie theatres, horse-races, cricket, baseball, and polo matches.
Off-shore, the company's "Great White Fleet" plied the oceans with their bounty, delivering cheap, sweet bananas to a mass market for the first time in history. On the mainland, new infrastructure was erected: railroads, bridges, and the impeccably attired port of Almirante. There was the sense that man's ingenuity and spirit of enterprise could overcome any obstacle.
A Human Struggle in the Tropics
But behind the crisp white façade of every immaculately ordered UFC township was a much darker tale of human struggle. Blazing sun, torrential rain, floods, bugs, landslides, and a profusion of feverish diseases were the reality for those workers charged with forging settlements from the wilderness.
Historically, Bocas del Toro had been so overgrown and inhospitable, so voracious and all-consuming, that even the conquistadors, with their insatiable lust for gold and power, had never managed to tame it. From the 16th century to the mid-1800s, Bocas was little more than an uncharted frontier.
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