Costa Rica has developed an international reputation for being an especially green, environmentally-minded country. It’s reforestation efforts, extensive national park system, wildlife protections, and renewable energy goals have made it a leader in environmental management.
Unfortunately, the agricultural and food production practices employed by the country’s large-scale producers (and increasingly many small-scale producers as well) are not aligned with these policies. Heavy agrochemical usage, overgrazing, deforestation, erosion, loss of biodiversity, and overfishing continue to deplete the country’s land and water resources, damaging ecosystems and human health, contributing to climate change, and impeding the country’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2021.
Large-scale pineapple production in particular has come under recent scrutiny with respect to many of these issues. Deforestation and wetland destruction for the development of plantations, intensive agrochemical application, workers’ rights abuses, lack of erosion control, and the impact of large transportation vehicles (on both the roads and communities through which they pass) continue to both harm the environment and jeopardize the health of local people. Irresponsible practices have been implicated in poisoning soil and water supplies, damaging air quality, reducing biodiversity, and endangering the area’s long-term future food security.
Since 2000, pineapple production has increased by nearly 300% in Costa Rica. Between the years of 2001 and 2007 alone, the total value of pineapple exports exploded in value from $142 million USD to nearly $485 million USD.[i],[ii] Pineapple production now brings in more than $800 million USD annually to Costa Rica, and has overtaken both coffee and bananas in becoming the nation’s largest agricultural export.[iii] Unfortunately, the pineapple industry’s rapid growth has far outpaced labor and environmental regulation, with largely detrimental effects on the environment and Costa Rican inhabitants.
Pineapples require a significant amount of time in order to produce fruit. Even utilizing high quantities of synthetic fertilizer, producers generally collect only two fruit from an individual pineapple plant every 18-24 months.[iv] Faster growing hybrid varieties are cultivated with the use of harmful agrochemicals, including bromacil, diuron, and glyphosate, which are toxic to humans.[v]
In 2008, four rural Caribbean communities within the region of Siquirres in the Limón province of Costa Rica accused two pineapple producers (Hacienda Ojo de Agua and Fruitex) of contaminating their communities’ groundwater after traces of bromacil were discovered in the local water supply.[vi] As bromacil is an herbicide that health experts say should be kept away from residential communities, Costa Rica’s Health Ministry was ordered to provide water trucks to the area. However, in 2015 the case was brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights after the difficulties of doing so became clear, and nearly 7,000 people struggled to obtain safe water for their daily needs.[vii]
I spoke with community members from an area just north of San Jose who similarly have been unable to drink their groundwater for nearly six years now. They explained that the local water smells of sulfur and “algo extraño” (something strange). I was told that when left to sit, a white film appears on the surface of standing pools, and many interviewees said that they suffered for years from strange rashes and skin irritations before the water was declared unsafe for human use and consumption. While the government has promised to provide tankers of fresh drinking water to affected communities, those interviewed explained that such provisions often arrive late, forcing them to wash clothes and dishes in the contaminated water, and occasionally also drink from unsafe sources.
