Wednesday, March 12, 2008

$2.5 Million Case against Dole Fruit Thrown Out

Yesterday, a Superior Court Judge threw out a decision against Dole fruit company that gave 2.5 million dollars to former Dole employees in Nicaragua. The employees had originally sued Dole for using the pesticide DBCP in the 1970s, leaving the workers sterile and with other health problems. The effects of DBCP were already known in the 1970s, yet Dole continued using it on its bananas without warning its workers. In her decision, Judge Chaney ruled 'that punitive damages cannot be used to punish "a domestic corporation for injuries that occurred only in a foreign country.'"

This is obviously a setback on several fronts. Environmentally, is possibly sets precedent for companies not to have to pay such damages in cases involving pesticides that are bad for both the environment and for workers. Financially, it does nothing to stop companies like Dole from worrying about the consequences of their actions. And, at the most basic level, the ruling is absurd in terms of labor and business. Dole (and all the other fruit companies, past and present) is in no way, and never was, a "domestic" corporation. Are they based in the U.S.? Yes. Do they make all their tax claims and ownership claims in the U.S.? Sure.

But it's not because Dole is some strong domestic company. The amount of land Dole (and other fruit companies) own in Latin America, from Honduras to Colombia, is absurd. They frequently buy up all land they can, pushing the poor off or forcing the poor to become what are virtually peon laborers, just to continue producing bananas. They do this because the pesticides and chemicals they use to grow and preserve bananas are so destructive that, after about 20 years, the lands that currently grow bananas become sterile. Instead of being environmentally responsible by spending a little more to use less damaging products, or instead of waiting for the land to regain its fertility, they just pick up and relocate everything to one of their massive landholdings that they have held fallow, waiting for just such a moment, at which point the production begins anew, with the currently-used land certain to be sterile in another 20 years or so.

And they do this all while having a ridiculous amount of say in the politics and economy of these Central American countries. Sure, it's not quite like it was when Minor Keith of United Fruit Company owned Costa Rica's "national" railroad, ports, and transportation lines, but it's not like Dole has no stakes in the Caribbean. It is absolutely dependent on the region for its land, its production, its labor, and its profits, and its connection to politicians, businessmen, and leaders in the region, while diminished in the last couple of decades, is far from lost. Dole is about as "domestic" as GM with its plants in Mexico and throughout the world.

Chaney's decision is extremely disappointing and even ridiculous. Dole is domestic only in the strictest, most narrow-minded sense of the word ("it's based in the U.S., so it's domestic!"), yet her decision has once again screwed over workers whose lives were already irreparably damaged by Dole's policies in the 1970s. A decision like this does nothing to discourage Dole or other companies in the future. It is extremely infuriating, and it is probably a major setback.