San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Growing Pineapple Industry Elicits Calls for Regulation

(Part two in a two-part series on Costa Rica’s pineapple industry.)THE cha-ching of the pineapple industry cashing in on rocketing export figures strikes a dissonant chord in the ears of environmentalists and labor organizers.Environmentalists decry plantations they say are poisoning drinking wells and breeding swarms of bloodsucking flies, while the workers’ unions with their paltry membership lists complain of harassment by strong-arm owners. The complaint echoes that of banana workers’ unions, but one organizer summed up the difference like this: “In the banana plantations I can drive my truck under the trees and talk to workers without their bosses seeing me, but in the piñeras (pineapple plantations), they can see everything,” and threaten and fire the workers.Even the growers and exporters agree the industry needs a tune-up with a sudden spike in production on dozens of new, smaller plantations that compete with the industry’s giants – Del Monte and Dole. The new truckloads of fruit are a strain on the narrow, mudslide-prone highways and antiquated ports and customs operations, and insiders worry the market is saturated and prices will drop.DROPPING prices worries the social sector as well, raising the specter of unemployment if all of a region’s eggs are in one basket. Exports grossed $257 million last year – more than double their 2000 value – and have rocketed upward 34% this year over last.In the past ten years, growers cleared more than 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) in the Atlantic lowlands, where the fruit thrives with the steady dose of agricultural chemicals any expanse of a single crop needs to fend off pests and disease.Some of the pineapple producers are former banana growers who jumped off that train when banana prices plummeted in the 1990s. Others cleared forested land to plant their suckers and slips – offshoots of the pineapple used to grow new bushes. Clemence Rupert, professor at the Regional Institute of Toxic Substances Studies, part of the Universidad Nacional, conducted a study of wells in the Atlantic pineapple country and, though he was barred from some of the big fields, he found traces of pesticides in the water both on and around the plantations.“IT won’t hurt people at those low levels,” he said. But “from my point of view, chemicals shouldn’t be in the water – the water is for consumption.”Government help could be on the way as soon as next year, according to José Matarrita, engineer for the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA). He said with a proposed budget hike under examination now, AyA will be able to send more agents into the field and enforce the law.“AyA is very concerned about protecting springs and wells. We hope things will be better next year. We will extend our watch to the affected zones and act more quickly on the complaints we receive,” he said.BLOODSUCKING flies, or Stomoxis calcitrans, plague cattle farmers around the plantations, making cattle lose their appetites and sucking off an average of one kilogram of weight from each animal every day. The cattlemen blame the plantations, saying the flies breed in the rotting piles of leaves left over after the pineapples are plucked and groomed for shipping. José Martí, a small-time cattleman in El Humo, a village in Pocosí, on the Atlantic slope, stretches sticky white plastic sheets between stakes around his fences, each about three feet by two feet, to catch flies.“When the flies are bad, you put up a trap and it’s full in four hours,” he said. He and the other cattlemen in the area never saw such swarms until five years ago, when the plantations set up around them.Though pineapple growers have blamed the cows’ own waste in the fields for spawning the flies, the Agriculture Ministry (MAG) agrees the piñeras either cause or aggravate the problem.However, in a candid moment, regional MAG director Lloyd Foster said, “We’re aware this is a problem, but we’re talking about a crop that is very profitable… very profitable for the businessmen.”HE acknowledged the responsibility plantation owners have to dispose of their waste properly, tempering it by adding, “We don’t want to go to extremes. We want to allow for pineapple production in a way that’s harmonious with nature, God willing.” He complained that MAG has its hands tied with a limited budget for enforcing cleanup while cattlemen are calling for the declaration of a state of emergency as they watch their cows shrink daily.On the labor front, the roster of the Plantation Workers’ Union (SITRAP) bears about 400 names, including banana and pineapple workers. It is the only such union in the Atlantic, and its membership is dismal considering its pool of thousands of workers to draw from. Countrywide, pineapple plantations employ 14,000 workers and banana plantations employ22,000.Didier Leitón, organization secretary for SITRAP, said this is because “it’s almost impossible to unionize. Owners fire people who affiliate, or bribe them not to join.”The union is too weak to effectively counter the issues he said dog workers, such as low wages, no lunch breaks, long workdays and a lack of shelter in the fields from sun and rain.WORK in the piñeras is not seasonal, like work on the sugar and coffee fields in the central mountains. More Costa Ricans than Nicaraguans work on the pineapple plantations.Abel Chaves, president of the National Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters, said producers strictly adhere to the labor laws, paying at least minimum wage, which the Labor Ministry reports is ¢4,188 ($8.60) per day.Rodrigo Jiménez, president of Del Monte’s pineapple division, the Pineapple Development Corporation of Costa Rica (PINDECO), said his company pays about 40% above minimum on average. Most of PINDECO’s operation is on the southern Pacific coast, with contracted independent growers in the Atlantic.FORO Emaús, a human rights and environmental action group, funded a study in which hundreds of workers were interviewed last year about their wages and working conditions. It reported that PINDECO field hands were paid minimum wage and were not compensated for working overtime.Chaves acknowledged that “we can’t say we are infallible; in a sector that, like this year, has about a 30% growth rate, it’s logical that some will (break the law), but that doesn’t imply the sector is working irresponsibly.” In fact, he said, socially and environmentally, the sector is “very, but very, very responsible.”

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