This study examines the role of Fairtrade certification and labeling in mediating the socio-ecological relations of banana production. Bringing to bear ideas from literature on agro-industrial development and restructuring, agrifood governance, agrarian change, agricultural labor relations, and sustainability, it examines how banana farmers, workers, and their communities are affected by participation in Fairtrade commodity networks under conditions of market liberalization. It concludes that, while, under certain conditions, Fairtrade can benefit some farmers and workers, it fails to address the broader social and ecological conditions of banana production. It attributes the challenges facing the Fairtrade system to the internal dynamics of its consumer-driven, market-based, and developmental model. Specifically, I argue that Fair Trade actors' focus on the terms of exchange fails to address the imperatives of growth and accumulation inherent in capitalist commodity production, which shape outcomes for banana farmers, workers, and environments.
The analysis is based on research conducted at two key sites in the banana sector: Ecuador's South Coast and the Urabá region of Colombia. These regions have played an importation role in the expansion of Fairtrade banana supply, albeit under different conditions. In Ecuador, Fairtrade protection has primarily been extended to small farmers under the Fair Trade Labelling Organizations (FLO) Small Producer Organization standards. Meanwhile, the majority of Urabá's producers are certified under FLO's Hired Labor standards. Drawing on in-depth interviews with farmers, workers, administrative and technical staff of Fairtrade-institutions, as well as labor representatives, I find that Fairtrade certification generates uneven outcomes for different groups participating in the system. Activists and researchers have critiqued the expansion of certification to plantations and to the enrollment of transnational agribusiness companies, which they argue has undermined the position of small farmers within the Fairtrade system. Yet these critiques overlook significant socio-ecological complexity and differentiation in Fairtrade banana production. They also obscure the critical role of hired workers on small and large farms alike. The study, thus, attempts to reframe the mainstreaming debate, to place workers at the center of the Fairtrade banana story. In so doing, it argues that international Fair Trade actors must engage more fully with banana unions and labor solidarity movements in order to achieve their purported goals of supporting social and environmental justice in the global banana economy.