Serious abuses of labour rights in Costa Rica and Honduras

At the beginning of October this year (2019) Banana Link issued the following report.  We are grateful to Banana Link  for their work and reports.

Key words: Banana Link; labour rights; minimum wage; social insurance; exposure to hazardous agrochemicals; Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code; blocking of collective bargaining; Fyffes; ANEXCO; Suragroh.

“They never contributed to social insurance and now I will not be able to retire or finally rest after so many years spent on the plantations. I have to continue looking for work to survive.” – María Gómez (65) who worked for nearly 30 years as a supervisor at Melon Export SA

Since the summer of 2015, the Make Fruit Fair! campaign has collected evidence of very serious violations of core labour standards at specific Fyffes’ subsidiaries; ANEXCO in Costa Rica and Suragroh and Melon Export SA in Honduras, where a largely female workforce, reliant on temporary seasonal work, is particularly vulnerable.

These violations include: failure to pay minimum wages and social insurance (an estimated £2.5m in pay and social insurance has been withheld); exposure of workers to hazardous agrochemicals; failure to respect freedom of association including threats, harassment and sacking of union members; and blocking collective bargaining processes.

In the case of Suragroh, Make Fruit Fair partner Banana Link and the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) has alleged breaches of the UK’s Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code for failure to respect unions and pay living wages, and Fyffes has refused to participate in local mediation to remedy these.

“I got pregnant, and they do not allow pregnancy” – Marys Suyapa Gómez, sacked for being pregnant after working at Suragroh for 15 years

The Honduran Labour Inspectorate has also found non-payment of minimum wages and other statutory benefits. Additionally, a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Labour confirmed allegations that Suragroh failed to pay the minimum wage, among a lengthy list of other violations.

Workers are required to provide their own work equipment such as hoes, machetes and shoes, the costs of which can amount to an entire week’s income.

Workers are also exposed to hazardous chemicals, many reporting headaches, sickness and temperatures as a result, and report a lack of information about and training to avoid and be protected from the dangers of chemical exposure. In December 2015, about 100 women suffered poisoning, 14 of whom were hospitalised, after they were accidentally dropped off downwind of herbicide and chlorine spraying in an adjoining plot.

You can read more about working conditions at Suragroh here:

Meanwhile, at ANEXCO, dialogue facilitated by the Costa Rican Ministry of Labour has failed to provide a space in which local unions can negotiate with ANEXCO management and Fyffes, and the local unions report continued failure to comply with core labour standards enshrined in Costa Rican legislation.

The rights abuses at ANEXCO are the subject of an ongoing Make Fruit Fair urgent action launched in September 2015. The key demands of respect for labour rights and an end to harassment and discrimination against union members have yet to be met.

Both cases clearly illustrate that Fyffes is also in breach of OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises for the failure to “Respect the right of their employees to be represented by trade unions”.

“Fyffes in Honduras does not respect the fundamental rights of women workers; the majority of employees are women who have up to 26 years of work without social security rights or social benefits. We demand respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining.” – Iris Munguia, Coordinator, COLSIBA (the Regional Coordination of Latin American Banana & Agro-Industrial Workers’ Unions)

Banana Link and many of their partners from Europe and Latin America wrote to Fyffes Chairman, David McCann, in November last year asking him to take action to address these issues, but we received no response.

Historic moment in Costa Rican labour history

By Bert Schouwenburg

We are grateful to Bert Schouwenburg and to Banana Link for permission to reproduce this article. It was first published in The Morning Star who did not reply to our request for permission to reproduce the article. It was later produced in the first edition of the Banana Trade Blog which is produced by Banana Link (www.bananalink.org.uk )

Trade Union leaders are no stranger to hyperbole but when public sector union, ANEP’s General Secretary, Albino Vargas told delegates at the annual general assembly of SITRAP  (Agricultural Plantation Workers Union) that the event came at a historic moment in Costa Rica’s labour history, he was not exaggerating.

The assembly was held on January 20th [2019] in the heart of Limón’s banana growing zone at the Pococí Expo Centre in Guápiles. The 700 SITRAP members and their families were bussed in from all over the region during an operation that, for some, commenced at 3.30am to ensure that everyone was present for breakfast and an 8am start. Previous assemblies had been held at a much smaller venue in Siquirres where SITRAP have their premises, and before that in the main hall of their building itself when active membership of the union was at its lowest ebb.

GMB’s relationship with SITRAP began in 2003 under the auspices of NGO Banana Link’s ‘Union to Union’ programme aimed at establishing direct links with workers in Latin America’s tropical fruit plantations. SITRAP was in dire straits, its membership decimated by a sophisticated and ruthless campaign, headed up by the Costa Rican government, to drive trade unions out of the banana industry altogether. In the early 1980s, the then powerful unions’ fight for better working conditions prompted the employers to close down all their farms on the Pacific coast and throw thousands of people out of work. In a sustained propaganda exercise the closures of what were uneconomic plantations was blamed on trade union militancy and intransigence.

