Central America's Banana

Bananas, one of man's oldest cultivated crops, now becomes man's most highly modernized agriculture. Long rated as grubstake for the tropical tramp, the banana awakes to find itself the speediest and most highly mechanized of all major harvests, a harvest which marks the ultimate wedding and welding of agriculture with transportation, requires an average outfitting of about two tons of machinery and equipment per producing acre plus more man-hours of labor to the acre than any other principal crop of the modern world.

Even in the languorous tropics manna is no longer to be had for the easy taking. "Banana gold" can no longer be lifted from luxuriant earth without huge investments of toil, sweat, and cash. New and colossal mechanization of banana lands vociferously defies the credo that new machines must inevitably rob men of jobs. Actually it almost doubles requirements for human labor, quadruples tropical wage scales, calls for about 250 different trades and professions, and remakes Central America's "Banana Republics" into Elysiums of employment where there are frequently more jobs than men to fill them. Banana shipments help materially to maintain and operate much of the railroad mileage of the American tropics and most of the highways, bridges, levees, and drainage systems of Central America.

Banana planting happily defies all horticultural precedence. Farm crews clear the underbrush from the jungle and bury the bulbous roots in rows of shallow holes, spaced fourteen to eighteen feet apart. Then timber crews attack the jungle forests with axes, slash all timber and vegetation, leaving them to rot and further enrich the soil. All told, the banana game is one of first frontiers. In a sense it is a glorified and superpictorial version of our own roughand-tumble agrarian West of a century ago. It flaunts apparent extravagances, slays and sometimes wastes timber by uncounted billions of feet, shouts loudly, spits and cusses, and changes macheteswinging mozos, aristocratic professionals, beachcombers, tropical tramps and venturesome North Americans to companion jungle busters, democrats of an incredible world wherein yesterday plunges into tomorrow.

But the crop of supreme paradoxes shapes paradoxical frontiers. Banana lands, not free for the taking, are fantastically expensive in money and toil. Banana harvests blandly contradict innumerable credos of botany, philosophy, pathology, economics, and mathematics.
The banana's "scientific name" is Musa sapientum--fruit of the wise men. The Koran calls it the Tree of Paradise. But the banana doesn't grow on a tree. It is the harvest of the largest terrestrial plants completely lacking a woody stem; a semibulbous plant with a leaf structure somewhat similar to that of the ordinary garden canna; the true stem, or rhizome, is underground.

It is a harvest that grows upside down, since the weight of the heavy cluster soon points the bearing stem toward the ground. It is a crop that cannot be ripened successfully on the plant. Hollywood to the contrary, there is no epicurean joy about plucking ripe bananas direct from the bush. The harvest must be cut green, since in final processes of plant ripening natural flavor is destroyed and the "fingers," or individual bananas, split, exposing the edible pulp to insects and decay.

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