The problem with pineapples

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In the developed world, we are lucky enough to be able to purchase exotic fruits like bananas and pineapples off supermarket shelves at an affordable price, but how often do we stop to think about how the fruit got there? The supply chain and the workers themselves? As with any large-scale production, there are a number of issues in the pineapple industry.

Similar to the banana industry, four major groups control the supply of pineapples to developed countries. These are: Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita, and Fyffes. This leaves little room for independent producers in the market.

You can read more detail about the problems below about the social, human health and environmental problems of pineapples below. This video provides a good introduction to how cheap labour and pesticides mean low prices for pineapples in European supermarkets.

Social problems

Migrant workers:

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. They provide a cheaper and more flexible workforce. Many have no official papers or visas, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to the power of their employers, who can sack and deport them at any sign of trouble, for example, 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.


In Costa Rica, the typical wage for pineapple workers is above the national average at €73 per week. However, they are expected to work at least 80 hours per week to earn this 'privilege'. Many pineapple workers earn around half of what they deem to be a 'living wage'.

Gender discrimination:

Unemployment amongst women in Costa Rica is around 11.2%, and 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. A report by Banana Link looking at the pineapple industry in Costa Rica found that three women working on one PINDECO (a Del Monte subsidiary) plantation alleged severe cases of sexual discrimination and harassment from male plantation managers. Women have also reported being sacked for becoming pregnant. The long working hours are particularly challenging for women who are left with no spare time to care for the family and household.

Trade unions:

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 ‘blacklists’, preventing them from finding work on other plantations.

Human health and environmental problems and agrochemicals

Use of chemicals

Pineapple production is characterised by large-scale, high-input and monoculture plantations dependent on regular and intense use of a number of toxic agrochemicals. In Costa Rica, pineapples are harvested twice a year, and more than 50 different chemical substances and 30-38kg of chemicals are used per year on one hectare under cultivation. Some of the chemicals like Paraquat are not licensed for use in the EU and are classified by the US as likely to be carcinogenic. According to the law, people working with pesticides are only allowed to work for 6 hours a day, but workers are often engaging in longer hours.

Environmental issues

Moreover, the poor environmental practice of both national and international producers is leading to environmental problems of contamination of local aquifers and groundwater, soil erosion, sedimentation and deforestation. Many local communities have also 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 also 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

(Source: Pesticide Action Network UK and Oxfam report)
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. For exampe, the heavy use of pesticides, especially Bromacil, has caused groundwater contamination already in 2007. Since then, the towns of El Cairo, Milano and Francia have been supplied water via a water tanket which comes every other day. The supply of water is limited: 12,000 litres every other day for approximately 1,000 families. 
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 that rely on high levels of agrochemical inputs. Costa Rica is famed for its coffee and bananas, yet recent years have seen an increase in pineapple cultivation, from 1.68 million tonnes in 2009, to 2.36 million tonnes in 2013.
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. So far, the pineapple industry has not had to pay damages for the harmful effects of pesticides nor pay for the provision of drinking water via water tanker. Currently, 44 lawsuits are pending before the environmental administrative court; the oldest one stems from 2001. Since March 2015, the case of the victims of contaminated water is being dealt with before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In April 2016, residues of the chemical Bromacil were found in the groundwater of the cultivation areas situated in the North of Costa Rica. The residents of Veracruz, La Trinidad, Quebrada Grande, San Marcos and San Luis de Veracruz are affected by this. The waterworks of Veracruz, whose source is surrounded by pineapple plantations and which is located in close proximity to the nature conservation area Refugio de Vida Silvestre de Caño Negro, has been closed. The smallholders in the growing regions also suffer as a result of the pineapple plantations. The plantations contribute to the spread of the biting housefly, which in turn bothers cows and goats. As a consequence, they produce less milk and meat so that people are forced to sell their emaciated animals.  

Concerns for human health and the environment

Unsurprisingly, high use levels and frequent exposure to chemicals leads 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 terbufos. 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 skin tissues of children living close to banana plantations were contaminated with 2-5 times the levels of chlorpyrifos and mancozeb metabolites children close to organic farms had. 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

The Costa Rican government has recently announced a 5 year moratorium on new pineapple farms. Local councils in the Los Chiles district will study the impact of monoculture pineapple plantations on the district's water supplies, as well as social biodiversity and social development. This step was enabled through the work of SITRAP and environmental campaigners.
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