The government of Costa Rica announced on 16 May that it is to ban the use of the toxic chemical herbicide Bromacil throughout the country.
The chemical is widely used by pineapple farmers, but poses a high risk of contaminating groundwater and affecting human health. Effects on human health include irritation to the skin, eyes and the respiratory tract, vomiting, muscle weakness, and diarrhoea, whilst it has also been linked to thyroid, liver and kidney cancers.
“We have analysed, from the environmental point of view – that Bromacil is highly toxic, especially to humans, and is highly soluble and finds its way into groundwater after application,” said environmental expert Elidier Vargas, who explained that this same groundwater ends up being used for human consumption.
The decree would establish conditions under which the product could be used, as according to the agencies, many growers don’t realize that their plantations sit on top of aquifers. Together, the agencies would establish a permanent monitoring system to determine the efficiency of the restrictions.
The decree establishes a six-month period for pineapple farmers to stop using the herbicide and change their farming procedures to combat weeds.
In banning Bromacil, Costa Rica will be joining countries such as Germany, Belize, Slovenia and Sweden, who have already imposed a ban due to its impact on health and the environment.
Calls for halt to pineapple expansion
The announcement of the ban comes amid calls from environmentalists and trade unionists for a halt to the expansion of pineapple production in the country. This included at recent demonstration in San José against a the granting of a permit for pineapple farming to a local subsidiary of Del Monte in Costa Rica’s Southern Pacific region.
Opponents of the permit claim that the new 602-hectare area is too close to various protected areas, including the Térraba Sierpe wetland and four archaeological sites recognized as World Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Among the protesters at the Legislative Assembly were lawmakers and other leaders from the left-wing Broad Front Party, including Edgardo Araya and former presidential candidate José María Villalta. Araya said that President Luis Guillermo Solís’ administration promised to issue a moratorium in order to investigate and curb all the damaging practices, “but it’s obvious they are afraid of the big pineapple companies.”
Pineapple production in Costa Rica has been broadly criticized for years following public reports of cases of health problems in local populations caused by the contamination of soil and water with chemical substances used in farms.
Farm workers also have filed complaints for abusive labour practices, alleging violations such as 12-hour shifts and prohibitions on union activity. Companies growing pineapples have also engaged in disputes with indigenous peoples over land ownership.
Banana Link partner union in Costa Rica - SITRAP (Sindicato de Trabajadores de Plantaciones Agricolas) – has issued a statement in opposition to the expansion. They point out that while politicians and producers celebrate the contribution of pineapple production to the Costa Rican economy, they ignore the high costs in terms of damage to the environment and human health and the violation of human rights.
Environment Ministry (MINAE) investigation
MINAE officials are currently investigating the complaints about the project, and conducted an on-the-ground inspection on the farm on 9 May. Following the inspection, government officials recommended halting all work on the farmlands until measures are taken to protect wetlands and other protected areas.
The report recommends stopping all actions aimed at removing vegetation until MINAE’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) conducts a proper delimitation of the three wetlands near the farm. The document also recommends ordering the project’s developer to establish clear boundaries on the property “so that all farming activities are conducted outside the wetlands.”
Legal moves are also being taken to halt the damaging effects of pineapple production. Mauricio Álvarez, president of the Costa Rican Conservation Federation (FECON), said in a public statement, to coincide with the demonstration, that they had filed legal claims against two decrees recently approved that “would hurt the rights of indigenous groups and local farmers, and that would favour big companies.”
The first legal action seeks to protect the ownership rights of local seed varieties from transnational companies. The other aims at eliminating a decree that allows companies to register agrochemicals here without a local evaluation of its possible effects.
Update - 22 May 2017
Since publication of this article, the Costa Rican government has reportedly ordered the temporary closure of a pineapple farm belonging to Pineco, a subsidiary of US multinational Fresh Del Monte Produce, over concerns about the safeguarding of nearby wetlands and a Unesco World Heritage site.
Sources – various Costa Rican news reports