United Fruit Company Infrastructure

Date of Submission: 27/09/2012
Criteria: (iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Colombia to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Department of Magdalena, Municipality of Zona Bananera (Banana Growing Area)
Coordinates: N10 49 16.20 W74 9 59.71
Ref.: 5770

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Zona Bananera is a relatively recent municipality, but, traditionally, it also gives its name to a region characterized by an extensive and fertile plain crossed by dozens of rivers and cold water streams coming down from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to the Ciénaga Grande or the Caribbean Sea; this region is also characterized for cold nights. From April to November, there are torrential rains in the area. With a hot climate and quiet winds sometimes replaced by sudden hurricanes sweeping the region once or twice a year as well as hundreds of hectares of banana crops and everything on their way, causing damages with the consequent risk for the economic capacity of the middle sized and small owners of said crops.

This agricultural exploitation complex located in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Cienaga Grande, was developed mostly by the multinational company United Fruit Company (which arrived in the country in 1899), designing and building residential villages, administrative areas, service areas and workers' camps following American models and introducing railways built to transport banana. This opened a path through unknown territories, which have been productive ever since.

To learn about the beginning of the Zone, the primary and richer sources of urban, economical, social, and technical information, written in 1939 by the founding member of the Magdalena History Center (Centro de Historia del Magdalena), Demetrio Daniel Henríquez, the Complete Monograph of the Banana Growing Area (Monografía Completa de la Zona Bananera). It offers a comprehensive inventory of the villages existing at that time:

Riofrío, to the South of the zone, had five streets and seven alleys, distributed in an area of approximately 0.5 square kilometers. There, a police station, office buildings and schools for both boys and girls were built: there were also telegraphic and telephone services, which gave this territory the title of "corregimiento" (district).

Orihueca, town with four streets and six alleys had a telegraph station; it was a station for the Magdalena Railroad, whose road still goes through the village. It also had the Village Library (Biblioteca Aldeana), schools and private schools, as well as indigenous cemeteries which called the attention of some archaeologists who developed there some scientific research. One of the main zones of Ciénaga, Sevilla, became a Center or Office for trains going through the territory; additionally, it had telephone services and a deposit for taxes.

Apparently, inhabitants had the hope that by the 40s, police inspections, markets and slaughterhouses would be built for each one of the territories in the zone. There were only three dispensaries: Guacamayal, Riofrío and Orihueca, one cinema, alternate schools in the most prosperous farms and the famous Acequia Goenaga (irrigation ditch).

The Zona Bananera region is mostly inhabited by people of Caribbean origin (95%), and 40% of works carried out there are directly related to the banana industry.

The current municipality has more than 250.000 inhabitants. It comprises the following vicinities (districts):

  • Sevilla (Municipal capital), with the towns and villages of San José de Kennedy, Media Tapa, La Abarca, Estación, El Prado, Los Cauchos, Gabriela, Los Cocos, 16 de Julio, La Pista and Sacramento.
  • Tucurinca, with the attached territories of Las Mercedes, Beatriz, Ecuador y Guayabo.
  • Guamachito, comprising Patuca, La Campana, Loma Colorá and La Bonga.
  • Guacamayal, comprising Santa Rosa, La Bodega, Macondo, La Balsa, La Agustina, La Paulina and Piloto.
  • Soplador, comprising Ciudad Perdida, Casa Blanca, Matatigre, La Cuarenta and Montería.
  • Orihueca, comprising Iberia and Candelaria.
  • Gran vía, with the villages of Los Limones, San Pablo, Cuatro Caminos, Polanco, San Martín and La Victoria.
  • Santa Rosalía, comprising El Oasis, La Bretaña, La Tigra, La Mojana, La Tagua, 23 de Abril and Matecaña.
  • Río Frío, with the villages of Julio Saguady, Carital, Seis Sable, San Martín de Loba, La Olleta, El Mamón, Calabacito, La Josefina, La Concepción and El Reposo.
  • Palomar, comprising Caño Mocho, La Tal and Los Ángeles.
  • Varela, comprising San Pablo del Llano and Entrada a Varela.
  • Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

    At the end of the 19th century, neither Americans nor Europeans knew about the existence of banana. A few lustrums later, this tropical fruit would radically change eating habits of both of them. It was the United Fruit Company, in conjunction with other banana traders, the one responsible of such revolution in habits and culture, especially within the North American population.

    At the beginning of the 20th century, Colombia, among other Latin American countries was the scenario for the company to settle down and become the most prosperous one: for 1930 the company had a capital of US$ 242 million and for 1933 net income accounted for US$ 9.2 million. In a period in which a large number of companies went bankrupt, United Fruit organized the production, transportation and distribution of thousands of bananas. In 1932, it controlled 63.3% of the total amount exported by nine Latin American countries. Apart from the full control of the banana business, it also controlled a complex network of companies conducting dispatching, traders, work force, media, railway networks, and occasionally, law and order in the producing regions. Thus, United Fruit exercised its influence on each one of the aspects of life in the zones it was present.

