Part one in a two-part series on Chiquita’s social responsibility programs
NOGAL DE SARAPIQUÍ, Heredia –Jennifer Dinsmore, a friend teases, might as well have been born under a banana leaf.
Blonde and fair, she almost resembles the pale fruit, and as the daughter of two employees of Chiquita Brands International, she was raised in the cradle of what was then the largest banana company in the world.
Truth be told, Dinsmore doesn’t like bananas. The blue-eyed 32-year-old admits she has probably never bought a banana in her life, a secret she let slip on a rainy afternoon last month, surrounded by vast fields of banana plantations. Dinsmore, who followed her parents’ footsteps through the halls of Chiquita’s corporate structure, now runs a unique Chiquita operation that has little, if anything, to do with bananas: an environmental and community outreach project called “Nature and Community.”
Many around the world, and even here in Costa Rica, had never heard of the project before November, when the Costa Rican-American Chamber of Comerce (AMCHAM) awarded it the grand prize in the chamber’s annual social responsibility awards.
Launched quietly in 2003 at the behest of the Swiss retail chain Migros, in cooperation with the environmental certification organization Rainforest Alliance and funded in part since 2005 by the German development agency GTZ, the program entails forest conservation, reforestation, environmental education, community assistance and the creation and promotion of small businesses in communities near Chiquita banana farms. It was precisely because the program covered so many different areas that it was awarded AMCHAM’s top honors.
An Environmental Church
Dinsmore oversees the program from the Nature and Community headquarters – a small complex on the edge of Chiquita’s 100-hectare, secondary forest biological reserve, in the heart of the Nogal banana plantation in Sarapiquí, Costa Rica’s banana-rich and economically depressed northeastern plain.
At the headquarters, a few rooms house temporary volunteers, occasional scientists and students, while a small staff runs a gift shop and gives environmental education courses in a large classroom with an A-frame roof.
“We call this the environmental church,” Dinsmore says, laughing. According to Dinsmore, more than 3,000 people – 60% children – have come through the “environmental church” and received an interactive workshop, a tour of the botanical garden and biological reserve and complimentary poster about conservation. The four-hour session touches on topics such as the importance of trees and animals, water conservation, garbage and recycling, hunting and deforestation, Dinsmore explains.
“The education that they give is important for the employee and also because he takes it home to his family,” says Pedro Espinoza, a 33-year-old drainage supervisor who has been working for Chiquita a little more than one year. “I am taking the idea of nature and caring for the environment to my children at home.”
Dinsmore and project coordinators have also brought schoolchildren from every school in the banana communities to their headquarters for the workshop – which is accompanied by educational materials for the kids and a teacher’s guide for the instructors, both provided by the private, nonprofit National Biodiversity Institute (INBio). The program is now expanding to bring children – expense-free – from other schools in the surrounding Sarapiquí region.
Chiquita Forest and Reforestation
One of the best tools Dinsmore and her staff have at hand is the forest reserve that the program headquarters butts up against.
One of the first parts of the project was to establish a conservation management plan for the land, which had been basically left alone as the Nogal plantation grew up around it. The reserve is actually two separate pieces of forest, but Chiquita has given Dinsmore permission to shave off a 2.8-hectare section of banana plantation so it can be reforested and connect the two.
The reserve, decreed the Nogal Wildlife Refuge by the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) in January 2006, is home to 265 plant species and 198 animal species, including a primate population of 110, Dinsmore explains, including one lone, female spider monkey that has been named Pancha.
While Pancha has become the reserve’s mascot, and appears on the complimentary poster encouraging conservation, primate researcher Gustavo Gutiérrez from the University of Costa Rica is currently attempting to introduce three other spider monkeys – rescued by MINAE officials from “inappropriate conditions” – into the reserve.
“We hope to someday have little Panchitas,” Dinsmore says.
The Nature and Community program has also extended its conservation and reforestation efforts beyond the boundaries of its private reserve and is working on creating a biological corridor from Nogal to the 1,600-hectare La Selva biological reserve run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) eight kilometers to the south. To do that, project workers have planted more than 10,000 trees (of 46 native species), both in the refuge and on the property of nearly 15 neighboring farmers. Dinsmore and others are also working with area landowners to protect existing forest. According to Dinsmore, the project has now connected more than 600 hectares of forest.
“One of our main goals is to preserve the biodiversity on the long-term,” she says.
A short drive from the reserve, along a couple of the bumpy gravel roads that crisscross the banana plantation, takes Dinsmore to the community of Nogal, which houses a small population of banana workers. It is this population, and that of the community of Guayacán on the other side of the plantation, that is the target of the third part of the Nature and Community program: small business creation.
“Our goal is to have six small businesses that are successful and independent by 2008,” Dinsmore says. The program is already on its way with five businesses founded and running (see box).
The small companies are composed of 45 participants, all women except for one “brave” young man. Dinsmore, however, estimates there are 100 more people directly benefiting from the program, pointing out that nearly all the women have children.
With donated start-up materials, and more than 950 hours of training and courses thanks to a partnership with the National Training Institute (INA), the businesses have pulled in $30,000 since February 2004, the majority of which ($20,000) came from one group – Manos Creativas.
The women of Manos Creativas make their own recycled paper, from which their creative hands craft notebooks, folders, decorative boxes and other inventions, which are sold in Universal department stores and souvenir stores around the country. The eight women of Manos Creativas work together in the backyard of one of the participants tearing and processing the old paper and crafting and painting their various products.
Magaly Espinoza, 34, is a single mother of three daughters who works both in Manos Creativas and a second business, Nogua, which puts on “The Chiquita Banana Show” for tourists at the Nogal plantation.
“Well, I don’t make a lot, because we are just getting started, but at least I can take care of my three children,” she says, adding that the income of her eldest daughter – who plays Miss Chiquita Banana in the show – helps keep the family afloat. Espinoza adds, however, that the two businesses have given her a boost in self-esteem and allow her to be creative and earn a living.
Manos Creativas products are distributed throughout Costa Rica by Fundación Neotrópica and can be found in a variety of locations such as Universal, the bookstore at the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, in the northwest province of Guanacaste, and souvenir stores across the country.
Neotrópica also distributes attractive and mostly cotton clothing designed by another “Nature and Community” business, Creaciones Alamo, which has begun branching out into uniforms for area school children and workers.
Mundo Fértil makes natural health and hygiene products such as lotions, shampoos and cough syrup, which are available only at the gift shop located at the Nature and Community headquarters on the Nogal banana plantation.
The small business Trops uses Chiquita bananas that don’t make it to export to manufacture a variety of banana products, such as puree, chips and jelly. These products are not yet for sale.
For more information on these businesses, contact Damaris Céspedes at 815-8591.
Next: During the past decade, Chiquita has improved both its labor practices and environmental record, thanks in part to a partnership with the Rainforest Alliance.