15 Mar Exporting to the world
JORGE SAUMA AGUILAR, CEO, CORBANA, HEADS UP THE MOST SIGNIFICANT BANANA GROWER BODY IN THE COUNTRY. HERE HE TELLS US ABOUT WHAT WE CAN EXPECT FROM THE FUTURE OF THE INDUSTRY.
Costa Rica has one of the most prolific banana export industries in the world, accounting for about 6 percent of its total exports. As the country’s official banana regulatory body, Corbana has been operating at the core of this industry since 1971. Could you give us an overview of the industry, including the key facts and figures, to appraise the importance of the industry for Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is one of the most important countries for banana production, exporting more than 125 million boxes a year. Bananas are the main external income in the agricultural sector with $1 billion dollars. More importantly, over 150,000 people depend directly on the agro-export activity, and our industry is located in the zones that suffer the most from poverty and lack of employment opportunities. That territory in Costa Rica devoted to bananas is less than 1 percent of the country. Costa Rica has 25 percent of its total territory in protected areas. The growers in the banana industry include trade companies and independent growers. They have 13,500 hectares of protected forest. What is different in Costa Rica, is that we pay the highest salaries for the workers, and we are a country which has been working more than 20 years trying to improve our environmental footprint. We recycle 100 percent of the plastic, put no solid waste to rivers, and we have been working more than 15 years already to reduce the agro-chemicals and promote biological control. This effort we have done is very important. Corbana is the regulatory director of the banana industry, and we are well recognized as a research institution. We have agreements with University of Florida, the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, and many other universities in China and Taiwan. We do research, we have a laboratory for the control of soil analysis, and we also have molecular and biological laboratories. Our main research is to try to control the diseases of the banana with these molecules.
What would you say is your strategic vision and goals for the organization as its CEO, and what are your priority areas for the next few years?
Our main task is the service to the growers. Also, we want to keep and maintain our image as a research-focused organization. We work very intensely to try and increase productivity, which is the only way our bananas can compete, because we have higher costs than other countries. We try hard to reduce chemical use and to combat diseases. Our bananas are well recognized globally. As we say in Corbana, for our bananas, “it is important how it looks, it is important how it tastes, but it is more important how it is produced,” regarding the environment and the social welfare aspect of our workers.
One big issue we face is the fusarium race force, a fungus disease. Seventeen years ago, the fusarium race 1 appeared. At that time, the banana was the grocery shelf variety, tastier but it was vulnerable to the fusarium race 1 and 2. Then we started with the Cavendish variety, which was distributed all around the exporting countries, in Latin America, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Asia, etc. But the fusarium race 4 appeared. It was contained in Southeast Asia first, but then it started to move so that today it’s already in Latin America, in Colombia and Peru. It’s a terrible disease: the whole plantation dies. The Cavendish is vulnerable to the Fusarium Race 4 despite being resistant to Fusarium Race 1 and 2
Nowadays we are working very hard on that: we have alliances with the World Banana Forum, the Inter American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, and the Organismo Internacional Regional de Sanidad Agropecuaria, an international institute for health and sanitary conditions. We are focusing on finding resistant varieties, while other parties are working on GMO. We are working hard to prevent the entrance of the disease to Costa Rica. We are putting in a lot of effort with the Minister of Agriculture. We will have a congress on May 23rd, 2023, where we will congregate the most advanced specialists from all over the world to join efforts and form an alliance to prevent this terrible disease.
Regarding your research facility, can you share with us some of the major output your research works have produced? How do you harness your research to benefit both the local and the international banana industry and help enhance its competitiveness?
We are working together; we are part of alliances, and we are very much focused on that. The banana industry is very important, not only in Costa Rica, but also in our brother Latin American countries and in the rest of the world. The most important goal is to keep and maintain jobs in areas with lower development. We are trying to protect employees. Five million people depend, either directly or indirectly, on the banana industry. Some just for export, others for globally consumption. That’s our main concern now: how to work together. In the congress, one day will be devoted to Fusarium Race Task Force to discuss how to work on this important matter.