A 2010 article in The Guardian reported the following testimony:
“Aydee Quiroz Nunez told us how the local water crisis had begun. She first suspected a problem in 1995, when her family’s health deteriorated dramatically after they moved to the village. Then growing numbers of locals began reporting unexplained illnesses – diarrhea, rashes, gastric problems, including vomiting blood, pains in bones and headaches, loss of vision. Ramirez’s university colleagues tested the water, and the tests were then verified by international labs. Eventually, 10 years later, the government accepted that residues of 22 agrochemicals could be detected in the drinking water, among them bromacil, a herbicide linked with cancer of the thyroid, liver and kidneys.”[viii]
Unfortunately, plantation workers and their families continue to suffer most acutely from the health consequences of persistent chemical exposure related to pineapple production. The use of organophosphates and organochlorines on the pineapple crops, chemicals labeled as hormone disruptors, carcinogens, reproductive toxins (substances known to cause birth defects), and other persistent pollutants that can remain in the environment for years are broadly applied.[ix]
Workers for the PINDECO Company in the southern Pacific area of Costa Rica complained of increased incidences of allergies, migraines, nausea, feelings of weakness and lethargy, chronic gastritis, and influenza as a result of weakened immune systems.[x] There are also reports among plantation workers and their families of skin and eye damage and irritation, respiratory problems, nervous system disorders, birth defects, and psychological illnesses, including anxiety and depression.[xi]
Other workers have complained of dizziness, vomiting, fainting, the appearance of white splotches on the skin, coughs, thyroid irregularities, and the disintegration of their fingernails as the result of handling of poisonous chemicals. The International Labor Rights Forum quoted Cath Murphy of the GMB, who reported, “The boys showed me their fingers, and their nails were all brown, unusually thick and infected. They told be that their nails drop off all the time. I only saw one boy wearing rubber gloves.”[xii] These workers were likely utilizing Diazanon, which both eats away at skin and also negatively impacts the human nervous system. Although many workers do wear protective clothing, they and their families still frequently experience direct contact with dangerous chemicals while doing the laundry (a task primarily undertaken by women).[xiii]
Of course, workers also suffer from physical ailments related to the repetitive and physically-intense harvesting demands of pineapple farming, and often complain of back, joint, and muscle pain.[xiv] The short stature of pineapple plants denies workers any protection from the sun, making the work at times not just terribly hot and uncomfortable, but even dangerous in Costa Rica’s tropical climate. Nosebleeds, fainting, and sunstroke are not uncommon among laborers.[xv]
Despite the severe health risks associated with the work, pineapple laborers are paid little for their efforts. In 2005, a report found that pineapple harvesters generally earned between $1-2 an hour, working 10-12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, numbers consistent with those that I gathered in interviews while in communities nearly 11 years later. Costa Rican workers thus earn only about half of the country’s per capita income of $10,300, making it nearly impossible to achieve a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.[xvi] In fact, workers reported that they estimate they would need to make nearly twice as much money as they do currently in order to earn what they deem a “living wage”.[xvii]
In addition, pineapple work is often seasonal, with workers being hired for harvests and then fired immediately following them until they are next needed, at which point they are re-hired later (generally later in the year in time for the next wave of harvesting). This “hire-and-fire” system keeps workers in constant fear of not being re-employed, discouraging them from joining unions or speaking out against low pay and poor working conditions. Additionally, nearly 70% of workers in the industry are Nicaraguan, and many are illegal immigrants. Without official papers or visas, Nicaraguan migrants feel unable to protest unfair and inhumane treatment for fear of deportation, undermining their power to assert access to basic human rights.
On top of contaminated water sources and dangerous agrochemical exposure, communities along pineapple transportation routes suffer the consequences of heavy traffic on rural roads, which are generally dusty and unpaved. Heavy trucks full of harvested fruit pummel down small communities’ dirt thoroughfares, sending up huge plumes of dust and exhaust into stores, small restaurants, and people’s homes, which are typically non-enclosed, unsealed spaces.
Local people explained that pineapple companies (naming specifically Dole in the interviews that I collected) usually fill in the roads’ biggest potholes with gravel prior to harvest and transportation time to avoid bruising the fruit. However, Dole has thus far refused to pave the roads, or to take any others steps in mitigating the risk to human health raised by hazardous particle pollution created as a result of their heavy truck traffic.