    Despite all problems brought in by the arrival of banana companies, such as forced working with clear overtone of slavery and the extremely poor work conditions, United Fruit Company made some positive contributions to the country: As Maurice P. Brungardt says, unpopulated jungle was transformed into productive centers, numerous diseases were eradicated thanks to the construction of water and sewage systems and attention provided in hospitals built by the company. They also built posts, schools and especially, railroad networks, which were the most prominent civil construction, necessary for access the territory. There is the importance of the United Fruit Company, opening civil constructions in an inhospitable area, as well as the historical events caused by its presence.

    Another core reasons for which the zone is of great importance is that it represents the imagery not only for people living there, but for the whole nation, as it was used by Nobel prizewinner Gabriel García Márquez to create its famous work One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel takes place in a town called "Macondo", whose name came from a banana farm located near Aracataca (the writer's hometown), appropriated by the United Fruit Company. The quiet place was interrupted by the sudden arrival of what the writer calls the "leaves storm", which represents the arrival of an American banana company which changed Macondo forever; foreigners built beautiful towns with white houses, surrounded by tall walls, a railroad and opened banana plantations. Therefore, interpretations of the thousands of coincidences present in this novel are accepted as a fact by Colombian people.

    Criterion (iv): Banana exploitation incorporated "Social Welfare" models and generated the presence of industrial, urban and architectonic resources which would later define the development of other activities and the transformation of the territory. It configured an aesthetically and environmentally rich landscape, alternating housing areas with gardens, tree-lined avenues and woody paths with land for agricultural production and administrative and commerce activities. There, it is possible to see the evolution of the zone, as its streets, alleys, civil works (being the railroad the most important one), houses and other constructions have their own history which in conjunction, tell the full history of the region.

    Criterion (vi): Both, facilities as well as plantations of the United Fruit Company and the Municipality of Ciénaga, which comprised the Municipality of Zona Bananera (Magdalena), were the scenario of one of the most relevant events of the proletarian history of Colombia: the strike and subsequent massacre of the banana zone on the 6yh December 1928, event which is now part of the Universal literature through the work of Gabriel García Márquez, One hundred years of solitude (according to the book, more than 3.000 people died). Many episodes referring not only to historical events as those already mentioned, but also to the description of the landscape with accurate correspondence from that time and even from the present time may be found in the story.

    Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

    Notwithstanding time and natural deterioration suffered by constructions, most original structures erected by the United Fruit Company are still preserved and they constitute an important memory element for the region's inhabitants, as a symbol of an era of investment in social welfare and progress as well as new production models, but also as a symbol of the conflict between the foreign economic power and the Latin American culture. As such, the zone becomes a document that tells the story of the ascent and decadence of the United Fruit Company. Railroad infrastructure is still in operation and works at banana plantations are still the means of support for numerous inhabitants of this region.

    The link made by Gabriel García Marquez and the Banana Growing Area (Zona Bananera), generates great interest among nationals and foreigners, with the possibility for promoting its recognition by scholars and general visitors who, captivated by magic realism, want to live and know its scenarios.

    Infrastructure built in the Banana Growing Area represents the implementation of a North American agricultural production model within a Latin American context, an imported model that generated a brief social welfare, and also a conflict between foreigners and the local population. It is also outstanding for being a source of inspiration for one of the top works of international literature.

    Comparison with other similar properties

    Völklingen Steel Industry, Germany

    The factory, included in the World Heritage List under criteria ii and iv in 1994, has a surface of six hectares and dominates the city of Völklingen, in Sarre. This steel industry complex, integrated, built and equipped in the 19th and 20th centuries operated until a short time ago and is the only one in the whole Western Europe and North America which has remained intact.

    The place La Chaux-de-Fonds/ Le Locle – Urbanism of the Swiss clock making industry

    The Place, included in the World Heritage List under criteria ii and iv in 2009, is located in a far area in the Jura mountains, on a zone not very appropriate for agriculture. It includes two cities which illustrate though their urbanism the rational organization needs of the clock making industry. Planned at the beginning of the 19th Century, after three major fires, both locations' urbanism is conceived in function of this industry. It adjusts to an open, parallel stripes scheme in which houses and workshops are alternated, to better respond to the professional needs of clock makers, whose activity comes from the 17th century and is still ongoing. The site is a noticeable example of well preserved mono-industrial cities in ongoing and full activity. Urban planning has adapted to the evolution of clock making, which went from home made handcrafted production to a more integrated factory like production at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

    Wood and Cardboard Treatment Factory, Verla Finlandia

    The Verla factory and the attached housing area, included in the World Heritage List under criteria iv in 1999, are extremely well preserved and they are an exceptional example of a small rural industrial facility devoted to producing paper paste, paper and cardboard. These type of factories proliferated in Northern Europe and North America during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, but they have now almost completely disappeared.