Baddies Gone Bonkers

he who pays the piper calls the tune

Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten did not back off when a rich US multinational company didn’t like what he had to say about its bad behaviour in poor countries

In Brief

  • Under pressure from Dole Food Company Inc. the executives of Los Angeles Film Festival disassociated themselves from BANANAS!*, a documentary film that exposed how the multinational company disregarded warnings from government and the manufactures of a toxic soil fumigant, DBCP (1,2-Dibromo-3-chloropopane)
  • Dole Food Company compromised various institutions to drive campaigns aimed at discrediting Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and others in order to suppress its unethical behaviour in poor countries
  • The compromised lot included lawyers for the affected workers and journalists
  • Dole Food’s venom did not derail Gertten and his team at WG Film who fought back and won. His fight is told in the documentary Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, which is an excellent case study on how journalists should treat communication from big businesses, how to stand by the truth no matter the cost, and the true cost of real freedom
The price of free speech
WG Film, 2011
Running Time: 1hr 43min
Directed and Produced by: Fredrik Gertten

“Just to tell people’s stories makes their struggle worth something…” Fredrik Gertten…

How afraid should we be of big corporations behaving badly? The baddies - as multi-award winning investigative journalist, Tony Beamish, calls them – can be ruthless when it comes to concealing their dirty tricks from prying eyes and inquisitive minds.

Whether they are mine workers who contracted silicosis and tuberculosis after inhaling crystalline silica dust; or the children of workers in wine farms born with fetal alcohol syndrome; or atrocious child and slave labour practices in cocoa, coffee and tea plantations and some factories in Asian countries; the only thing that matters most to big corporations is the bottom line.

In searching for truth sometimes we find not just answers, but redemption. And more often than not, we lose ourselves in the quest. When Fredrik Gertten, a Swedish journalist and filmmaker directed and produced the film Bananas!* he found answers, but the vindication came much later. He spent valuable post-production time sparring with Dole Food Company Inc, one of the world’s largest agricultural multinational corporations. In this case Dole Food Company was immensely generous with its dollars, as it believed [wrongly] that money would suppress the truth contained in Gertten’s 88 minutes film.

His subsequent film, Big Boys Gone Bananas!* [Gertten has since directed two other Documentaries; 'Bikes Vs Cars and Becoming Zlatan] should have been the discourse of this article, but there isn’t a way one can ably discuss the issues exposed in the film without revisiting the initial film, Bananas!*, which left many prestigious media outfits with egg on their faces.

As Gertten reminded this writer during a video call, the evils of banana cultivation and consumption stretch back to the 1870s when Lorenzo Dow Baker, an American sailor-turned businessman, had his first bite of the fruit in Jamaica. Baker saw the huge potential of the tropical fruit and soon realised he could build a thriving empire. This piece is not about Baker’s exploits or the history of the fruit we have come to love. It is about what one major corporation did, and at grievous cost, to maintain the profitability of its banana business.

It is an old and classic story, which most people would otherwise wish remained buried in some vault. A call from a fellow Swedish journalist working in Nicaragua renewed Gertten’s interest in taking a fresh look at what Dole Food Company Inc. [then a NSE-listed company] had in its closet. Because of that call, Gertten’s professional life nearly turned upside-down. In a short span of time, his small production company, WG Film, was pitted against the monolith in an insane David vs. Goliath war.

In this fight, Dole Food Company was armed with a heavy-hitting public relations machine, lawyers and journalists from various mainstream media houses. On WG Film's corner was the truth and cameras.

Had Gertten been a documentarian from some dictatorship, being physically ‘taken out’ would have been an easier option for the corporation whose shitty ways were being exposed in Bananas!*. But he is Swedish; and from a country that values the rights of journalists to tell stories. For this reason, Dole Food had to formulate speedy means of ‘redirecting’ and ‘re-producing’ the film. The company had to come up with a solid narrative.

It wasn’t by chance that Dole Food easily found pliable journalists who probably didn’t read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News, which exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media.

