Nonprofit organization the Rainforest Alliance is being sued over what Water and Sanitation Health (WASH), a non-profit organization based in Seattle, Washington, claims is unfair and deceptive marketing of its rainforest certified products.
If you’re not familiar with the Rainforest Alliance, the group is best known for its work with Chiquita, certifying its bananas as “Rainforest Certified,” which may lead consumers to take that as meaning sustainable and even organically grown.
But it’s that certification that WASH alleges in its civil suit is misleading American consumers and harming the Central American communities growing the bananas.
The lawsuit points to six Guatemala communities specifically located near the Nahualate and Madre Vieja Rivers that are being exposed to excessive water pollution and airborne exposure to toxic chemicals from plantations that provide the “Rainforest Certified” bananas grown for Chiquita, WASH alleges. “Drinking water is contaminated from toxic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and organic matter,” WASH President Eric Harrison said in a statement.
According to the WASH suit, banana plantations near the Guatemalan villages and communities spread some 420 gallons of fungicides onto the banana trees every 8 – 10 days, including dithane, paraquat, and mocap, which have been proven to cause serious health problems.
“We believe that the Rainforest Alliance’s marketing scheme is a deliberate misrepresentation to consumers,” Harrison said of the group that grossed more than $46-million dollars in 2013.
WASH alleges that eco-minded consumers may purchase Rainforest Alliance bananas and other certified crops under the impression that the products are grown sustainably, even when that’s not the case.
On its website, the Rainforest Alliance claims that it works directly with banana farms “to help them conserve their natural resources and promote the well-being of workers and local communities. Banana farms that are Rainforest Alliance Certified undergo annual audits to ensure that they comply with rigorous social criteria designed to protect workers, families and nearby communities.”
In a statement released by Rainforest Alliance addressing the lawsuit specifically, the group said that auditors “found that the [Rainforest Alliance certified] farms visited were in compliance with the SAN certification standards.”
But Harrison, who recently visited Guatemala, claims he witnessed “local workers who don’t have protective gear against direct exposure from pesticide spray, and drinking water tested in communities near the plantations showed levels of nitrites, nitrates, and heavy metals ten times higher than the maximum levels recommended by the World Health Organization.” Harrison adds, “WASH appreciates the outward philosophy of the Rainforest Alliance. We hope they will assist in getting affected communities the clean water they need for health and sanitation purposes.”
Bananas are a divisive crop, which is why programs like the Rainforest Alliance’s and Whole Foods Market’s Whole Trade label have become beacons of inspiration among our most popular globalized crops (which includes other certified crops such as coffee, chocolate and tea). While bananas continue to be among the most popular fruits sold in the U.S., they’re not grown anywhere on the mainland; all are imported from countries like Guatemala and Costa Rica. And like WASH points out in its suit, the certification programs in place can be misleading to consumers if not downright deceptive about the practices and labor issues surrounding these crops. Not only that, but considering that the fruits are grown thousands of miles away from U.S. soil, there are considerable amounts of fossil fuels being burned in transport and contributing to greenhouse gases, which are damaging to the rainforests even if the bananas are being grown in a way that doesn’t contribute to new clear-cutting.
What seems clear is that crops like bananas are going to continue to be controversial. We’re not likely to give up our love for the fruit any time soon. But hopefully we can continue to demand transparency in our food system and hold certifiers accountable to improving standards and conditions for workers around the world.
Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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