The bitter truth about sweet pineapples from Costa Rica

These days, those juicy sweet pineapples that catch our eyes in the supermarkets come with a bitter truth. Its production causes dramatic social and ecological costs in Costa Rica, the leading country for the international pineapple trade and largest supplier to the European Union and the United States.

Who doesn’t love a fresh pineapple, for its sweet tropical flavour and yummy taste? Since 2000 the worldwide demand for this fruit has skyrocketed to around 300%, and the pineapple industry in Costa Rica has been trying to keep up with this trend, by substantially increasing its production. The sector has grown from 3,400 ha in 1986 to an estimated 42,000 ha in 2013.

Pineapples are low in cost in the supermarket, but cause a high environmental damage

Its intensive agriculture has been delivering pineapples to our supermarkets at incredible low prices, bumping up its consumption and increasing even more its demand. Even though low prices may seem to be a good thing, favouring its consumers, its over production in Costa Rica has been marred by allegations of environmental damage, from deforestation and wetland destruction to the development of plantations, to the chemical poisoning of the soil and water supplies. From the intensive agrochemical application that jeopardizes the plantation workers lives and those of the people living nearby, to the low wages and workers’ rights abuses, with serious disregard for trade unions rights.

The latest report from the international NGO Oxfam Deutschland, entitled “Sweet fruit, bitter truth” and published in 2016, states that the conditions on the plantations have hardly improved since 2008 or 2011, when their two last studies on pineapples and bananas from Costa Rica and Ecuador were released. This report assigns responsibilities for the inhumane conditions on the plantations to several German supermarkets, such as Aldi, Lidl, Edeka and Rewe, for abusing their market power in forcing down prices paid to producers and suppliers. From 2002 to 2014, the import prices for pineapple decreased by approximately 45%, despite its increasing production costs. This contributes to low wages and to the perpetuation of unstable employment conditions for the plantation workers, who are unable to support their families.

Additionally, pineapples are usually cultivated in pesticide-intensive monocultures, contaminating the groundwater in several cultivation areas, where water tankers are still needed to provide drinking water to the communities. Because of that, many of the surveyed workers also reported a high rate of disabilities, miscarriage and cancer in the areas around plantations, as well as frequent respiratory disease, nausea, skin allergies and dizziness. Making it clear that necessary occupational health and safety measures are missing on many plantations. Moreover workers also complained about their working hours, sometimes up to twelve hours, and the breaches of their trade union rights, which remain a serious problem.

A taste of a new future for the pineapple production

To definitely end this impossible situation, all parties need to take action, in order to improve the working and living situation of the people providing us with these delicious crown-wearing tropical fruits. Supermarkets have been compromising to their ecological and social responsibility and for pineapples they rely increasingly on the Rainforest Alliance label. However, the report from Oxfam shows that this does not solve the biggest problems such as pesticide contamination and the violation of employment laws. They should start a change by ensuring humane working conditions and paying fair prices to their suppliers. Plus, governments from importer countries should take part on this as well, by binding companies to respect human and employment laws at their suppliers too, and in Costa Rica governments must rigorously enforce compliance with employment and environmental laws. And, of course, consumers should consume such products consciously, and give priority to fair-trade fruits, labelled as being good for producers’ working conditions as well as the environment, while participating when possible in highly visible activities, such as petitions that may exert some pressure on supermarkets to pay suppliers fair prices and guarantee that their suppliers offer good working conditions.

There are also organic farmers in Costa Rica, who work their own land and control pests by rotating crops and building up the health of the soil, and therefore the ability of the plants to resist them. Although, with the prices of conventional pineapple being slashed across Europe, sometimes people are not willing to pay that extra money for a more ethical production, and fair-trade pineapples find it difficult to have a market for them and eventually end up being sold as though they were conventionally grown, risking the sustainability of their businesses. The same happens with organic pineapple producers from other countries, and that is why it is so important to change our behaviours and to build a greater awareness about these industries. On the other hand, new businesses have been emerging supported on the pineapple scene in Costa Rica, with a more ecological purpose.

New perspective with eco projects in Costa Rica

One of these, is a project developed by the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) in coordination with the Ministries of Agriculture and Livestock, of Environment and Energy, and of Economic Planning and Development, that will start operating in the farm Valle del tarso, which is devoted to the organic production of the fruit, and seeks to reduce the amount of waste generated by the pineapple harvest by transforming its production waste into an environmentally friendly fertilizer. This way, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and improving the structure of the soil. Also, since organic waste, such as that from pineapples, contains biomass with energy potential, it can be used to generate electricity, making it an alternative source to the hydroelectric energy used in the country.

Other interesting project is Piñatex, with a new leather-like material made from pineapple leaves that is an invention of. Dr Carmen Hijosa, who dedicated her life to creating sustainable alternatives to leather and petroleum-based textiles. The production of this eco-leather also creates a by-product of biomass which can be returned to the farmers to be used as fertilizer on their plantations.

Meanwhile, the Costa Rican Government has recently ratified an initiative that will promote a more responsible production and trade of pineapples in the country, by implementing a monitoring system available for the national and international public and supporting the implementation of key actions in sensitive areas like training, soil management, and agrochemical control. Thus, we really hope the first steps to revert the pineapple over production impacts are starting to being taken, as people are slowly becoming more aware of them.

A very similar story happens with “ananas” (French and German word for pineapple) with a b, that reads b-ananas. Bananas! Another yummy tropical fruit that inhabits our supermarket shelves at much lower prices than the social and environmental cost it actually has. But that’s a whole other story…a b side story for this one, we could say! Please make sure, you also become aware about it, to make conscious choices when picking your daily fruits.

Related Links

OXFAM: The power of people against poverty

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