15 Apr 2020

National Banana Day: Fairtrade heroes in Colombia put #FairtradeTogether into action against the coronavirus

This 15. April, National Banana Day, Fairtrade International is recognizing Fairtrade banana producers from the Urabá region of Colombia, who have taken the #FairtradeTogether message to heart to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Agrotes Calima 4
Agrotes Farm
© Calima

Bringing COVID-19 Testing to the Community

Sixteen banana companies are contributing US$55,000 of Fairtrade Premium money towards an emergency COVID-19 diagnostic test centre set up by the local university.

“Flights have been suspended throughout the country and it takes around eight hours for samples to get from Urabá to Medellin by road,” explains Carlos Trujillo, plantation manager at Grupo Agrosiete, one of the companies involved. “Altogether, it can take four to five days for the samples to be taken, transported the 500 km to Medellin, analysed and the results communicated back to the patients.”

“This initiative could be a game-changer,” he adds. “We can get the test results quicker, which will help us detect cases in the region faster, and so help limit the spread of the virus. If people test positive, they can be confined and looked after properly.”

The new testing facility is being coordinated by the region’s University State Business Companies Committee and involves not only Fairtrade banana producers, but eleven municipalities, religious groups, the Colombian Institute of Tropical Medicine and the private CES University. The consortium needs to raise more than US$200,000 - of which Fairtrade organisations have already committed more than a quarter.

“As well as supporting the new diagnostic centre, banana trading companies are also funding equipment for intensive care units and the purchase of respirators for medical institutions in Urabá,” says Carlos. “They have also donated bananas, pineapples and other food supplies to families who have no income in the past weeks. Our staff are very important to us, and we will take any measures we can take to protect them.”

Along with Fairtrade organisations the world over, banana growers are already implementing measures to protect workers including wearing masks, stopping production to carry out hand washing every two hours, regular temperature checks, enforcing two-metre social distancing, segregated transport and staggered meal times to avoid crowds. Soap, water and antibacterial gel are all available for workers.

“Fairtrade has enabled us to increase workers’ awareness about the virus,” says Carlos. “They are more prepared and have more information to face this challenge. As a Fairtrade organisation we are well used to organising training sessions, which means we’ve been able to reach out to workers’ families as well.”

Taking the Fight Against COVID-19 to the Streets

“I have had many sleepless nights. I was lying awake at 4.30am when I had the idea to fight back against the coronavirus,” says Felipe Echeverri Zapata. “I called my friend and together we devised a plan.”

Felipe is manager of the Fairtrade certified Agrotes SAS banana farm in Urabá, Colombia. Like other farmers and producers all over the world, the virus pandemic is causing major headaches in a sector where it was already hard enough to make a decent living. But Felipe isn’t the sort of man to give in.

“I had to return to Medellin to be with my wife and young son during the lockdown,” he explains. “My brother and older son are still on the farm. Agricultural workers are exempt from the restrictions, and fortunately, there has only been one reported case of the virus in Urabá so far. But the biggest challenge is getting people to understand the seriousness of the situation to come. If we all get sick at the same time, no health system in the world could take care of us.”

Felipe and the Agrotes management had already put a number of measures into place, such as restricting numbers on busses to 20 workers at a time, disinfecting the busses before and after journeys, providing workers with face masks and putting up signs telling them to keep their distance.

But Felipe felt this wasn’t enough. “I contacted my friend Sandra who owns Calima, the company which sprays our banana plantations against the Black Sigatoka disease. Calima has crop spraying planes, as well as tankers and all the other equipment needed, and Agrotes has stocks of disinfectant which we use to wash the bananas prior to export. Together, we were able to disinfect the roads and sidewalks around the farm, as well as the shopping streets, hospital entrance and other public areas around the town.”

As movement is heavily restricted during the lockdown, Felipe had to get police permission to move the spraying tankers around the area. “I called the police colonel and told him what we proposed,” says Felipe. “Within two hours, everything had been coordinated with the Mayor’s office and the fire department, the road blocks were lifted, and the spraying began.” Now, neighbouring municipalities have taken up the idea. “In this way, everybody is united to carry out preventive health measures for the people of Urabá,” he says. “It reduces stress and helps people to know that we are doing everything we can.”

Beating the impacts of the pandemic will take more than disinfectant, though. Felipe is deeply worried about the long-term effects on banana production, which already operates on wafer-thin margins. “Many clients are behind with their payments, some have asked for price reductions or are buying less volume,” he reports. “So far, we have been able to continue paying our workers at the full rate and they are still getting all the usual benefits. I pray that our customers in Europe and Asia will keep buying our bananas so the workers do not suffer.” For the time being, projects such as the construction of 24 workers’ houses - funded by the Fairtrade Premium - are still going ahead.

For Felipe, the lockdown and travel restrictions bring back memories. “You hear less noise in the streets - it reminds me of 20 years ago, when life was slower. We used to get up early to avoid the roadblocks so we could get to work.” But the crisis has also brought unexpected benefits. “My family are scattered all over the world, and I have many cousins I have never met,” he says. “During the lockdown, we are having regular online chats and ironically, we are now getting know each other better.”