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ISSUE 120 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/16/2007

Schodt talks bananas

By Andrea Horbinski
Staff Writer

Friday, March 16, 2007

On Thursday, March 8, members of the St. Olaf community gathered in Viking Theatre to hear Professor of Economics David Schodt give the Spring 2007 Mellby lecture. Professor Schodt’s talk was entitled “"Commodity Connections: Latin America and the United States,”" and it focused on one of the world’s most important commodities, the banana, and how it and the countries that produce it are viewed in the United States.

After graduating from college, Schodt spent three years in Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer, and he has since become one of the leading American experts on the country, as well as one of the few economists looking at bananas in Ecuador, which is the world’s single largest exporter of the fruit.

Schodt noted in his opening remarks that commodities are "“more than just internationally traded goods"” and that the experience of countries like Ecuador, which are “"the stories of their commodities,"” is more nuanced than the conventional economic view had heretofore acknowledged. He also remarked that commodities are a good teaching tool, as they provide an easy way to connect familiar objects with foreign concepts, which in itself is a reflection of the way in which human beings construct knowledge.

“"Looking at consumption helps us understand not only how we consume that product but also how we think about that product and how we think about where it comes from,”" Schodt said before embarking on a whirlwind multimedia tour of the banana and its “"exotic and curious” place" in American pop culture and consciousness, from clips of the 1923 hit song “"Yes, We Have No Bananas,"” to didactic 1940s advertising jingles, ads from the 1963 campaign introducing banana stickers, album art from the 1965 song “"Mellow Yellow,"” photos of Banana Republic stores, and a short clip from the 1971 Woody Allen movie "“Bananas,"” a satire about a so-called Banana Republic which does not, as Schodt pointed out, actually feature any bananas. By contrast, in Latin and South America, bananas are viewed ambivalently at best, due to their association with the repressive and monopolistic United Fruit Co., as poems from Pablo Neruda and quotations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez showed.

Whereas most banana plantations in Latin America grew up as enclave economies with few or no links of any type to the countries in which they were located, Schodt explained, in Ecuador in 1922, when banana production moved in, the country was still in the midst of the cacao bust, which had sustained the economy for the past 40 years. Unlike in Latin America, the Ecuadorian economic elites were located quite near the sites where bananas would be grown.

Moreover, they were unwilling to simply roll over to the United Fruit Co. Because of the economic elites’ proximity to the centers of the new commodity’s production, as well as the existing export infrastructures left over from the cacao economy, Ecuador was able to have a largely positive experience with bananas and also with its more recent commodity, petroleum.

After his talk, Schodt noted that, unfortunately, Ecuador’s political and economic stability may soon become a thing of the past, as the new president has decided to dissolve the Congress and institute dramatic Constitutional and economic reforms. But the main impact he hoped his talk would have, as he said, was that the next time his audience was in the supermarket buying bananas, "“I hope you’ll think of a little more than just what you’ll take home for your snack.”"

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