By Christopher vanArsdale Christopher vanArsdale is executive director of the Costa Rican Audubon Society. SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA--Costa Rica, named for its luxuriant Caribbean shoreline as seen by Christopher Columbus in 1502, has long been known for its rich natural endowment and unique biological diversity. Its 20,000 square miles (about the size of West Virginia) account for only .003 percent of the Earth's surface, yet are home to nearly 5 percent of the plant and animal species known to exist on the planet. Strong health and education programs, a stable democracy and the relatively large proportion of national territory set aside for parks and protected areas have bolstered Costa Rica's image as a nation concerned about the conservation of its natural resources and the just treatment of its citizens. In recent years, however, this image has begun to fray at the edges, largely as a consequence of a development model which encourages large-scale agricultural production for export in order to service foreign debt. The banana industry, the country's second largest and an important source of foreign exchange, is currently undergoing a dramatic expansion. The government has proposed bringing nearly 21,000 hectares under banana cultivation with a target production goal of 90 million boxes of fruit for export annually. Spurred by tax breaks and incentives, banana companies are buying up new lands or re-occupying old plantations to the tune of 2,000 hectares per year, according to industry representatives. By some estimates, Costa Rica will overtake Ecuador this year as the number one exporter of bananas worldwide. The costs of surging banana production are high, however. Expansion is huffing a withering natural resource base and local populations are defenceless against exposure to large doses of toxic agrochemicals. Costa Rican indices of pesticide contamination and deforestation are now among the highest in the world. According to conservation groups and the Catholic Church, the continued unbridled expansion of the banana industry threatens to unravel the country's hard-won social and environmental achievements of the last four decades. Poisoning the workers Though consumers in the First World have become increasingly concerned with pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables, workers and their families in producer countries suffer the detrimental impact of exposure to agrochemicals more directly. The banana industry in Costa Rica is responsible for the largest proportion of total pesticide use in the country, accounting for 25 to 30 percent of all pesticide imports. On the plantations, pesticides account for 50 to 55 percent of the total cost of material inputs. One of the main reasons that Costa Rica has been capable of producing such a large volume of bananas for export is the heavy application of fungicides, herbicides, nematicides and other agrochemicals. Workers, their families and local populations near banana plantations, however, are literally absorbing the real costs of this heavy pesticide use. Although accounting for only 5 percent of the nation's rural population, approximately one-third of all reported pesticide poisonings occur in the banana-growing regions. Field workers suffer 250-300 pesticide intoxications annually. In a pending lawsuit filed in 1985 against the Standard Fruit Company, one of the principal transnational banana producers in the Atlantic region, workers sterilized by exposure to the nematicide DBCP are seeking compensation from the company and from the manufacturers of the product, Dow Chemical and Shell Oil [see "The South's Day in Court," Multinational Monitor, July/August 1990]. Company scientists knew DBCP was an extremely dangerous testicular toxin at even low concentrations when they performed their first toxicity tests in the mid-1950s. The substance, however, was so effective at controlling nematodes that Shell and Dow decided to market the product anyway. It is estimated that as many as 2,000 men were involuntarily sterilized by their exposure to DBCP throughout the 1970s. The Costa Rican government finally prohibited the import and use of the chemical in 1979. But this action did not prevent Standard Fruit from exporting its inventory of about 180,000 liters to Honduras, where managers continued to use it without fully informing workers of the dangers. After years of wrangling in the courts over the jurisdictional status of the Costa Rican workers' claim, the Texas Supreme Court agreed in March 1990 that the case could be heard in Texas courts. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld that decision. Having won this procedural victory, the workers may now seek compensation in U.S. courts for damages caused by exposure to DBCP. A second victory could significantly affect the way transnational corporations operate in the Third World, since the case would set a precedent for holding United States-based corporations accountable in U.S. courts for their foreign activities. In the meantime, however, workers continue to suffer the effects of acute pesticide intoxication, dermatitis, eye problems and chronic respiratory disorders caused by their exposure to chemicals on the plantations, and Costa Rica's nationalized health insurance company, the National Insurance Institute, is left to foot the medical bills of the poisoned workers. Poisoning the environment The expansion of plantations and the heavy application of agrochemicals also take a devastating toll on neighboring eco- systems. For optimum production, plantations must have an array of drainage ditches, all of which eventually empty into the region's rivers and canals. A large percentage of the applied pesticides are washed into these waterways and carried ultimately to the sea, with toxic consequences both for aquatic life and for the local human populations which depend on the various intermediate bodies of water for sustenance. Moreover, at least 25 percent of the pesticides applied by aerial spraying never reach their target but are instead unintentionally applied directly into ponds and streams or on farmland surrounding the plantations. All along the rivers and canals which run through dense jungle parallel to the shoreline from the city of Limon to the Nicaraguan border, the evidence of contamination from plantations is visible. Shreds of pesticide-saturated blue plastic, which comes from bags used to cover the bananas until harvest, dangle from tree branches near the canals' banks, clearly indicating the high-water mark. The bags, washed through the drainage ditches by heavy rains, also end up on beaches, clinging to coral or lodged in the stomachs of sea turtles. Local inhabitants of the canal areas, who depend upon aquatic life for food, have become accustomed in recent years to finding large numbers of fish floating dead in the waterways, killed by pesticide poisoning. Last July, in perhaps the largest single fish-kill to date, as many as half a million fish were found belly-up in the canals. In public announcements, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health exonerated the nearby banana companies of all responsibility for the accident, claiming that the kill was probably perpetrated by local fishers. Local people and conservation groups are skeptical of the government's pronouncements, especially since, according