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So, what is geography? In our first episode of Crash Course Geography, we will endeavor to answer this seemingly simple question with the help of a similarly simple factoid: that the US imports more than 3 billion pounds of bananas from Guatemala each year. But as it turns out, beneath the kinds of factoids we usually associate with Geography are much grander stories that really are Geography. So let's go a little bananas as we explore the sordid history of the Chiquita banana.

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CC Kids:
George Eliot’s Old Grandfather  Rode A Pig Home Yesterday.   Mnemonics are great for trying to  remember our 4th grade spelling words.   But actually deciding what that word  geography means is a bit trickier.

Sure, we memorize state and world capitals  [because everyone’s impressed if you can   rattle them off - like the capital of Canada?  Ottawa.] Or we learn that rivers flow downhill   or that the US imports more than 3 billion  pounds of bananas from Guatemala each year.  And those are cool factoids, but  that’s not all Geography is.   Geography helps us answer bigger questions like  "what's the story of the Earth?", "how do humans   change their environments?", and "why, of all  places, did that huge mountain form there?" There's a lot to cover in this series  because geography encompasses all 4.5   billion years or so of the Earth's history  and even makes predictions about our future.   So we’re going to do our best to highlight  the weirdest, most awe-inspiring parts.  I’m Alizé Carrère and welcome  to Crash Course Geography. Let’s take a closer look at that last factoid  I threw out and... go a little bananas.   It might come in handy at a trivia game to know  the volume of the US-Guatemala banana trade,   but there must be more to the story.  Like, why Guatemala?

And why bananas? In geography, we use those questions  to better understand the connections   between us and the physical world.  So today, let’s start in Guatemala. We think of the land now called  Guatemala as part of Central America,   a region between North and South America  that's covered with dense rainforests   and incredible biodiversity.

To look just at Guatemala,¬†¬† we‚Äôd jump between 13¬į45‚Äô and 17¬į48‚Äô north¬† latitude and 88¬į14‚Äô and 92¬į13‚Äô west longitude. We could even give the absolute location,¬† or geographic coordinates, of different¬†¬† geographic points of interest in Guatemala, from¬† Volcan de Fuego to the Mayan ruins at Tikal.¬† From there we might notice the physical¬† environment -- like the climate,¬†¬† the landforms, or the rivers and waterways.¬† Guatemala is a mountainous country with both¬†¬† recently active and long dormant volcanoes¬† that have provided rich, fertile soil. With soil like this, it seems like there‚Äôs¬† no shortage of options for what would grow,¬†¬† and yet...bananas.

It turns out, to be successful, bananas need  to grow at a temperature between 20 and 35   degrees celsius -- Guatemala’s tropical regions  range between 18 and 35 degrees. Bananas need   about 170 centimeters of rain a year -- most of  Guatemala gets between 70 and 200 centimeters.   And bananas need well-drained soils rich  i n potassium -- Guatemala's volcanoes   spew rocks rich in iron, magnesium,  and -- you guessed it -- potassium. What we’re doing here is identifying the space,  or the features and relationships that occur in a   given area.

Basically it’s the cold, hard facts  about a specific location on Earth’s surface.   We need to pinpoint where we’re interested in,   before we can start to answer  why various things happen there. Working with the idea of space is one of  the defining characteristics of geography,   and we’ll get into even more  specifics in later episodes. Historically, maps, and more recently,   satellite images are tools that  help define and quantify space.

But there are plenty of non-spatial things  we might already have in our minds about  . Guatemala and Central America. For example,  that it’s long been home to large populations   of indigenous peoples including Mayan  groups like the K’iche’, Kaqchikel, and Mam,   and non-Mayan groups like the Xinca.  Or that it’s a region known for its   history of empires like the Mayan or  those created by Spanish colonizers.

Guatemala has been known by many names¬† including CuauhtńďmallńĀn, a name given to¬†¬† the area by Tlaxcalan warriors accompanying¬† Spanish Conquistadors. Like almost any land¬†¬† or mountain or stretch of sea, ‚ÄúGuatemala‚Ä̬† means different things to different people. It‚Äôs a place, or somewhere that has attached¬† value, meaning, and emotion to it that can‚Äôt¬†¬† be measured.

