By Ian Walker –
How different it might have been for Jefferson Montero, the Swansea City winger and Ecuadorian international who spends his days harassing defenders up and down the left touchline of football pitches with his aggressive dribbling and energetic play, rather than spending them cutting and hauling bananas in the sweltering plantations in the Los Rios province of Ecuador where he grew up.
Los Rios – The Worlds Banana Plantation
Los Rios is one of the three major banana-producing provinces in a country that supplies more bananas to the world than anywhere else. For years, Human Rights groups have condemned the conditions under which Ecuadorians are forced to work on these plantations. The work alone is backbreaking and exhausting, and also toxic. Banana plantations in Ecuador, which are forcibly non-unionized, act as third party intermediaries for brands such as Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole, who let dangerous pesticides outlawed in other parts of the world rain down on their labor force without a second thought.
As in other parts of Latin America where the banana overlords reign, union activity is aggressively, even violently, suppressed. Unions are the perennial enemy of the major fruit companies, who rely on cheap, replaceable, and often young workers to keep their international machine moving. A unionized group of banana workers would require a livable wage, a cap on working hours, the strict regulation of child labor, and worker safety. None of these standards are appealing to large multi- national corporations whose emphasis is on the profit line rather than the well being of Latin American peoples.
In 2002, Human-Rights Watch released a report condemning the widespread use of child labor on Ecuadorian banana plantations. The report claimed that children as young as eight years old were working 12 hour days, with less than 40% of them attending school. It was also reported that they were regularly exposed to dangerous pesticides, injury, and unsanitary drinking water. They were regularly required to haul extremely heavy loads of harvested bananas, were frequently the victims of sexual harassment, and often worked while fungicides rained down from planes.
The report supposedly forced the banana companies to dismiss their workforce of children and to sign legal agreements that would eradicate these practices. The reality, may be very different as it is not known how many children of Ecuador still spend their days in the fields in brutal conditions. In fact the Banana Workers’ Forum as recently as 2013 stated that these practices are far from eradicated. Unfortunately the focus of large corporations such as Chiquita and Dole seems to be on keeping an uninterrupted supply of bananas going overseas
Montero from Plantation Worker to Premier League Star
This is where Jefferson Montero comes from. In his first interview in the UK last year, he said that if it were not for football, he would have followed in his father’s footsteps on the plantation.
He needed growth-hormone treatments just to reach his modest height of 5’7’’ (170cm). Not that height matters to a player like Montero. His short stature makes him even harder to stop, his hips feinting one way while his legs go the other, with all the quickness and predictability of an evasive bee.
For some reason Ecuador keeps producing these wingers whose style of play is from another era; they forget that in the modern game, dribbling too much and making a fool of your opponent is in bad taste. Montero is no different. Against Chelsea this past Saturday at Stamford Bridge, his teammates figured out that the best thing to do was to overload the right side and switch it back to the left, where Montero would be waiting, salivating at another chance to run at a defender. It is the way he has always played: from the time he played with his first club, Club Social y Deportivo Independiente José Terán in Ecuador because he didn’t want to get up at 5 am every day to do chores when there was football to be played; to his time in with Villareal, Levante, and Real Betis; to his time with Morelia in Mexico; and eventually in Swansea City. In fact, wherever on the globe he has played, Montero has never seen a defender that didn’t look ripe for the picking. When he gets the ball, he looks desperate to run, desperate to take on anyone in his way.
Montero – Running for his Life
Perhaps it is because he is still running from the life he almost had, from the life that so many Ecuadorians are forced into on the plantations. Maybe all those feints and sidesteps are not intended just to shake off a defender, but also to shake off a past of hardship that he never wants his family to experience again. If he keeps getting the ball and running at defenders, maybe these memories will fade, until all he can see is the new life he has built for him and his family.
One thing we do know: Jefferson Montero is not the first, nor will he be the last Ecuadorian to succeed through football. Fellow countryman Antonio Valencia used to sell drinks with his mother outside a local football club’s stadium when he was young, and would then search for the empty bottles to give to his father to sell to a bottle-deposit in the capital of Quito. Enner Valencia, now also in the Premier League, spent his early days at Club Emelec sleeping in very simple lodgings sometimes with barely enough to eat after leaving his poor home in Esmeraldas.
But while Jefferson Montero and his Equadorian colleagues lace up their boots and step onto the pristine pitches in the richest league in the world, thousands of other impoverished Ecuadorian children dream of following the same path.
Ian Walker – Freelance writer who has contributed to Eight by Eight Magazine, Antique Football, Squawka, Soccerlens and BackPage Football. Personal blog is thenewlibero.tumblr.com, which mainly focuses on South American football and tactical analysis. Follow Ian on Twitter @ForgottenLibero.