Press releases containing the new narratives that suited the multinational were dispatched to news factories where operators disseminated them as they came, and with no regard for the banana plantation workers in Nicaragua.

Documentarians are storytellers who record stories that would otherwise remain untold for various reasons. Their intention is not to make friends with the bad characters in their documentaries. They are curators of history from which humanity should learn to avoid being doomed to repeat the errors, as George Santayana, the 20th Century Spanish Philosopher, warned.

Nick Davies' memo on relying on PR scripts

It takes a good big entity to say, “We are sorry”, the three very important words that are alien to the baddies of corporate world. At least Dole Food Company made a decision several decades before Gertten came into the picture to ban those words when addressing the disastrous impact of its usage of a soil fumigant called DBCP (1,2-Dibromo-3-chloropopane), which left thousands of the company’s workers in Latin America sterile.

Typically, when the baddies are caught flatfooted, they go for those close to the storytellers – documentarians or journalists. If that fails, they try to fault the sources while sidestepping the main issues. When the message is flawless, such baddies find it easier to attack the messengers instead.

In this case, the main issue, which Dole Food was keen to have suppressed was how the company had used the banned DBCP.

Dole Food pulled all stops to bury Bananas!* and their argument contained in the various press statements fed to friendly news outlets was that American lawyer Juan Dominguez (for the workers) had used fraudulent means to win a case against the company.

Watching Bananas!* reminded us of Gary Webb's saga. Webb and Gertten had one common denominator – Nicaragua, but with a slight variation. While Webb’s main character was the CIA, Gertten’s happened to be a big American corporation, Dole Food Company. Founded in 1851, Dole Food Company, had shown utmost disregard for the lives of its workers in that impoverished country. The timing was pathetic - the two despicable events were taking place in the same era – the 1970s.

With the help of its heavily funded PR machine and lawyers, and not being able to confront the issues raised in the film, the corporation’s strategy was an alternated attacks on Dominguez (whom they accused of being ‘an ambulance-chasing fraudster’) and Gertten’s small film company.

David A DeLorenzo, the executive who watched as workers got sterilized

Coming with the accusation on Dominguez was a gag order that barred him from publicly defending himself against Dole’s accusation. Next, they got Victoria Gerrard Chaney, a friendly judge of Los Angeles Superior Court. Judge Chaney quickly accepted a new contention by Dole that an earlier jury decision that partially found for the banana workers was based on ‘fraudulent claimants’.

Ironically, Judge Chaney has a medical background, [a registered nurse who has kept her nursing registry current], an accolade, which should have enabled her to understand various medical evidence produced at the jury trial.

Judge Chaney never considered the gravity of various sworn concessions at the same trial by Dole Food executive, David A DeLorenzo.

During cross-examination by Duane Miller for the workers, DeLorenzo admitted to having been aware of communication between Dole Food and Dow Chemical Company, one of the makers of DBCP that had refused to supply the product after it was discovered to cause sterility.

Miller: Mr. DeLorenzo, as the manager of Nicaraguan division, did you know the amount of DBCP that was considered dangerous by the government?
DeLorenzo: I probably knew the statistics, I may not recall them, but basically what we were told was, if you could smell it, there was a kind of dangerous level and you didn’t want to be spending any time in plantation that you could smell it.
Miller: Did you have a medical toxicologist that was employed by your firm at the time?
DeLorenzo: No, I don’t believe we did. We relied on the manufacturers [Dow Chemical Company] who do work with the government in these issues, they are specialists.
Miller: Were you aware of the fact that the government of the United States took the position that any contact of DBCP with the human skin could cause sperm damage?
DeLorenzo: Yes, certainly after 1977, we did yes.
Miller: So did you start a program to launder workers’ clothing that was contaminated with DBCP?
DeLorenzo: Well, I don’t think we started a program to launder workers’ clothing. We, we did not, and do not believe today that workers were contaminated with DBCP because we did not believe there was any DBCP in the farms that could contaminate them
Miller: Did it all disappear?
DeLorenzo: Yes, it all gets drenched into the soil or evaporates.
Miller: Mr. De Lorenzo, you got a report that ten out of ten workers checked in Costa Rica were sterile. And when you got that report in 1978, the Nicaraguan division continued to use DBCP unchanged in 1978, 1979 and in 1980. Correct?
DeLorenzo: That’s correct. We continued using DBCP in both Honduras and Nicaragua following the Costa Rican incident for I think, very good reasons.