It’s subjective, for sure,  but a place can be observed and described   to others. We can think of place as the  significance attached to a particular space. So as we try to better understand the significance  of bananas and how they fit into Guatemala, the   space and the place, we’d learn bananas actually  aren’t native to Guatemala or even the Americas.  Explorers and missionaries brought bananas  to Central America in the 1500s from the   areas near present-day Indonesia and Papua  New Guinea where bananas grow natively.

Thinking about where bananas¬† can grow in Guatemala and why¬†¬† adds another layer to our¬† geographical investigation. After all,¬†¬† almost one out of every three people in the¬† workforce works in agriculture as of 2020. So the next chapter in the ‚ÄúGeography¬† of Guatemalan Banana Imports‚ÄĚ story¬†¬† is thinking about interactions¬† humans have with the environment.

In geography, human-environment interactions  are all the ways humans connect with and live   within the environment and the impact  the environment has on lives, choices,   and experiences of people.  This is key to geographers. So in Guatemala, where there’s enough  flat land and fertile soil and it’s not   too hot or cold or dry or wet, humans  might decide to grow bananas. But that   still doesn't tell us how bananas  came to be one of the main crops   grown in Guatemala or why there’s so much  trade in bananas specifically with the US.

If we think about demand economics, one answer  for why the US imports more than 3 billion pounds   of bananas from Guatemala each year is because  there are no tariffs or import restrictions,   and transportation costs are fairly low. Other banana hotspots like Ecuador,  Panama, and India are a bit farther away,   so transportation is more expensive.  The greater the ocean distance,   the higher the price. But  that’s not the whole story.  To this day, the agriculture industry  in Guatemala relies on the plantation,   which is a large scale commercial enterprise that  just produces one crop and mostly exports it.

Plantations arrived in Guatemala with  European explorers colonizing the Americas.   But they can also be found in other parts of the  world that experienced colonialism, like cocoa   plantations in the West Indies, tea plantations  in Sri Lanka, and cotton plantations in the US. No matter where they’re located, using  plantations has had long lasting consequences   we still contend with today. To peel back  the layers, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.

Bananas first became popular as a ‚Äúrare and¬† delicious treat‚ÄĚ in the United States in the¬†¬† late 19th century --even though they‚Äôd long¬† been a diet staple in many tropical regions. ¬† Sensing an opportunity, American businessmen like¬†¬†. Minor C. Keith and Andrew Preston started¬† importing them from around Latin America.

The two men were forced to merge their  lucrative banana empires in 1899. Tropical Trading and Transport Company in  Central America joined with the Boston Fruit  . Company that dominated the Caribbean, creating  the soon-to-be-infamous United Fruit Company.

Along with others, it would become so¬† powerful that in 1901 the author O.¬†¬† Henry described countries like Honduras¬† and Guatemala as ‚Äúbanana republics‚ÄĚ-- a¬†¬† reference to the vast control the fruit¬† companies wielded over many nations. For example, in 1904, Keith, as vice¬† president of United Fruit, signed an¬†¬† exclusive deal with President Manuel Estrada¬† Cabrera that gave the company tax-exemptions,¬†¬† land grants, and control of all railroads¬† on the Atlantic side of Guatemala. By the 1930s United Fruit was the¬† largest landholder in Guatemala.¬† Across Latin America they became embroiled in¬† violent disputes, like the 1928 Banana Massacre in¬†¬†.

Colombia that was immortalized in Gabriel Garcia¬† Marquez‚Äôs great novel, ‚Äú100 Years of Solitude.‚ÄĚ Or the 1934 Great Banana Strike that eventually¬† led to the creation of trade unions in Costa Rica. Or in 1954 when they lobbied the US government¬† to stage a coup and depose the Guatemalan¬†¬† president when hoarded United Fruit land¬† was being redistributed. Which the US did.