Unfortunately, the environmental impacts of large-scale pineapple production and conventional agricultural practices appear equally as severe as the human health consequences. Agrochemical use is not only harmful to human life, but also to the lives of important soil microorganisms and Costa Rica’s wild flora and fauna. Fernando Ramirez, leading agronomist at Costa Rica’s Toxic Substances Institute explains, “Pineapples need very large amounts of pesticides, about 20kg of active ingredient per hectare per cycle. The soil is sterilized; biodiversity is eliminated. Fourteen to 16 different types of treatment are typically needed, and many have to be applied several times.”[xviii]
In addition to rigorous agrochemical application, the monoculture design of pineapple fields harms the soil contributing to erosion and exposing the soil to intense UV rays. Marco Retana, professor of biology at University of Costa Rica, explains, “There are no grasses around them [the pineapple plants]. These are pineapples on totally exposed land. This causes serious erosion problems. After land is used for growing pineapples, it can hardly have any other function.”[xix]
In May of 2011, a Costa Rican environmental court ordered three pineapple plantations to be closed in Los Chiles and Guatuso (near the Caño Negro Wildlife and Wetland Reserve) after they were discovered to be destroying natural wetlands and tropical forest to make room for pineapple rows, illegally burning trees, misapplying agrochemicals, digging wells without proper authorization, and building infrastructure in areas designated as wildlife corridors.[xx] Other plantations have been accused of destroying wetlands as well, in addition to causing massive erosion, improperly discharging wastewater, and illegally cutting down trees.[xxi] As of 2014, Costa Rica’s Environmental Tribunal had 51 open cases against pineapple producers awaiting court days.[xxii]
Carlos Arguedas, an environment and health officer for SITRAP, a union representing tropical fruit workers in Costa Rica[xxiii], summed up the effects of pineapple industry on Costa Rica, writing, “All the pineapple production has done is generate money for the multinational companies’ foreign bank accounts. Here it only pays wages too low for people to live on and destroys our environment. This is not development. If anything, it is going backwards.”[xxiv] And yet, pineapple plantations continue to operate, and foreign consumers continue to buy fruit with little to no knowledge of the system they are complicit in.
Of course, part of the difficulty in holding companies responsible for the violence down their supply lines lies in the use of subcontractors, which allow large companies such as Dole and Del Monte (the two largest providers of both fresh and processed pineapple in the world) to pass off their legal responsibilities regarding labor and social benefits to third parties. Companies pay subcontractors to hire workers to work on land that is under the contractor’s name, rather than the company’s, and therefore legally outside of the company’s jurisdiction. Hence, even though subcontractors follow direct orders from the company, and the plantations foremen are company-employed, legally the workers themselves have no direct connection to the company. This system makes it difficult to charge companies with labor rights violations.[xxv]
Companies make it difficult for workers to voice their complaints or campaign for improved labor conditions in other ways as well. Hiring people as contract workers (of which 77% of those workers producing pineapple supplied to Dole are) prevents the vast majority of the workforce from having the legal right to organize into unions.[xxvi] Corporations in Costa Rica have deliberately violated rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining by installing “Permanent Committees”, made up of workers selected by the companies themselves, or by workers who are appointed by the broader workforce through elections heavily monitored and influenced by company management.[xxvii]. Permanent Committees are designed to step in and replace union leaders as the labor force’s representatives, with pineapple companies refusing to further recognize the unions, stating that they will only speak with their appointed Permanent Committee members.[xxviii].
There have also been reports of companies attacking unions more blatantly, including through the use of massive layoffs. Following blanket firings, the company typically re-hires the majority of its employees, with the important exception being those workers who have demanded rights associated with a union. An article in the Guardian reported the following example of such incidences:
“A member of the plantation workers’ union SITRAP had recently been persuading fellow workers to petition the company for independent union representation on its “permanent committee” that handles relations between employees and management. But everyone who had signed the petition had just been sacked. In 2007, there was a mass sacking, or “liquidaciones”, and rehiring at wage rates reportedly 40% lower than previously. Union members were rehired only if they agreed to give up their affiliation.”[xxix]
Pineapple farms sometimes also hire armed security guards to bar union representatives from speaking with workers, or install security doors to keep them out of the workplaces. The local management associated with Grupo Acon’s Piña Fruit, S.A, in partnership with Escuela Social Juan XXIII, initiated a particularly alarming anti-union campaign, in which workers were brought in to watch a video blaming the closure of Costa Rican banana plantations in 1984 on union work. The workers were warned that if they were to join unions, the same fate would likely befall pineapple farms, eliminating thousands of jobs (including their own). Threatening that union workers would be blacklisted, the company claimed that those who chose to join unions would therefore be unable to find jobs elsewhere should the pineapple industry fail.[xxx]
Exports drive the pineapple industry in Costa Rica. In 2015, the United States imported 53% of Costa Rica’s pineapples, with Europe snatching up the other 46% of the harvest. [xxxi] The United States now sources over 90% of its imported pineapple from Costa Rica, so that our grocery stores ands supermarkets are almost entirely filled with fruit produced by the two largest corporate world-wide producers: Dole an Del Monte. Small and medium producers report that these large corporations have been attempting to buy their land (often at undervalued prices) in order to solidify the monopoly of these two companies in the fruit industry. In most areas, where small independent producers still hold their land, they lease the area or sell their fruit to either Dole or Del Monte.