However good the reasons may have been, DeLorenzo and his fellow executives were keen on maximizing profits at the expense of their impoverished and sickened workers who, according to the corporation, should have been grateful that the multinational had offered them jobs.

Through DeLorenzo’s testimony, things got worse for Dole and its executives. Produced at the trial were secret indemnities signed off by Dole executives in September 26, 1977 and January 19, 1978 in favour of Dow Chemical Inc.

The indemnity documents would have remained buried had it not been for a series of lawsuits that continued to haunt the plantations’ owners and manufacturers of the fumigant.

In 1983, individual and class lawsuits were filed in Florida and Texas on behalf of Costa Rican plantation workers. These lawsuits joined manufacturers and banana plantation owners as co-defendants. Like in most such cases against the big baddies, the giant corporations dragged them for nearly a decade before finally settling the claims in June/July 1992 for $19.5 million of, which Dow and Dole each contributed $.6.816 million.

When additional lawsuits were subsequently filed by more workers from other countries including the US (Hawaii), Dow Chemical sought the enforcement of the indemnity letter it had been granted by Dole Food Company. But, the two giants could not see eye to eye on the enforceability of the two indemnities that had been issued in 1977 and 1978.

For adjudication, Dow Chemical turned to the State of Michigan’s Circuit Court for the County of Midland where in a declaratory judgement dated December 9, 1998, Hon. Thomas L. Ludington ruled: “…Dow and any Dow related entity is entitled to indemnification from Standard Fruit for any claims of contribution or indemnification asserted against Dow or any Dow related entity arising out of any claims asserted by banana workers in the aforementioned lawsuits.”

Dole Food Co. had known much earlier of the toxicity of DBCP than it was telling, but since the victims were deemed ‘the lesser and powerless humans’, the multinational (and its various related entities) used all tricks up its sleeves to ensure that the use of the toxic product continued. After all, workers in countries such as Nicaragua, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Philippines and Costa Rica were not worthy of protection.

Those are some of the details contained in the film Bananas!* that got the executives based at Westlake Village, California, hot under the collars. Who was this Swedish man attempting to unearth old secrets that should have been left buried? Gertten was a storyteller on a mission to give voices to those who were deemed not to matter. 

Talking to us from Malmö, Sweden, Gertten told this writer of the great satisfaction he gets when people are given voices; “Just to tell people’s stories makes their struggle worth something…”

The corporation’s nightmare was the discovery that Bananas!*  was to be screened in its turf, at the Los Angeles Film Festival . This was unacceptable and Gertten had to be stopped by all means necessary.

To the disadvantage of WG Film, executives of Dole Food Co. had the home-ground advantage. They knew the right people to call and how to use them. The company quickly dispatched a cease and desist letter dated May 8, 2009 to the Swedes. Copies of the same letter were sent to all the sponsors of the Film Festival. 

While Gertten and his team were still contemplating on how to tackle the lopsided attacks on their right to freely express themselves, Dole’s PR machinery was hard at work. In an article carrying the byline of Alexa Hyland, a Los Angeles Business Journal legal reporter, the spin focused on Dominguez, and accused Gertten and team of turning a ‘fraudulent lawyer into a hero’.

The effects of DBCP on plantation workers were real and remain real. Dole Food Co. knew and still knows this, but has chosen to turn a blind eye and to engage in similar avoidance schemes even today. Nearly all its workers who were in contact with the soil fumigant are childless. Most of them are old now, and it seems Dole Food Co. is marking time, waiting for them to die with the court cases.

