Costa Rica's pineapple monopoly is not so sweet: opinion

Costa Rica, seen as a Latin American success story for its stable democracy and environmental success, has a significant environmental and social blemish: the pineapple industry.

Costa Rica’s largest agricultural export, pineapples, brings in more than US$800 million annually, but it has brought about environmental problems that are increasingly hard to ignore.

Of all the countries in Central America, Costa Rica is the most unlikely candidate to appear before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). Seen as the region’s success story, Costa Rica abolished its army, championed stable democratic development, and recently built an image as ecotourism destination.

Yet, the country has a significant environmental and social blemish: the pineapple industry. Costa Rica’s largest agricultural export brings in more than US$800 million annually. Extensive pineapple production has catapulted the tiny country (similar in size to West Virginia) to global leadership, supplying 60 percent of worldwide exports—but also brought about environmental problems that are increasingly hard to ignore.

Pineapples are inherently inefficient to grow: each plant only produces two fruit over a period of 18–24 months, and requires significant amount fertilizer to do so. Today’s monocropped varieties rely on heavy use of agrochemicals, including bromacil, diuron, and glyphosate.

Once harvested, farmers leave the remains of plant in the fields, the conical stem of which fills with rainwater and serves as a nursery for bloodsucking stable flies (also known as cattle flies). These swarms have a devastating effect on nearby cattle, causing huge weight loss and decreases in milk production. The only solution—up to now—was the use of yet another herbicide, paraquat. Employed to dry rotting stems, this substance is so toxic that Europe has banned its use. In 2007, the multinational agrifood corporation Dole pledged to discontinue the substance in its global agricultural operations, but had to make a one-year exception for Costa Rica pineapple production due to the stable fly problem.

The IACHR case, heard on March 20th, concerns communities surrounded by large monoculture plantations that must drink trucked-in water, since toxic agrochemicals have contaminated the groundwater. This is only one of the industry's alleged human rights violations: there are also concerns regarding the labor conditions among workers that may have illegally migrated from Nicaragua, as well as  and the loss of food sovereignty for local communities.

For many years, the monoculture industry maintained there was no alternative to agrochemical use—but change is on the horizon. A pilot project championed by Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE), the country's electricity provider, is testing the possibility of harvesting residual stems and converting the plant waste into biogas though biodigestion. The biogas could replace fossil fuel energy and organic fertilizer, a by-product, could substitute nitrogen-based inputs. The removed stems would prevent stable flies from proliferating—no paraquat needed. The only drawback: moving and fermenting the pineapple-stump residue is more expensive than just leaving them on the fields. This brings the question to us, the final consumers: How much more would you pay for your fruit salad if you knew its producers were trying to avoid pollution and human rights violations?

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