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A history of the banana boom in Ecuador

Ecuador owes Clemente Yerovi Indaburo the impulse that made it the world's first banana exporter. Between 1948 and 1950, he was the Minister of Economy in the government of Galo Plaza Lasso. After an era of political instability, Plaza was ready for the country to increase its production and boost its economic growth.

Sixty-eight years later, James Neale Yerovi received the prize that the Association of Banana Exporters of Ecuador (AEBE) presented to his grandfather at a ceremony in Guayaquil, on 10 October 2016, during the World Banana Congress. He spoke on behalf of the family of the then Minister of Economy and later President of Ecuador, whose "ambition was fulfilled."

"It suffices to say that it was during this (Minister's) administration and on his initiative that this country became the international leader in the export of bananas; a position it still currently holds," said Neale.

Yerovi had an innate connection to the fields and agricultural areas of the Coast. On his mother's side, her family owned steam-shipping companies that crossed the Guayas River. At that time, he had already been a leader of the Farmers' Association of Los Ríos and the Coastal Agriculture Chamber. And at the Ministry he defended what he had faith in: that the country could plant bananas and compete with Central America. By that time, their plantations had been destroyed by a hurricane.

Historian Melvin Hoyos says that Plaza and Yerovi were two daring visionaries. "What was innovative about this story was the way in which Ecuador entered almost as a catapult, as a gigantic trampoline, going from small exporter to becoming the world leader."

A few months ago, Hoyos began the research for the museological script of what will become the Museum of Ecuadorian Bananas.

This is a dream for Eduardo Ledesma, president of the Exporters. He wonders "why Ecuador does not have a banana museum, if it is the country's most representative product?" He says that the plan is for it to be established in one of the old houses on the streets of Panama and Mendiburo, in the centre of Guayaquil. In this area, the Municipality plans to set up a network of museums, including one devoted to cocoa. The AEBE will present a proposal for the museum to Mayor Jaime Nebot.

"People think that bananas are cut, put in a bag and exported," says Ledesma. But in the background there are many stories of visionaries that the country must learn about; from how they went from having the fruit rotting on the docks and on steam ships, to transporting bananas in refrigerated ships; from the business being controlled by transnationals to being in the hands of local exporters; from being exported in bunches to cardboard boxes being introduced in 1960 as a strategy to reduce costs and prevent the fruit from being damaged on the shoulders of stevedores.

Ana Lema researched it all for a year for the production of the documentary 'El Banano en Ecuador' (Bananas in Ecuador). She says that she was most impressed by the development of the entrepreneurs who emerged after the decline of cocoa. "Their enterprise and innovation were crucial." Geniuses like Luis Noboa Naranjo, who became the country's leading banana exporter and is considered one of the most important entrepreneurs of the twentieth century. There was also Segundo Wong Mayorga, who opened the Chinese market; Simón Cañarte Barbero, who bought American ships that were redundant after World War II and adapted them to be used as refrigerated ships to export the fruit; or Esteban Quirola Figueroa, an entrepreneur from El Oro.

There are other names that disappeared from the business, such as that of the Swede, Folke Anderson, who bought extensive lands in Esmeraldas and generated a local wealth that was only temporary, according to Hoyos. His name is now on a football stadium.

The history of the banana boom would be incomplete without Tenguel, the largest banana farm. It was bought by United Fruit in the 1950's. Located in Guayas, it is estimated to have more than 42,000 hectares and even has runways for planes.

In his book 'Empresarios Ecuatorianos del Banano' (Ecuadorian banana entrepreneurs), Lois J. Roberts reports that the first fruit exported by Ecuador left from the farms of the Valdez family, which planted sugar cane and built a sugar mill in 1880. It cultivated the Gros Michel variety in plots of between 15 and 30 hectares, right in the middle of the sugar cane plantations. Many lands ceased to be devoted to cocoa production, following the scourge of the Witch's Broom disease. In the 1970's, the Panama disease caused the disappearance of that variety and the introduction of the Cavendish.

When Plaza took power in 1948, Ecuador was exporting 3.8 million banana clusters (figures were not expressed in metric tonnes, but in clusters), according to AEBE. In 1952, they reached 16.7 million; a 421% growth.

The story includes a statement from Plaza that marked a milestone: "In my government, there was planning. Proof of this, for example, is the case of bananas. In 1948, Ecuador was 27th in the global ranking. By the year 1951, we became the world's largest exporter."

In 2015, the country sold 5.76 million metric tonnes of bananas worth 2.7 billion dollars, which represents about 30% of the world's export market. Bananas also remain the country's main non-oil export product. The sector is estimated to generate 220,000 jobs. Until last year, 162,236 hectares of plantations were registered in the Ministry of Agriculture.


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