China’s commercial Cavendish banana production revolves around the mobilization of land, capital and labour, as well as the management of a disease-prone monocrop production system. This short article spells out some observations on the particular ways these dynamics play out in the recent expansion of the sector by drawing on fieldwork done by the authors in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region during August 2018. After an introduction to the eco-social history of the Chinese banana (sector), we illustrate how a small fungus plays an active part in shaping relations between banana capital, land and labour. Extending from this case, we argue there is a need to engage more thoroughly with the more than exclusively human dynamics that shape the challenges of contemporary political ecology.
Cavendish banana, Guangxi, Fusarium wilt, agrarian-environmental transformations
An eco-social history of the Chinese banana
Of all the different edible banana cultivars, the commercially most important one is the Cavendish. With its particular combination of sweet taste, high productivity and sturdiness in transport, the Cavendish is well suited for international trade. In the first half of the twentieth century, the expansion of the still young international banana trade was built around a different cultivar, the Gros Michel. However, by 1960 its vulnerability to a fungal wilting disease known as Panama disease, la mata muerta or fusarium wilt became too costly. The major US-based companies dominating the trade replanted their large-scale monocrop plantations in Latin America with a resistant ‘Chinese banana’: the Cavendish. In Southern China itself however, its assumed region of origin, the Cavendish has made its conversion to a typical plantation-crop only more recently.
From gift to market – from farm to plantation
Up until the 1980s an open market for agricultural commodities, including bananas, was virtually non-existent in mainland China. Cavendish bananas were grown largely for self-consumption and – contrary to their brothers in Central American plantations – with little to no use of chemical inputs. As private business became allowed in the 1980s, some trade in bananas emerged from the producing zones in the South (mainly the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan and Hainan) to more Northern areas of China. In the North, bananas were a novelty, exclusive and expensive. Up until the early 2000s, one would buy bananas not as quick energizing snacks, but as a gift when visiting friends, family, relatives. Hospital visits or visits to elderly people and children were particularly appropriate occasions to bring bananas. The emerging trade not only introduced Northerners to this new type of fruit. It also stimulated the cultivation of bananas, particularly through tradesmen who encouraged peasant producers in Guangdong, Fujian and – to a lesser extent – Guangxi to grow more bananas, specifically for its economic rewards on the market. The subsistence crop was gradually turning into a commodity.