banana head

By Juan Carlos Martinez

When everyone thinks of Bocas del Toro they generally think of a Caribbean vacation hotspot full of tourists looking for fun and adventure.  While it is that, it is also a province where before tourism, the main source of income for the province came from the banana plantations and services associated with the plantations.   Since the beginning of the 20th century the history of banana production in Panama basically coincides with the history of United Brands which in some form or other has been present in Panama since 1899.
Originally it was called United Fruit Company but in 1970 changed its name to United Brands and then again, to leverage the re-known of its Chiquita brand, changed its name in 1990 to Chiquita Brands International and then to Bocas Fruit.  To locals in Bocas it is just known as "the company" or as it is also very vernacularly called "Mamita Unai" (Mommy United would be a rough English translation).

Due to the nature of the product and the extension of the plantations, thousands of hectares; banana plantations were set up in the middle of nowhere.  Jungle was hacked and beaten back to make place for thousands of banana plants and infrastructure buildings until eventually there was a town in the middle of a sea of green; green gold as bananas were called.   In Bocas del Toro the company built railroads, port facilities, and storage areas for the processing and export of bananas.  Setting up an operation of this size would of course require a large amount of personnel of all levels so the company also imported executives and their families to run the operations of the banana plantations.  The company inmediately became the largest and basically the single employer in the region.


Executives were literally head hunted and imported into Bocas and many of the other United Brands plantations. The headquarters of the company were set up in Changuinola, a town created to serve the needs of the banana people.  Before the advent of the United Fruit Company, Bocas was an all but forgotten region of Panama with a very small indigenous population of fishermen and subsistence farmers.  In addition to building the facilities for business, the company also needed to build water wells, drainage systems, install power plants, a phone system and a road network just to make the place livable for the workers and their families.  Many hundreds of housing units were also built for migrant workers from other provinces, the Indian territories, or even other countries, who came to take advantage of the work opportunities in this new plantation town. It is surprising to see reflected in a 2007 evaluation of the urban development of Bocas by ANAM (National Authority for the Environment) that many of the original systems for basic necesities installed by the old United Fruit Company are still in use, for example the drainage systems and the power plants.  In October of last year the government authorized payment to Bocas Fruit Company for power supplied through its power plants to Almirante and Changuinola.  So the infrastructure put in place by United Fruit is still being used although in some cases it has been reverted over to the national government.



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