Another important facet of our research is how to reduce our chemicals while remaining competitive. It is not easy in this country, because we have high humidity and a high level of precipitation, which means a lot of diseases. We are trying to combat them by natural ways, which is no easy process, but we are doing that to reduce the dependence on chemicals. That is one of the main issues we are focused on right now. Also, we are doing research to become more productive to get better results with less use of chemicals.
Agriculture has made a strong post-pandemic recovery, exporting about 2.3 million tons of bananas globally in 2021. However, global agriculture is once again facing complications due to the Ukraine war, and Costa Rica’s banana exports have suffered a 5 percent decline from 2021’s figures. How do you foresee the ongoing geo-political conflicts and supply chain issues impacting Costa Rican agriculture in the next year, and what is Corbana strategy for mitigating the worst of them?
The pandemic was a very hard blow. However, our workers responded very well: they followed the protocols to protect themselves and showed solidarity with the owners of the farms, so we managed to pull through that. Secondly came the global crisis after that, bringing an increase in the prices of fertilizers, of carton boxes, of the logistics, making the situation very tense and complicated. We originally had forecasted a 9 percent decrease, but the last figure is about 5 percent. So, from 132-131 million boxes of 18.4 kilos, maybe we will be around 124 or 125 million boxes. Our corporation has granted loans and payment facilities to growers in order to buy fertilizers. We call it an emergency loan for a technical package to prevent coming production. We have done that with positive results. And then the Russia-Ukraine war started, the supply chain issue got worse, and we had a lack of alternatives to transport bananas. It’s a complicated situation but we are trying to join forces in the industry and pass through that.
As it stands, Costa Rica is one of the top three banana exporters in the world, and its main export markets have steadily been the U.S. and Europe. How are you expanding your presence in existing markets like the U.S. and which new markets will you focus on in the future?
We have two main markets for our bananas: the United States and the European Union. To a lesser extent, we also sell to Japan and Russia. Despite that, we are interested in trying to look for new markets of course.
You mentioned your efforts towards enhancing sustainability in the industry and emphasizing efforts towards social responsibility as well. You mentioned plastic and chemical reduction as well. What other efforts is Corbana doing in that regard?
Sustainability is our aim. Corbana has an environmental commission already in place, that comes in addition to those in other organizations, such as the Independent Growers’ Association, the Trade Companies Organization, or the Banana Environmental Commission (Comisión Ambiental Bananera or CAB in Spanish). The minister of health, the minister of the environment and the minister of agriculture are members. We are the only country that has that. We are also highly focused on the social aspect and constantly analyze the labor situation in the industry.
Corbana is the only such organization in the region that is owned by the government for 30 percent, the two national banking systems for 30-33 percent, and for the rest by the growers. That means it’s a kind of private and public alliance. The government has a 30 percent share and one representative, a person who by historical tradition is a banana grower who understands the sectors’ issues. He is nominated by the government. Then we have the two directors of the national banking systems and the growers. All farms are members of Corbana as there is a tax of $.05 per box. It’s a special organization but has already been working 50 years. We provide the industry with research, technical assistance, as well as statistics.
Today consumers are increasingly concerned about how products are produced; not only the product itself and its taste, but also where it is coming from, how far it has travelled, the carbon footprint associated with it and what kind of production lies behind the product they are buying. What would be the unique selling point of the Costa Rican banana if you had to build a narrative for it? How would you market them?
In Costa Rica, banana production puts the workers first. Our workers are very efficient, and we recognize the effort they put in the production. Workers are the base. That’s the first principle. Secondly, I would emphasize the effort that we have made for twenty years. We have gone through a deep transformation in the past 20 years to make the activity cleaner and achieve certification for the industry. All of our farms have at least one certification. I think we are the only country with 100 percent of the farms holding one certification, like ISO 14001, Rainforest Alliance, Global G.A.P. or others. Besides, we have been working hard toward carbon neutrality: we have already 63 percent of the farms in the world certified as carbon neutral. Our farm, Finca San Pablo was the first one to be declared carbon neutral in 2015.
Lastly, we have received Geographical Indication of the European Union. This certification means that you have gone through a lot of reviews about how the product is produced. Costa Rica is the only country in Latin American that has that recognition.
Do you have a final message for the international readers of Newsweek?
We are a friendly country. Our bananas are the “Pura Vida” bananas. These bananas take into consideration respect for human beings, for workers and for the environment.