They had to be politically  involved to keep control. A US-backed military dictatorship  didn’t actually help their stock value,   but such a big and profitable company  had connections across the US government   and were able to set up agreements that  persist in some form or other today. Which means that the US still gets  most of its bananas from Guatemala.

Thanks Thought Bubble! It might seem like  we’ve confused History for Geography,   but the sordid past of the  banana isn’t in the past at all. You might not have heard of United Fruit, but  you’ve probably seen the label in grocery stores   or heard of Chiquita bananas.

The United  Fruit Company eventually became Chiquita   Brands International in 1984, which is still  the number one US supplier of bananas today.  Basically, banana plantations have had a  huge influence on the unequal distribution   of land and wealth, leading to peasant  uprisings, repressive military regimes,   and the growing economic  inequalities in Guatemala. Entire books could be written  on the last 150 years of banana   trade and they’d read like political thrillers. So with fertile soil, the political power  structure, the rise of colonialism, and Europeans   swooping in to create plantations...bananas  have been stamped into Guatemalan history.

Wow! All that from just one little factoid about a   fruit you can buy in pretty much  any corner store across the US.   I told you that Geography was complicated! And  every factoid actually has a story behind it.

But there are always more questions.¬† Like, if we focus on the environment¬†¬† part of human-environment interactions, what‚Äôs the¬† environmental impact of these large plantations? And this is just Guatemala. What about the other¬† places in the world where bananas grow ‚Äď Costa¬†¬† Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.

What’s  the story associated with their banana exports? And that’s why just the factoid you  learned in 4th grade alone isn’t geography.   Geography is that factoid and  the story that surrounds it. We just looked at the geography of bananas, but  we could have done the same thing for chocolate.   Or the Nile River valley.

Or¬† heat islands in the Chicago area.¬†¬† The Earth has so many stories, and¬† geography is here to tell them! Clearly, the world is complicated. But¬† in geography we try to look at the big¬†¬† picture ‚Äď the confluence of space,¬† place, and the human and environment¬†¬† interactions and how they‚Äôve overlapped¬† to bring us this far into the story.

This is what makes geography¬† a spatial science ‚Äď it‚Äôs all¬†¬† about how things vary from place¬† to place and asking ‚Äúwhy here?‚Ä̬† No two places are the same, but when we ask¬† questions to learn more about one place,¬†¬† we just might be able to explain¬† what is happening in another place. Of course, geographers are going to¬† make mistakes because we‚Äôre curious,¬†¬† imperfect, wonderful humans. And there will¬† be so many more moments where we go bananas¬†¬† and realize what we thought was just a¬† cool fact actually has a huge backstory.

There’s a whole team working on Crash Course  Geography trying hard to avoid making mistakes,   but we also know that when we tell  a story we make certain assumptions,   or we have to leave out facts to make sure there's  a beginning, middle, and end in a 10 minute video. So as we move through this series and  learn together, let’s all try to think   about the interconnectedness of Earth and  its peoples and economies and histories.   And the fact that a banana factoid can  be way more complicated than we expect. That’s what will make us all a little  more thoughtful and geographically aware.

So, what is geography? It’s so much more than just  identifying cities and countries and capitals on a   map. Geographers look to find connections between  the physical processes at work on Earth’s surface   (and under the surface too) and how  people use and interact with the Earth.

Next time, we’ll look at one of the  most useful tools that geographers use:   maps. Maps tell their own story, and can even  be made specifically to tell a particular story. Many maps and borders represent modern  geopolitical divisions that have often   been decided without the consultation, permission,  or recognition of the land's original inhabitants.   Many geographical place names also don't  reflect the Indigenous or Arboriginal   peoples languages.

So we at Crash Course want  to acknowledge these peoples’ traditional and   ongoing relationship with that land and all the  physical and human geographical elements of it. We encourage you to learn about  the history of the place you call   home through resources like  and by engaging with your local Indigenous   and Aboriginal nations through the  websites and resources they provide. Thanks for watching this episode of  Crash Course Geography which was made   with the help of all these nice people.  If you would like to help keep all Crash   Course free for everyone, forever, please  consider joining our community on Patreon.