Costa Rica’s green paradox

Costa Rica's green paradox

Jorge Castro (on the right), a cattle farmer from Los Chiles, in northern Costa Rica, saw his herd wiped out by the “fly plague” linked to intensive pineapple production. He is organising alongside other farmers, like Alvaro Alvarez (centre), to denounce the problem.

(Stéphanie Nedjar)

One meeting follows the next, in rapid succession, at the office of Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, minister of the environment and energy, in the Costa Rican capital of San José. From 8 to 10 October, Costa Rica, a small central American country of five million people, a trailblazer and model of ‘green’ development, hosted a preparatory meeting for the COP 25 climate change conference that was supposed to be held in Chile this December, but has since been relocated to Madrid, Spain following massive protests against inequality in the country.

The minister, with his neatly trimmed beard, knows his subject, having served as environment minister under a previous government, as deputy director of the tropical agronomy centre CATIE, as the country’s national parks director and as vice president of Conservation International.

“This ministry, with an annual budget of US$120 million and a staff of 2300 people, is bigger than that of much larger countries, such as Mexico or Colombia, and bigger than all the other environment ministries of central America put together,” says Rodriguez, with pride, in an interview with Equal Times.

“Look at this map,” he says, holding out his smartphone. “These red areas are satellite images of the forests burning in Mexico and all over central America, except in Costa Rica, where it’s green. It wouldn’t make any economic sense for Costa Rica to burn forests,” he exclaims. Indeed, the flora and fauna are the national wealth of this country, home to six per cent of the world’s biodiversity and host to over two million tourists a year, nature lovers in the main and, more importantly, an essential source of foreign income.

In the 1950s, Costa Rica protected the areas surrounding volcanoes and promoted the creation of national parks and private reserves, which now cover around 25 per cent of the nation. In 1996, Costa Rica went a step further, adopting legislation that launched the ‘payments for environmental services’ (PES) scheme, to fight deforestation. The system involves rewarding farmers and forest owners who provide environmental services such as conserving forests, planting trees and creating carbon sinks.

It is a resounding success. Costa Rica has tripled its forest cover, taking it up to around 60 per cent of its land surface, within 30 years. “The green factor in Costa Rica is crucial not only to the tourism industry but to the economy as a whole. Costa Rica is also genuinely dedicated to good governance. Our current president Carlos Alvarado has renewed the ban on oil prospection in the north of the country and in our territorial waters,” Francisco Alpizar, a Costa Rican economist and associate professor at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, tells Equal Times.

From a very young age, children are taught to respect and protect nature in Costa Rica’s schools, both public and private, where they learn to plant trees, to take care of plants and animals, to sort and recycle waste, and talk about ecology and climate change. “Preserving and respecting nature are values and principles that are just as important as democracy, human rights and peace,” insists Rodriguez.

In addition to its protected spaces, Costa Rica can also take pride in generating electricity that is almost 100 per cent green, thanks to hydroelectric energy, wind and geothermal power. And it has set itself the task of becoming a totally carbon-free, zero-waste economy by 2050. Costa Rica has just passed a law to completely eradicate single use plastic by 2021 and hopes to eliminate carbon emissions, 60 per cent of which come from transport, by taking advantage of its green energy and promoting a shift towards electric vehicles, buses and trains by offering incentives, raising diesel prices – a politically sensitive issue – and removing all taxes on electric vehicles.

The government is also planning to introduce an electric train service covering 73 kilometres, connecting the country’s four main cities, San José, Cartago, Alajuela and Heredia, while unclogging its roads. Works on the US$3 billion-dollar project are due to start in 2022. “The aim is also to create jobs. And that’s crucial, because there is concern among many politicians and other sectors that our decarbonisation policy could limit growth,” says Rodriguez.

Environment damaged by intensive pineapple production

Whilst Costa Rica boasts many virtues, one sizeable paradox remains: intensive farming and the excessive use of chemical products that damage the environment and people’s health. How can it be that a country so dedicated to sustainable development is also the country that uses the most pesticides per hectare in the world (almost 20kg per hectare, according to Costa Rica’s Institute for Research into Toxic Substances – IRET)? “The figure for pineapple reaches 45kg per hectare. It is 70kg per hectare for banana, and 3kg per hectare for coffee,” says IRET researcher Fernando Ramirez Munoz.

