Pineapples in Costa Rica are getting, well, a little bit prickly.
On the heels of a massive expansion of pineapple farms across the country, concern is growing over just what environmental effects the industry is having.
Critics say the crop has led to deforestation, chemical contamination of groundwater, erosion and pest problems, to name a few.
One Caribbean community, El Cairo, has depended on water trucks for its drinking supply since tests found traces of the herbicide Bromacil in its groundwater more than two years ago (TT, Sept 21, 2007).
In a nation that ranks highest in Central America in its use of agrochemicals per inhabitant, per farm laborer and per cultivated hectare, pineapples require more pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals than any other crop, with the exception of bananas, according to the most recent State of the Nation report.
Meanwhile, pineapple plantations have seen an “explosive expansion” in recent years from 12,500 hectares planted in 2000 to 38,500 hectares in 2006, the report stated.
“Many companies that were banana plantations began planting pineapples because it is more profitable,” said Lourdes Brenes of the environmental group Foro Emaus. “This production is very aggressive toward the environment.”
Representatives from the industry say many of the claims are exaggerated and, when done properly, pineapple cultivation is a boon for the economy and environmentally benign.
“I can’t speak for the industry,” said Richard Toman, vice president for pineapple operations at Dole Fresh Fruit, one of the biggest producers in Costa Rica. “But I think that if somebody looks at (Dole’s) farms with an objective eye, and looks at the activities that take place and all the work we do, I would believe that we have a benign effect on the environment.”
Dole’s farms are monitored through a series of certification programs including ISO 14000, the Rainforest Alliance and Global Gap. This year, Dole launched its first organic pineapple farm, has carried out various reforestation campaigns and is working toward making its operations carbon neutral.
According to Toman, Dole expects to export 15 million 12-kilogram boxes of pineapples this year.
But what oversight does the government provide to the vast industry? How many of the 1,200 pineapple producers associated with the Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters (CANAPEP) are following Dole’s example?
According to Abel Chaves, president of CANAPEP, the industry is mostly self-regulated, with little government oversight.
“And really, it’s not just pineapple, but the entire agricultural sector that is stuck in this problem,” Chaves said.
According to Dole’s Toman, all agrochemicals used come with labels that specify detailed instructions for their use, according to limits set by Costa Rica’s Agriculture Ministry. Following these instructions to the letter, however, is up to the individual companies, he acknowledged.
“I remember the banana industry about 15 years ago going through the same thing the pineapple industry is going through now,” said Rudy Amador, Dole’s regional director of environmental affairs. “The industry is organizing better and communicating standards better.”
The enforcement of the nation’s environmental regulations appears to be the missing ingredient. Costa Rica’s foundational Environment Law was approved in 1995, but the regulations for how it was to be applied to agriculture didn’t come until 2004, said Chaves.
The agency in charge of making sure the agriculture industry – as well as the construction industry and every other industry in the country – is in line with the nation’s laws is the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry’s (MINAET’s) notoriously underequipped National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA).
In a brief phone interview, Sonia Espinoza, head of SETENA, said her office has permitted only one pineapple plantation in Costa Rica.
The Tico Times requested interviews with other officials at the Environment Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry that specialize in the issue, but received no response by late this week.
Espinoza did acknowledge that many plantations are operating without proper permits and, like any activity that has effects on the environment, pineapple plantations are required to submit environmental impact studies for approval to SETENA.
She added that some companies have submitted reports that are currently being processed, and representatives from the industry have approached her office to discuss bringing companies in line with Costa Rica’s environmental laws.
The one farm that has received SETENA’s approval, run by a company called Tico Verde, is now at the center of a volatile conflict with members of La Perla, a neighboring community in the midst of pineapple country just inland from the Caribbean coast.
Tico Verde launched its operations without receiving the proper permits four years ago, and after a series of closure orders, it controversially had its environmental impact study approved by SETENA in June.
“The practice has been that a company buys land and begins to plant pineapples. Once it receives pressure from the community, it begins to apply for its permits,” said Brenes, whose organization, Foro Emaus, has been monitoring pineapple plantations along the Caribbean slope since 2002.
Opponents have cried foul on Tico Verde, saying it falsified its environmental impact study, evidenced by references in the report to mangroves and pelicans – coastal plant and animal species that do not exist in the region.
“It looks like they were cut from somewhere else and pasted in,” Brenes said, noting that Tico Verde received its environmental approval based on this falsified study.
Tico Verde owner Alfonso Sancho was in Europe this week and could not be reached for comment.
Jorge Serendero, the director if SipCom Green Partners, a communications firm hired by Tico Verde in the midst of the growing criticism and conflict with La Perla, confirmed the allegations, however.
Serendero blamed the falsified impact study on the firm that Tico Verde hired initially to put it together.
“Unfortunately, the consultants were not sufficiently professional,” he said. “I understand that what was wrong has been objected by SETENA, and the proper changes have been made. The most important thing is the company’s disposition to do things right.”
Serendero said Tico Verde has followed all of SETENA’s instructions, and nearly all the complaints have been rejected by the agency and MINAET.
According to Serendero, the company hired an esteemed hydrology firm that confirmed that the plantation does come close to the local water supply. Of the 180 hectares that Tico Verde owns, he continued, only 80 are used for pineapple and the rest are for conservation.
“This is a farm that we can begin to present to the public as a project that could end up being an exemplary project,” he said.
Opponents in La Perla, however, have not been impressed. After a series of protests last month that grew more and more conflictual, Serendero, Sancho and others from Tico Verde agreed to sit down with the protestors to work out an agreement.
“There was an attempt to negotiate with the company. They were asked to change from pineapple to some other type of production,” said Brenes, who was at the meeting. “They don’t have to change it all at once, but they should begin to do it gradually. We do not want pineapples in our mountains.”
Tico Verde rejected the idea, and things got heated, witnesses say. According to Serendero, representatives of Tico Verde were then held against their will and not allowed to leave. Serendero said he was hit by someone in the crowd.
Brenes and others from La Perla say they blocked only the loads of pineapple being hauled out by tractor and allowed the executives to leave if they wanted.
Within weeks of the confrontation, three hectares of pineapple crops, nearing harvest, were hacked to pieces. The company said it was the work of the zealous, antipineapple protestors. Night watch security guards, they said, identified the culprits.
Brenes and others from La Perla deny the allegations, and say Tico Verde did it in an attempt to malign the community.
“The week before, people from La Perla had put up signs against the pineapple farm, which then appeared hacked up by machete, just like the pineapples,” Brenes said. “They want to bring down what has been a clean and dignified struggle.”
Dried and fresh pineapples were Costa Rica’s second biggest agricultural export last year, with exports totaling more than $485 million, according to the Foreign Trade Ministry (COMEX).
Pineapple exports have grown 25 percent in the first six months of this year.