Finca Zurqui

(Bananas!)

 Costa Rica

Marietta College Biology and Environmental Science Department Field Trip 2005/2007

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In 2005, we traveled a short distance from the La Selva Biological Station to the nearby Finca Zurqui, a banana plantation operated by Dole.

The road to the plantation is lined with banana plants; the fruits are protected in blue bags as they mature on the plants.

The main building at the plantation is used for packing the fruit.

We were given a tour which included a demonstration of the various activities that take place in the fields.  Here, Courtney has been enlisted to help in a demonstration of the anatomy of the banana plant.

He's asking Courtney to hold the plant while he cuts it in half.  She isn't really sure about this.

With the plant successfully cut in half, we could all see that the banana plant is not really a tree, but an herb - the "trunk" is comprised of leaf stalks held tightly together at the base.

Our guide demonstrates how the flower forces its way up through the leaf bases to the top.  He put a lot of effort into it, so I'm sure it's no picnic for the banana either.  Judging from the sound effects he added, the whole process might go smoother with a good laxative.

Qapla'!  The flower reaches the top of the plant!

Dr. Brown thinks our guide makes a good point.

The banana flowers are the yellow things.  They will each develop into a fruit, and successive whorls of flowers will make the successive whorls of fruit that we call a bunch of bananas. The whorls of fruit are called "hands" in the trade.

There were some examples of the "native" bananas from which our cultivars have been developed.  The bananas we eat have no seeds; they have to be propagated by humans.  Wild bananas, by contrast, have large seeds.  Birds and mammals eat the fruit (and the seeds); many of the seeds are later defecated and then sprout into new bananas.  Bananas originated in southeast Asia.  Closely related to the bananas are plantains, which start out starchy and mature into a sweet fruit somewhat like the desert banana we are all familiar with.

Here the banana flower droops down, revealing the hands of bananas that were previously started.  Cultivated bananas have 3 sets of chromosomes and are sterile.  No insects are needed for pollination.

The bananas have been selected to bear huge clumps of fruit, and the weight of the bananas is sometime too much for the stems.  As a result, the workers in the fields set up an elaborate system of ties from one plant to another to brace them against the heavy loads.  Again, the blue bags protect the bananas from a number of pests; in some cases the bags are coated with pesticides (which is probably better than spraying the whole field).  The Dole people were kind of vague on the topic of pesticide use, but in many places in Costa Rica signs warn people to stay out of fields as they are subject to spraying - usually from the air.

Converting rainforest to banana field takes some engineering.  In particular, drainage must be good to carry off the high volume of water that a rainforest gets.

The Dole people were quite proud of this water treatment plant on the site.  It should be noted that this plant only treats the water from the banana processing, not the water draining the fields and carrying pesticides and fertilizers.  Still, it's good to see some efforts taking place to protect the environment.

Getting the bananas to the processing plant is fascinating. First, foam braces are placed between the hands of bananas to protect them, and then the bananas are cut from the trees, a two-person operation (I filmed that part of the demonstration, so I don't have photos - see the videos below).  The bunches are suspended from hooks attached to a cableway that leads to the plant.  The plant is always located in the center of the plantation (and downhill, if possible) and the cableways extend out into the plantation so that no plant is very far from the system.  Once hung, the plants are walked back to the processing plant.

These pictures are from another plantation.  Above left, a cableway crosses a road.  Above, our driver swings the cableway off the road so our bus can pass.  Left:  Bananas coming into the processing plant.  Note the workers unloading bags of agricultural chemicals - probably fertilizer - in the background.  Bananas need a lot of fertilizer.

 

 

Back at Finca Zurqui.  The bananas come into the processing plant.  There is a large open shed where the cableways all come together and where a large number of banana bunches can be held temporarily out of the rain as they await processing.  Right - the guy with the hooked knife removes hands of bananas from the bunch and places them in a banana swimming pool - a rinse basin - that lies behind the tile wall.

To the left you can see the rinse basin.  The bananas move through there, getting sprayed with additional water in places, before being lifted from the water, rinsed again, and placed on a conveyor belt.  Because the banana peel protects the fruit (and usually isn't eaten) decontamination of bananas isn't as crucial as it is for some fruits.
These women (right, below) are pulling the hands of bananas from the rinse and placing them on the belt.

These workers are applying stickers to the bananas.  The stickers vary depending on the country the bananas are going to and whatever promotions are being run at a given time.

 

This truck hauls away bananas that don't make the cut.  Some bananas that can't be exported will find their way to the local markets, others will be composted or used for animal feed.  The bananas are harvested far from ripeness; they travel better that way and if the distribution system holds up they will arrive in the market just as they approach ripeness.

The large ship to the right is a Dole Freighter loading bananas in Moin, on the Atlantic coast.  Below - other freighters at the dock in nearby Limón.  Fast cargo ships can move a perishable freight like bananas to markets in Europe and North America.  According to Dole's online shipping schedules, the trip from Puerto Limón to Antwerp, Belgium takes 13 days; 4 ships make the trip meaning one arrives from Costa Rica in Antwerp every week.  2 ships are needed for weekly service to Wilmington, Delaware.

Maps from www.dole.com

 

Note:  I've tried to be direct and non-judgmental about what we saw at Finca Zurqui.  Obviously, cutting down rainforest and replacing it with a banana plantation (no matter how well run) is going to have an environmental impact.  The workers we saw at Finca Zurqui were proud of what they were doing and the whole operation seemed to be very well run, with attention paid to safety, water quality, sanitation and other important issues.  Still, banana farming in the tropics has many critics.  Rather than go into the criticisms here I will refer you to these web sources:

Dole

Ecological Footprint of a Dole Banana
Mirror

BananaLink

 Treehugger.com

Finca Zurqui Banana Plantation Videos

 

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