How a Lawsuit by a Small Nonprofit Got a Big Company to Change Its Ways on Water

The Dole Corporation is one of the world’s largest banana producers and many of those banana plantations are located in Guatemala. The small, Seattle-based organization Water Health and Sanitation (WASH) brought a class action lawsuit against Dole a few years ago, alleging that the Dole operations caused severe damage to local crops, destroyed 1,200 acres of wetlands, and contaminated the drinking water of local communities.

The case called for compensatory damages and restitution to be paid to anyone in the class-action suit that was misled by Dole’s allegedly false claims about its eco-friendly production practices. WASH has been working to improve the health of local villagers living near large banana plantations across Central America for years.

Dole kept mum on the lawsuit, which has since been settled, but not before a deal was hammered out with WASH Director, Eric Harrison. Harrison invited Dole executives to visit the Guatemalan villages its banana plantation was polluting.

The execs met with Harrison, and the group came up with a plan to work together toward improving the water and sanitation issues in seven rural Guatemalan villages. On taking this collaborative approach, Eric Harrison stated:

Rather than engage in the negatives associated with protracted litigation, the prominent multinational corporation proved they intended to work with us to do the right thing.

Dole and WASH would also bring Bananera Nacional, S.A. (BANASA), one of Central America’s largest agribusiness players, into the fold. This made sense as Dole’s bananas were grown on the BANASA plantation.

For BANASA's part, it built what it refers to as buffer zones around the perimeter of the Dole plantation, which will help protect the communities from the fungicide sprayed on the trees. The company also build a new water tower for one of the seven local communities involved. The new tower pumps water directly into the homes of villagers, discouraging them from getting water from the local river.

For Dole, there is no telling how much of its water and sanitation commitments are lawsuit-related or if it is carrying out its WASH projects in addition to the compensatory damages and restitution dictated by the settlement agreement. Regardless, Dole will be providing new water filters every 18 months to six communities near its banana plantation. Additionally, the raw materials for the filters are locally sourced and produced, which works toward improving the local economies by providing jobs. WASH, Dole, and BANASA will also offer water education training and classes to local villagers.

In the world of water, WASH is a small player in a big pool. But it has already taken on huge agribusiness companies like Dole, Chiquita, and BANASA. And it’s done so successfully. If its work in Guatemala and Honduras—which includes building rain capture tanks, hand washing stations at schools, clean water filter tanks, and even a maternity and nutrition center garden—is any indication of where the organization is heading, we can expect WASH to begin making a bit more noise in this global funding arena.


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