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Reviewed by:
  • The Banana: Empires, Trade Wars, and Globalization
  • Steve Striffler
The Banana: Empires, Trade Wars, and Globalization. James Wiley. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008, xxv and 278., maps, tables, photos, notes, and index. $45.00 cloth (ISBN 978-0-8032-1577-1)

How was the banana transformed from a tropical curiosity into the world's most important fresh fruit commodity? And, how, along the way, did the industrial production and transportation of this fruit transform entire landscapes, governments, and economies in Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere? James Wiley is not the first to address these questions, but The Banana provides an exceptionally clear, informative, and comprehensive account of the banana's place in history.

The Banana is divided into four parts. The first part gives a general history of the industry from its inception in the late 1800s until the 1990s' banana crisis. For scholars of the industry, this is familiar terrain. However, like the book in general, part one is a wonderfully concise account that manages to outline all of the historical forces that have shaped the industry's evolution while paying close attention to geographic variation.

Part two turns to the Caribbean, a region whose history has not only been inextricably linked with this fruit, but whose present has been defined by trade wars dominated by powers based outside the region. One of the strengths of this account is Wiley's recognition of spatial differentiation. Much of the Caribbean produces bananas, but the ability of particular islands to navigate shifts within the industry varies dramatically depending on their colonial history, modes of production, geography, and social structure. Wiley does an excellent job of guiding the reader through this complicated terrain.

Part Three is the strongest section of the book and where Wiley's scholarly contribution is greatest. It represents the most comprehensive account and analysis of the trade wars that have defined the banana industry for over a decade now. Wiley takes us through the intricacies of trade policy – import quotas, licensing systems, tariffs, etc. – with refreshing clarity. Again, the emphasis is on differentiation and variation among both producers and consumers of the fruit. Why has it been so difficult for European countries to agree on a single set of policies for regulating banana imports? How were exporting countries able to shape trade policies? And what did changing policies mean for a country's economy, labor force, and geography? For anyone who has been confused by the history and workings of the GATT, the Uruguay Round, the structure of the WTO, and the Lomé Conventions this section will be immensely useful.

Part Four, "globalization," evaluates the capacity of banana producing countries to both thrive within the contours of the global industry and to diversify their economies, thereby reducing their dependence on a single commodity. The outlook is not promising. The global industry is a neoliberal dream with banana producers and workers leading the race to the bottom.

Wiley's contribution rests not so much in his accumulation of new facts and data about the banana industry, but in providing a concise history of how the banana became industrialized and globalized – and how globalization itself has been shaped by actors all along the commodity chain. As a result, The Banana [End Page 195] is a must-read for anyone interested in this important commodity, globalization, trade disputes, and the histories of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Steve Striffler
Department of Anthropology
University of New Orleans


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pp. 195-196
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