The problem with pineapples

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Social problems

Approximately 70% of workers in the Costa Rican pineapple industry are Nicaraguan migrants. These migrant workers are the secret to Costa Rica’s pineapple success, providing a cheaper and more flexible workforce. Many have no official papers or visas leaving them particularly vulnerable to the power of their employers, who can sack and deport them at any sign of trouble, i.e., if they complain about working conditions or join a trade union.

Around 50% of workers on Costa Rican pineapple plantations are hired through subcontractors who provide a flexible, low paid and non-unionised workforce. They also allow the producing companies to avoid direct responsibility for ensuring adequate working conditions in line with national and international labour laws.

Most workers do receive a salary above the national minimum wage but may have to work up to 14 hours a day, 6 days a week to earn this salary. Many pineapple workers earn around half of what they deem to be a 'living wage'.

Pineapple companies increasingly prefer to employ men due to the 'high costs' associated with employing women, such as maternity pay. For those women that have secured work the conditions can be very difficult, such as discrimination and, in some cases, sexual harassment. The long working hours are particularly challenging for women who are left with no spare time to care for the family and household.

The level of union organisation is extremely low (about 2%) in the Costa Rican pineapple industry. Union members can face discrimination, persecution and sometimes violence. Anti-union tactics include:

  • moving union members to undesirable and low paid jobs
  • mass redundancies, with only non-union members being re-hired
  • putting union members on ‘black lists’, preventing them from finding work on other plantations.

Agrochemicals - human health and environmental problems

Pineapple production is characterised by large-scale, high-input and monoculture plantations dependent on regular and intense use of a number of toxic agrochemicals. The poor environmental practice of both national and international producers is leading to environmental problems of contamination of local aquifers and ground water, erosion, sedimentation and deforestation.

Many local communities have had their natural sources of drinking water contaminated, for example in the communities of El Cairo, La Francia and Luisiana in the Southern Atlantic zone of Costa Rica where over 6,000 people have to rely on government tanks to deliver drinking water supplies to the affected region. Health impacts such as skin diseases, respiratory problems, gastric illnesses and birth defects have been reported in local communities.

Despite national and international campaigns to halt the damaging expansion of pineapple production and hold companies responsible for their actions, environmental regulations continue to be violated; the pineapple companies’ economic and political power secures their impunity.

Case study: Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs) in Costa Rica

The small Central American country of Costa Rica has one of the highest intensities of pesticide use in the world, despite its renown for being a peaceful, eco-friendly tourist destination, rich in biodiversity. Pesticide imports have risen steeply during the past three decades: from an average of 2,521 tonnes during the late seventies to 12,396 tonnes by 2013. Pesticide use intensity exceeded 18 kg of active ingredient per ha in 2006, a much higher rate than in most developing countries and 80% of which are considered highly hazardous pesticides (HHP).
Pesticide use is particularly high on export crops, including banana, coffee, pineapple and melon, which generate significant foreign exchange earnings and jobs. Large commercial estates, medium-sized family farms and smallholders are all involved in export production, often in monoculture systems and reliant on high levels of agrochemical inputs. Costa Rica is famed for its coffee and bananas, yet recent years have seen a three-fold increase in pineapple cultivation, from 12,500 hectares in 2000 to 40,000 hectares in 2009.
Many of the pesticides used are highly hazardous in terms of acute toxicity, chronic health effects and/or environmental contamination. The fungicide mancozeb forms the highest volume of imports and is used intensively in banana and pineapple cultivation, sometimes via aerial spraying. 

Concerns for human health and the environment

Unsurprisingly, high use levels and frequent exposure led to harmful impacts for workers and farm families. Farmworker exposure concerns in the early 2000s included:
  • Handling of chlorpyrifos-impregnated covers for bananas (a practice now phased out by certified plantations)
  • Dermal exposure to fungicides in fruit packing plants
  • Weak compliance with, and inadequate monitoring of, occupational Health & Safety norms. 

Smallholder farmers growing export and basic food crops face different exposure risks, related to knapsack and motorised spraying with inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and poor understanding of acute and chronic health hazards. National statistics from 2008 revealed an average of 100 fatal poisonings per year, with methomyl causing the highest frequency, followed by paraquat and terbufos3. Over 200 cases of acute poisonings annually were also recorded, raising concerns that commercial agricultural interests were overriding public health and environmental protection goals. 

Biomonitoring studies found that tissues of children living close to banana plantations were contaminated with 2-5 times the levels of chlorpyrifos and mancozeb metabolites than children close to organic farms. Indigenous communities growing plantain and coffee were at severe risk due to their increasing use of highly toxic products, e.g. manual application of terbufos with zero protection.
A serious level of water contamination by bromacyl, diuron and diazinon was documented in watercourses, groundwater and wells. Bromacyl use in pineapple production led to residues in water sources 20 times higher than EU permitted levels for drinking water. Pesticide spray drift or run-off into watercourses triggered numerous mass kills of fish and other aquatic life near intensively cultivated crops. Some banana plantations were associated with overspraying, drift and contamination of neighbouring villagers, crops and livestock, with repeated incidents of non-compliance with national laws on buffer zones and other risk mitigation measures.

Recent steps in risk reduction

Successive Costa Rican governments have recognised these serious problems and introduced legislation to try and place stricter controls on pesticide distribution and use. For example, in 2008 tougher restrictions were imposed on the herbicide paraquat, following official recognition of high risk of occupational and accidental health effects, notably dermal exposure in workers. All aerial spraying with this herbicide is now banned and paraquat products can only be purchased via professional ‘prescription’. In the same year the organochlorine insecticide endosulfan was banned for aerial application and use for rice production. In 2007 the government prohibited the insecticide monocrotophos and in 2012 the registration of insecticide azinphos methyl was cancelled. 
Despite these efforts, decrees aiming to restrict and reduce use of HHPs have not delivered their objectives, while the country’s regulatory system and controls still struggles to tackle the high frequency of fatal and acute poisonings linked to inappropriate handling of HHPs. For example, in 2010, 87 workers, including 28 women, on large cotton farms were affected in two separate mass intoxication incidents, both following crop spraying of organophosphates the previous day. People suffering serious respiratory problems, high blood pressure, skin rashes, fainting and dizziness were taken to local clinics, with ten workers needing emergency medical attention. 

Photo 1: Migrant worker's family, Costa Rica pineapple plantation
Photo 2: Chemical hazard warning sign, Costa Rica pineapple plantation