In its Form 10-K filing with the Security Exchange Commission of Annual Report pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Security Exchange Act of 1934 for the financial year ended January 1, 2011, the corporation addressed the DBCP in detail:

“A significant portion of Dole’s legal exposure relates to lawsuits pending in the United States and in several foreign countries, alleging injury as a result of exposure to the agricultural chemical DBCP (1,2-Dibromo-3-chloropropane). … Currently there are 228 lawsuits, in various stages of proceedings…”

Then on November 14, 2013, the company filed Form 15 with the SEC for certification and notice of termination of registration and suspension of duty to file reports under Section 13 and 15(d) of the Security Exchange Act of 1934. With this Notice, and Certification, Dole Food Co. had no obligation to disclose what exposures it would likely been facing. It had gone private.

The muzzling of transparency and accountability at Dole Food Company could be partly attributed to the work of WG Film. Their film Bananas!* caused enough havoc for the multinational. The cease and desist letter never derailed the resolve of the Swedes. They flew to LA to fight for the right to screen the film. No threats were enough to halt the truth from seeing the light.

Proud Dawn Hudson, the LA Film Festival's executive who read the statement trashing Bananas!*

Dole then escalated its threats of lawsuits to include the festival organisers as well as the sponsors, who included American Airlines and LA Times. Cowed, the festival organisers ordered the film out of competition and moved the screening venue of Bananas!* several blocks away from where the main events were taking place. Dawn Hudson, the executive director of Film Independent and Los Angeles Film Festival, read a disclaimer prior to the screening that technically called Gertten and his team ‘failed documentarians’.

“…We are not eager to be sued. Nor, given what we know, do we believe that BANANAS!* - in its present form – present a fair or accurate portrait of Juan Dominguez and the Tellez trial.

“This is why we are showing this film – out of competition – as a case study, to illuminate a timely exploration of what makes (and doesn’t make) a responsible documentary.”

Audio: Extract from Dawn Hudson's statement 

Read the full statement as read by Dawn Hudson

Despite the disclaimer, Dole Food Company made true its threat of a lawsuit against Gertten, his company and employees. Nearly all the mainstream media houses picked up the story [details supplied by Dole’s PR hands] and implied in the various reports that the filmmakers were part of a fraud. Reuters Gina Keating wrote: “Dole Food Company Inc filed a defamation lawsuit on Wednesday against Swedish film maker it accuses of knowingly including ‘patent falsehoods’ in a documentary about Nicaragua banana workers…”

The war, as pushed by Dole Food Co., and its hired guns against Gertten and his small team have been narrated in Gertten’s not-so-new film, Big Boys Gone Bananas!* The film is an excellent case study of how corporations, however big, should never behave.

Translation of Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda’s 1950 poem, ‘La United Fruit Co.’ from Canto General:

When the trumpet sounded everything was prepared on earth,
and Jehovah gave the world to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company reserved for itself the juiciest piece,
the central coast of my world, the delicate waist of America.
It rebaptized these countries Banana Republics,
and over the sleeping dead,
over the unquiet heroes who won greatness, liberty, and banners,
it established an opera buffa:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns,
encouraged envy,
attracted the dictatorship of flies:
Trujillo flies, Tachos flies Carias flies, Martinez flies, Ubico flies,
flies sticky with submissive blood and marmalade,
drunken flies that buzz over the tombs of the people,
circus flies, wise flies expert at tyranny.
With the bloodthirsty flies came the Fruit Company,
amassed coffee and fruit in ships
which put to sea like overloaded trays with the treasures from our sunken lands.
Meanwhile the Indians fall into the sugared depths of the harbors and are buried in the morning mists;
a corpse rolls, a thing without name, a discarded number, a bunch of rotten fruit thrown on the garbage heap.

Both films can be accessed at: