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Brazil, Ecuador Battle at WTO Over Bananas

10.5.2019

The conflict over Ecuadorian bananas, reignited by President Jair Bolsonaro, reached the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Tuesday by means of an accusation by the neighboring country that Brazil was violating international rules by blocking Ecuador's principal export.

In March, during a live transmission on social media, Mr. Bolsonaro indicated his government would block the entry of Ecuadorian bananas. The president said he couldn't understand how a banana coming from Ecuador travels 10,000 kilometers and arrives at competitive prices at the Ceagesp food distribution center in São Paulo when, the president said, there are so many bananas 150 kilometers away in the Ribeira Valley.

Notified of Mr. Bolsonaro's comments, government officials looked at Ecuador's banana sales to Brazil and found that the president was worried over nothing. In 2018, imports totaled a pitiable $34,000.

On the global scene, Mr. Bolsonaro's interventionism caught the attention of many, insofar as a supposedly "pro-free-market" government was stirring up a conflict over imports that were incapable of bothering Brazilian producers.

This concern has visibly also extended to Ecuador's government. In a "restricted" communique to the WTO to which Valor had access, the neighboring country complains about how its banana exports to Brazil were suspended for 20 years, starting in 1997, due to phytosanitary conditions related to alleged diseases at Ecuadorian plantations.

Brazil finally allowed imports again in 2017, after years of evaluating the risk. But Ecuador was only allowed to normally exports bananas until February 26 of this year, when a judge "abruptly" ordered the suspension of imports. A federal judge said that there was "serious risk" of possible contamination of Brazilian plantations by the Banana Bract Mosaic Virus (BBrMV) in the neighboring country. Ecuador's government said at the WTO that there is no BBrMV in Ecuador.

On March 18, two weeks after Mr. Bolsonaro's statement on social media, the Ministry of Agriculture's Secretariat of Agriculture and Livestock Defense issued a ruling suspending the entry of Ecuadorian bananas into the Brazilian market - for phytosanitary reasons, and not the trade reasons cited by Mr. Bolsonaro.

In Ecuador's eyes, Brazil has violated international law. They demand that Brazil remove the ban on imports, and complain about considerable economic losses. Ecuador has so far presented its complaint to the General Council, which consists of ambassadors to the WTO, but not yet to the organization's judges.

The reaction by the Brazilian delegation was to attack the fact that Ecuador brought the case to the WTO by including accusations of "restrictive measures" by Brazil - giving the impression of extensive protectionist measures in the country, whereas this dealt with a single phytosanitary case. Adding it to the WTO agenda in this way has only happened on two other occasions, during a fight between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and again by Russia against the European Union. In both cases, Brazil noted, there were serious political and security implications at play.

The Brazilian delegation said that the importation of bananas from Ecuador was suspended by court order as a result of the phytosanitary risk, which was not analyzed when the market was reopened to Ecuador in 2017.

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