The situation is particularly alarming in the pineapple sector. “Pineapple producers, mainly foreign companies, use dangerous products on a massive scale, such as bromacil and ametryn, which have long been banned in Europe, and diuron, which is banned in France. These pesticides pollute water, harm aquatic fauna, and provoke skin, nervous system and gastric disorders among the local communities. There are fumigations almost every week. Bromacil was banned in Costa Rica by a decree passed in 2018, but it is still being used as the ban only covers imports, not the use of existing stocks,” Fabiola Pomareda, a Costa Rican journalist specialising in environmental issues, tells Equal Times.

According to the National Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters (CANAPEP), Costa Rica produces 2.9 tonnes of pineapple per hectare, even more than the Philippines (2.5t/h) and Thailand (1.9t/h). Within 15 years, it became the world’s leading exporter of fresh pineapple, selling mainly to the European Union (44 per cent) and the United States (53 per cent).

Another negative aspect of pineapple is its intensive monoculture in certain areas (such as Los Chiles) and most particularly in the north of the country. “Monoculture causes soil erosion, deforestation, biodiversity loss and the spread of disease such as the stable fly pest that is wiping out cattle,” Mauricio Alvarez, a geographer and coordinator of the Kioscos Ambientales (Environmental Kiosks) project at the University of Costa Rica, tells Equal Times.

The Costa Rican Conservation Federation (FECON) and CoecoCeiba - Friends of the Earth Costa Rica recently called for a moratorium on the expansion of pineapple growing, given its impact on the environment, local communities and climate change. According to FECON’s calculations, pineapple producing companies destroyed over 5,560 hectares of forest cover between 2000 and 2015, increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the country by 1.2 million tonnes of CO2. Pineapple growing is still expanding and currently covers 67,000 hectares of land.

An issue of compliance

The surprising element in this story is how little Costa Rica earns from the pineapple trade. There is practically no tax on pineapple production – FECON is campaigning for taxes to be introduced – and its impact in terms of the jobs it provides is quite limited. According to Canapep, it provides 32,000 direct jobs, but 70 per cent of these are filled by seasonal workers from Nicaragua, many of whom are employed illegally.

For Alvarez, the problem lies in the lack of control and regulation in the sector. Costa Rica leaves the market to regulate itself. “And Costa Rica’s trade unions are weak, unorganised. People have got into the habit of relying on the state,” he says.

“This is a small country and the problem is our capacity to enforce the law, to ensure compliance,” says the environment minister. “Sustainable development is not part of the big foreign agribusinesses DNA. There has already been a crisis in the banana sector in Costa Rica, linked to the use of pesticides and their impact on the environment, and they have changed their practices. But when they started producing pineapple, they didn’t transpose those good practices.”

Alvaro Alvarez, a 60-year-old small farmer from Los Chiles, in the north of the country, on the border with Nicaragua, is embittered. “The pineapple industry has ruined the ecosystem in Costa Rica, its diversity. The pesticides have contaminated our water wells and made the land infertile. People are getting ill,” he tells Equal Times, adjusting his straw hat.

Fifty-six-year-old Jorge Castro, standing alongside him, holds the same view. Three years ago, this former livestock farmer lost his entire herd of around 20 cattle due to the flies proliferating as a result of intensive pineapple growing. “We were ruined. The flies make the animals anaemic and they end up starving to death. I went up to the capital with a few animals and my horse, to protest peacefully against the problems caused by intensive pineapple farming. But I wasn’t listened to. I was even told that I was a traitor, that I was contradicting the green development discourse and damaging the country’s image. I was offered money to shut up and was even threatened,” Castro tells Equal Times.

Castro and his partner Mariana are now living off food crops and a little trade. They also take part in reforestation projects. Jorge remains active, on social media, denouncing the ravages of the pineapple trade in Costa Rica.

For Rodriguez, part of the solution also lies in greater awareness amongst those buying agricultural produce: “Ultimately, it is the end consumers that determine the rules. The day Europeans no longer want chemically grown pineapples, they will stop buying them, and the producer companies will have to adapt to the market.” Those, at least, that do not turn towards new horizons. The last two years have seen an increase in pineapple exports to China, a country less attentive to the conditions under which they are produced.

This story has been translated from French.