Once or twice every working day a sealed semi-trailer winds through a grimy industrial section of the Los Angeles basin called the City of Commerce. The truck moves slowly up Pacific Street past a row of dingy warehouses to the loading dock at the rear of Amvac Chemical Corporation's pesticide plant. There, from a storage area labeled "RESTRICTED AREA/AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT," pallets of light-blue, 30-gallon drums stacked three high are loaded into the huge truck-trailer.
When it's full, the rig heads for Interstate 10 and moves into the stream of traffic flowing back and forth across the country 24 hours a day. The driver carries emergency telephone numbers and special instructions in case the colorless, odorless fluid in the drums somehow spills or is released. No unloading or transfer of the toxic cargo is permitted enroute.
A few days and most of the continent later, the same truck rolls into the bustling coastal city of Gulfport, Mississippi, and up to the automated loading docks of Standard Fruit & Steamship Company. There, the light-blue drums labeled "Restricted Use Pesticides" are lifted onto the deck of one of the 30 vessels owned or leased by Standard's parent company, the U.S.-based Castle & Cooke Inc. -- largest importer of bananas to the United States.
The ship retraces its route, out of Gulfport, into the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The light-blue drums will stay above-deck to lessen dangers to the crew in case of a spill. The banana ship's destination is one of the romantic-sounding ports of Central or South America -- Puerto Limón in Costa Rica, La Ceiba in Honduras, Guayaquil in Ecuador -- a journey that can take from four to seven days.
When it docks at one of these ports in the tropics, the pesticide drums will be unloaded and taken to their ultimate stop -- the vast banana and pineapple plantations of Castle & Cooke. C&C is one of the largest foreign corporate landholders in Central America. The workers on the company plantations are mostly illiterate peasants and Indians. They are the people who will use this pesticide to kill the soil-dwelling worms that attack bananas and other crops destined for U.S. kitchens.