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BISDAK: Is Our Future Without Taste?

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Review of Robin Thiers’ Tales of the Post-Plantation: Unlikely Protagonists of Modern Philippine Banana History (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2023).

HONOLULU (MindaNews / 22 July) – Robin Thiers’ Tales of the Post-Plantation conjured old memories and opened up new pathways for research on the home island.

First, the sentimental part. Thiers cited extensively a 1980 study on the banana export industry by the UP Third World Studies (TWS) Program, of which I was a research team member. This was a small project funded by the United Nations Centre for Transnational Corporations, which led to three-month field research that took us to Davao del Norte to study the tightly controlled plantation of the Davao Penal Colony-Tagum Development Corporation (Tadeco), the joint ventures between Del Monte and Filipino corporate growers, and the mixed corporate and small-growers contract with Dole.

Thiers’ study built on the third arrangement because the TWS team focused on this. The study’s section on the small growers looked at their mounting debt problems as the costs of banana production increasingly exceeded the income from their sale of the fruit to Dole. One of my colleagues spent his considerable time figuring out the company’s balance sheet with a couple of growers to reverse their indebtedness, but I need help to do so. The team wrote very little about how bewildered the small growers were that the “faraway” Japanese liked this tasteless fruit (they called the cavendish pig’s grub), and then, only to shun it at certain times, prompting the company to order its mass cutting. The growers’ perplexity would turn into disappointment, for no matter how despicable Cavendish was, it was still food.

There is much of this “human angle” in Thier’s book. And for this reason, it is a much better text than the TWS banana report. Tales of the Post-Plantation sees small growers as more proactive and familiar with the dynamics of the production process. And they fight back, deploying a variety of “weapons,” from negotiations to the palupad system, which is an illicit activity-in-the-making in the eyes of the state but a perfectly “legal” and “moral” one from the growers’ perspective. The pessimism of the TWS 1980 study has been replaced by this guarded optimism of a post-plantation order.

Thiers had put our findings to rest. It’s his and the erudite University of Michigan professor Alyssa Paredes’ turn to shine the light on the banana industry.

But the connections remain between these two generations of scholarship. The TWS study focused on accumulating as much empirical data that would “objectively” show how the industry had screwed up small growers, workers, and farms surrounding the plantation. The renowned Mindanao research institute AFRIM likewise conducted studies on corporate exploitation of Mindanao’s primary resources and peoples, scholarship that remains unsurpassed today. All throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s, political economy was at the center of Mindanao studies, but this faded in the late 1980s when AFRIM closed down, the communist party in Mindanao collapsed, and identity-politics and globalization-talk (neo-liberalism, for some) gradually displaced class analysis.

Thiers must therefore be commended for bringing back political economy in Mindanao Studies. Despite its narrow geographic focus, Post-Plantation shows us our home island is not just a region of war zones and extreme human flows. It has also always been a production site for global capitalism (the other area in the country are the sugar lands of Negros), especially export crops (GMO, commodified “basic food”) and a laboratory of infections.

This brings us to the fungus. A colleague who read Thiers book said she enjoyed it immensely because of how he turned the fungus – fusarium wilt or Panama disease – a significant character in his book. I know little about pathogens, so I encourage readers to explore why my colleague enjoyed the book. I could say that methodologically speaking, Post-Plantation is an excellent example of blending disciplines in studying a food commodity. Again we only mentioned the infections stalking the plantations – Sigatoka and Mosaic. Thiers’ book substantially fills in the gap.

Is Cavendish now so embedded in our lives – inadvertently and ironically promoted further by palupad – that we cannot do away with this fruit? Is post-plantation Mindanao a place where tastelessness co-exists with what is sweet? This book forces us to contemplate this ominous possibility.

Mindanao Studies has gained national traction thanks to imperial institutions like the Ateneo de Manila University Press. Post-Plantation is one more proof of the island’s complex and complicated life. A must-read.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Patricio N. Abinales, an Ozamiznon, teaches at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He studies the four-legged rat (a pestilence that brought famine in many parts of postwar Mindanao) and the two-legged rat (the politico)]

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