to Carmen Roldan of the National University's Environmental Science Department, "public access to the official investigation was denied." In another scene of environmental degradation, the once crystalline and vibrant array of coral reefs along Costa Rica's Caribbean shore is now nearly 90 percent dead as a result of pesticide run-off and sedimentation, mainly from banana plantations. In a 1987 study of Costa Rica's Caribbean coral, the International Marine Life Alliance states that of all activities "that have driven material, debris and wastes into the sea, none can equal the sheer annual tonnage of sediment that flows from the Atlantic-slope banana plantations." Erosion from the plantations along the Sixaola, Estrella and Matina rivers has sent volumes of pesticide-laden soil into the waterways which eventually finds its way to the shore and smothers the fragile reefs. The impact of coral death goes far beyond its scenic value for beach-goers. Living coral is a primary determinant of productivity in shore fish and invertebrate populations, providing a sink for nutrients which form the base of a complex aquatic food chain. The coral colonies support populations of lobster, crab, snapper, bass, jack and a large variety of tropical ornamental fish, all of which represent economic resources for local communities. Thousands of people, especially descendants of Jamaican immigrants whose culture is closely tied to the sea, depend upon the continued productivity of the reefs. Local fishers say, however, that fishing for a living has become exceedingly difficult in the Caribbean coastal waters over the last 10 years. Marketable ornamental species, which are perhaps the most coral-specific of all fish in the area, are also declining in numbers. If present trends continue, the region's capacity to support ecologically sound development alternatives, such as harvesting ornamental fish, oysters and lobster, may be eliminated. The expansion of banana plantations in the area and the visible environmental damage that results also clash with the economic interests of the tourism industry. Tourism, the third largest industry behind bananas, depends on the maintenance of Costa Rica's scenic beauty and its conservationist image abroad. The Caribbean is an extremely popular destination for sports fishing and tourism and accounts for a substantial percentage of the industry's total income. Few tourists, however, will be attracted by dead rivers and poisoned beaches. Modesto Watson, a tour boat operator in the region, comments, "I'm afraid we don't have too many years left before they kill this area off." According to many agricultural scientists, the plantations could reduce their agrochemical use while maintaining reasonable levels of production. Integrated pest management, biological controls and other organic farming techniques offer ecologically responsible alternatives to complete dependence on chemical pesticides. Hernan Rodrigues, an expert in integrated pest management with the National University of Costa Rica, says, "the technology used on today's plantations is based on the idea imported from industrialized countries that yield increases can only come from massive use of chemical pesticides. This technological package is inappropriate for our reality." A switch to practices less dependent on agrochemicals, however, would probably require a lowering of cosmetic standards for fruit in consumer countries. None but the most perfect, unblemished bananas ever reach the supermarkets of Europe or the United States. Consumers in these countries may have to learn to accept slightly blemished or smaller bananas if pesticide contamination in producer countries is to be reduced. Poisoning social conditions "Banana development" has serious social consequences as well, often dividing families and communities dependent on the multinational corporations for their livelihood. In the 1989 year-end Pastoral Letter of the bishopric of Limon province, church leaders issued a scathing condemnation of conditions created by the expansion of banana plantations and called on the government to re-evaluate its policy of expansion. The church leaders focused especially on the unstable and migratory nature of plantation work and its effect on families and communities: "The traditional structure of our families is suffering a grave alteration due to the instability and the economic uncertainty caused by the continual migration of family members. The consequences are becoming more and more evident disintegration of families (incomplete families), deterioration in the education of children, conjugal infidelity and a lack of time and space for family dialogue and recreation." Banana companies "maintain about 60 percent of their workers on a permanent basis, but keep the other 40 percent on temporary contracts which can be renewed every two and a half months," according to Carlos Acuna, former director of labor relations for the Del Monte subsidiary, Bandeco. This not only allows the companies to avoid making social security payments for nearly half their employees, but also assures that labor will remain quiescent. "Workers are afraid they will be placed on the computerized blacklist maintained by the companies and never again be able to find a job. Any worker known to have participated in union activities in the past will be denied work. I know because I managed that list when I worked for Bandeco," explains Acuna. Temporary workers do not receive permanent housing, their families may be required to relocate several times within a short period and their work schedule is highly irregular and often determined by the arrival of cargo boats. Though workers' salaries are high compared to those of other agricultural sectors, the extra earnings are absorbed by the higher living costs on the plantations. Furthermore, the collective bargaining position of workers has deteriorated markedly in the last decade. Though Costa Rican law guarantees workers the right to organize in unions, the companies have effectively squashed all union activity. Companies coerce employees into joining "solidarity" organizations dedicated to "harmonious" employer-employee relations. Union sympathizers quickly lose their jobs and find themselves blacklisted. The solidarity groups can organize social events for the workers, but they cannot strike for better working conditions. Today's bread, tomorrow's hunger At a recent forum of church groups and environmental and development organizations, Monseigneur Alfonso Coto, bishop of Limon province, described "banana development" as "seeking today's bread and tomorrow's hunger." Dr. Isabel Wing-Ching, sociologist at the University of Costa Rica and longtime researcher of the banana industry, added that "today's bread is not for everyone." The wealth created in the production of bananas is concentrated in the hands of a few multinational companies. Though the banana industry provides needed jobs and some tax revenue for the state, the government has not scrutinized the long- and short-term costs and benefits of banana expansion. The already visible environmental and social damage caused by the activity portends more drastic consequences in the future. If Costa Rica is to avoid "tomorrow's hunger," its policymakers must not wait any longer to seek responsible alternatives to the present model of "banana development."