Few shipments heading to the U.S. and Europe are tested for agrochemicals, although according to Chris Willie, head of Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Program, importing countries (including the U.S. and European countries) do maintain testing requirements for imported agricultural products.[xxxii] In 2010, the UK Pesticide Residues Committee reported that 94% of tested fruit harbored triadimefon residues (a reproductive toxin and potential hormone disruptor). While the levels of detected triadimefon did not exceed those believed to be hazardous to human health, importing countries (and foreign consumers) should realize that by eating conventionally-produced fruit, they are not only complicit in an inherently violent system, they are also potentially putting their health at risk.
Thankfully, there are people and organizations fighting for a more just and environmentally-conscious future, including ASOPROAGROIN, an association made up of small producers dedicated to lessening the environmental impact of agricultural practices and “improving the social standards of workers and their families”. [xxxiii], [xxxiv]
In addition, Fair Trade and Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standards prohibit the use of many of the most toxic chemicals utilized in conventional pineapple production.[xxxv] Pineapples produced under these certification requirements are far better for the local people, the environment, and consumers. Of course, these products are more expensive than conventionally-produced fruits, but their avoidance of some of the most serious negative externalities related to industrial farming ensure a more sustainable future.
In fact, a multitude of actions, many on the part of the consumer, could dramatically improve the industrial pineapple industry and stop an impending environmental and human health disaster in Costa Rica. In my opinion, the U.S. government should review the ability of its trading partners in enforcing labor laws, and study the impacts of the world’s consolidation of food retailers and agricultural suppliers. Consumers in the U.S. and Europe can demand organic, Fair Trade Certified fruit, pushing for sustainable production systems across Costa Rica and other pineapple-producing countries. Such support would allow small-scale producers to succeed financially in growing food in environmentally-conscious ways.
Consumers can also put pressure on their grocery stores and on food suppliers to provide products produced under fair working conditions. In fact, employing consumer buying power can advance improved labor conditions and environmental practices for not just the pineapple industry, but in the entire global food production system.
Costa Rica itself must pass labor laws granting labor rights for both migrant and subcontracted workers. Companies should be held accountable for anti-union tactics and environmental degradation. Workers need to earn a higher wage, one on pace with the country’s rate of inflation. Protective gear should be mandated, and workers’ exposure to agrochemicals studied, regulated, and eliminated.
While the use of agrochemicals and the reliance on underpaid, exploited workers enables efficient farming, it’s important to realize that we are engaged in systems that are inherently violent and unsustainable. Conventionally-produced food that is not actually cheap. The price of conventionally-grown groceries is artificial, and hides the true cost of the poor agricultural policies, practices, and laws. We are turning a blind eye to not just the pineapple industry, but the entire industrial food system’s negative externalities: environmental degradation, inefficient water use and contamination, poor human health outcomes, and human rights violations.
Unfortunately, these are global issues that we are all called upon to address. From the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, to the algae blooms in Lake Erie, to the loss of Midwestern soil, to climate change, species extinction, worker exploitation, obesity, the problems of industrial farming are widespread in the U.S. as well.
We have a choice to stand up and change the world’s course, to stop the irreverent and unconscious descent into a chemically saturated world. Our present day reality is serious enough that just sharing the facts and stories becomes a form of activism. It’s time to let a vision of a more just, environmentally sustainable, and empathetic world carry us into the future. It’s time to demand better.
[i] Boddiger, David. “Costa Rica will go all-in on pineapple exports. But is that a good thing?”. Tico Times. 16 September 2014. http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/09/16/costa-rica-will-go-all-in-on-pineapple-exports-but-is-that-a-good-thing
[x] Acuña, “Guillermo, Situación y Condiciones de la Agroindustria Piñera en Costa Rica ASEPROLA,” February, 2005. p36.
Mariano, Pilarn “Caracterización de la Producción de Piña,” p16.