Bananas aren’t any more native to Belize than the Europeans who named them. Instead, they found their way from India into Europe and finally the Caribbean before eventually meandering to Belize proper. Despite that, the consistent rainfall and reliably moderate heat and humidity make the region perfect for banana farming. But the industry has had some serious ups and downs throughout the years, and that history can help contextualize the richer texture of Belize’s history as a nation.
British Honduras Before Banana Plantations
The land known as Belize today became the colony known as British Honduras in 1862, at which point slavery had already been abolished. Lumber and mahogany harvesting served as the critical industry for Belize’s colonists for centuries, but it was a system that relied on slave labor since the beginning. In the middle of the nineteenth century, English landowners and Americana transplants from the failed Confederacy had attempted to launch sugar plantations with Chinese and Indian indentured laborers — but these efforts were largely unsuccessful, and the practice of indentured servitude was eventually banned. As Belize’s economy floundered in desperate need of a new centerpiece industry, banana farming had taken the rest of Central America by storm.
The Four Founding Farms
The region’s forays into banana farming likely wouldn’t have happened without Minor Cooper Keith — an American magnate whose empire covered farming, railroads, and shipping. Beginning in Costa Rica, he rapaciously expanded his banana plantation operations and managed to create a lucrative trade by controlling both the means of production and the means of delivery: a steamboat line that ran from Limon, Costa Rica, to New Orleans, Louisiana. His empire would later spread to Guatemala and neighboring Honduras. The rich and verdant river-fed rainforests of the south offered fertile ground for banana farming, and the success of M.C. Keith’s operations had led to the development of four Belizean banana producers of notable size. The Belize Fruit Company and British Honduras Fruit Company both operated near the Mullins River, while the Manatee Fruit Company and Walize Fruit Company were based on the Manatee River and Monkey River respectively.
The Banana Boom of Stann Creek
The town known as Stann Creek had been settled in the 1820s by the refugeeGarifuna people, but the arrival of the banana industry in the larger Stann Creek region helped put the town on the map in a much bigger way and positioned it as an important trade port. As suppliers chartered by the British Crown, these companies were tasked with both production and shipment — and the farms sometimes made big promises in return. Often, they fulfilled those promises. A tramway led by donkeys connected the remote settlement of Melinda to the growing Stann Creek Town, but the state of any company chartered by the British was often in flux. The British Honduras Syndicate consolidated many of the region’s farms to eventually operate over 14,000 acres of banana farmland.
The Rise of the United Fruit Company
By the time the early 20th century began to roll around, the banana business was booming — and plenty of rich magnates saw the opportunity to become far richer. The English would eventually recognize the United Fruit Company as one of the biggest banana producers operating in the country. This American corporation had actually been formed from merging Minor Cooper Keith’s operations with that of the Boston Fruit Company. The scale of these operations practically ensured the company’s dominance over fruit farming in Central America, but their influence in Belize would be short-lived. The appearance of Panama Disease in the region in 1916 led to the quick demise of these banana plantations. As Belize struggled with the harsh realities of the Great Depression, the industry continued to wither and die. Despite efforts to move banana planting further north, most banana farming operations were nonoperational by the mid-1930s.
An Attempt at Mid-Century Recovery
There were multiple attempts throughout the middle of the 20th century to bring back banana plantations — though their actual successes throughout the decades varied. The British Honduras Fruit Enterprises Company and the Caribbean Empire Company Limited saw some success with banana farming in the 1950s and 1960s, and the development of new disease-resistant strains of bananas helped raise hopes of a farming renaissance. Unfortunately, hurricanes pummeling the region in 1975 and 1978 served as some formidable setbacks. The Banana Control Board was formed in the wake of this devastation as a means of helping steer the industry in the right direction, but this public interest would eventually sell off to private interests after gathering significant debt.
The Birth of Private Banana Farming
Since then, the banana farming industry has been a largely private enterprise, and it continues to be a steady and important segment of Belize’s economy despite experiencing fluctuations from year to year. There are still tens of millions of dollars in Belizean banana farming, and the Banana Growers Association serves as the current guiding hand for the future of the industry. As a coalition of 22 farms spread throughout Stann Creek and the neighboring Toledo District, their attempts at creating sustainable and manageable policies have been challenging but largely successful.