To this day, criticising the unions for the Pacific coast closures is an integral part of the banana producers’ strategy to dissuade workers from forming and joining them. Aided and abetted by the San José dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church, who have described them as being the work of the devil, they have spread the doctrine of ‘Solidarismo’, a concept enshrined in Costa Rican law whereby workers are encouraged to elect representatives to ‘permanent committees’ who then conclude ‘direct agreements’ with management to the exclusion of independent trade unions. Needless to say, these agreements are presented to the committees on a take it or leave it basis with no room for negotiation. Solidarista associations have been formed throughout the length and breadth of not just the banana industry but also in plantations growing pineapples of which Costa Rica is the world’s number one exporter. Where union organisation appears, workers are harassed, intimidated and, if they do not renounce their membership, are sacked and blacklisted.

One of GMB’s first initiatives was to raise funds so that SITRAP could complete much needed renovations to their building in Siquirres, a successful project that led to the assembly hall being dedicated to the late Brian Weller, a much-loved activist from London, in whose name the money was collected. This was followed by a memorandum of understanding between the unions and a two year funding agreement that kept SITRAP afloat and gave them breathing space to build their organisational capacity in an extremely hostile environment.

Slowly, but incrementally, SITRAP built its membership base in hostile multinational company farms belonging to Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole and also in plantations owned by vehemently anti-union national companies such as the Acon Group who made sure that the union could not make the sufficient inroads needed in order to reach the density required to trigger recognition, by sacking members under any pretext. However, a significant breakthrough occurred in January, 2016 when, after an 18 year struggle, the Labour Reform Process Law was put onto the statute book. This landmark piece of legislation dramatically speeded up the glacial pace of Costa Rica’s labour code and enabled workers to bring claims of unfair dismissal to court within days and empowered judges to order immediate reinstatement pending a full merits hearing. At a stroke, the legislation deprived employers’ ability to arbitrarily dismiss trade unionists at will, safe in the knowledge that cases brought against them could take years to be heard. Unsurprisingly, private sector employers are lobbying furiously to have the law overturned.

The cumulative effects of SITRAP’s continuing membership drive, the space afforded to it by the passing of the new law, and the pressure being brought to bear by motivated consumers in European markets allowed the union to make members to such an extent that, after 9 months of negotiation, it was able to sign a recognition agreement in a Del Monte plantation just before the assembly, the first such agreement to be concluded since the 1980s. It was this that prompted ANEP’s General Secretary to comment on the historic significance of the moment.

Banana production in Costa Rica, and elsewhere in Latin America, faces an uncertain future. The purchasing power of European and North American retailers has squeezed the margins of the multinational producers who are no longer the dominant force that they once were. The downward pressure on costs has been passed on to workers who find themselves the victims of a race to the bottom as producers react to the price wars of major supermarkets, particularly in the UK. The huge mono-crop plantations, drenched in pesticides, are environmentally disastrous and are prone to disease. So far, the deadly fusarium wilt virus has been kept at bay in Latin America but if it takes hold, that could be the beginning of the end for the industry as we know it and explains why serious thought is now being given to multi-cropping and diversification away from the ubiquitous Cavendish banana that is intensively farmed throughout.

For the thousands of workers in the Costa Rican banana industry, it is essential that they have a collective voice that can be heard, however the industry develops. SITRAP’s re-emergence as a significant player is therefore vitally important and they deserve the continued support of unions like GMB, and UNISON who have also given valuable assistance, especially as so much of the fruit their members produce finds its way into the UK’s fruit bowls.  

ANEP have produced the video report of the event below, which includes contributions from the General Secretary of SITRAP, Didier Leiton, Alistair Smith of Banana Link, and Bert Schouwenburg, who represented the GMB at the meeting.

700 agricultural workers attend historic SITRAP assembly from Banana Link on Vimeo.



Bert Schouwenburg
11 February 2019

Nicaraguan coffee farmers seek creative solutions to drought, climate change

by ZACH DYER, November 26, 2014

This story was originally published in The Tico Times. It is reproduced here by kind permission of The Tico Times. http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/11/26/nicaraguan-coffee-farmers-seek-creative-solutions-to-drought-climate-change

Key words: Coffee cultivation; coffee rust (roya); climate change; waste water management; river pollution

MATAGALPA, Nicaragua – Coffee drinkers in the United States reach for a warm cup of joe when the crisp autumn wind blows in November, but meanwhile, farmers in Nicaragua are looking at their coffee trees with trepidation.

The coffee harvest in Central America started in November but many farmers here have little to do. Drought ravaged much of Central America — especially Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras — earlier this year, and farmers are feeling its impact now. Fields that should be full of coffee pickers are empty. Mills that should be guzzling red coffee cherries by the basketful sit with their tanks nearly empty. Many farmers say the harvest could be four weeks late, at least.

A view of the upgraded wet mill at La Hermandad Cooperative in San Ramón, Matagalpa, Nicaragua, on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. (Zach Dyer/The Tico Times)

A late harvest doesn’t necessarily augur a small harvest, but it does mean farmers who rely on coffee as their main income will have to stretch their budgets for another month after several years of slim earnings. This year’s drought, attributed to the El Niño weather phenomenon, is the latest hurdle for Central American coffee farmers who have seen their crop yield dwindle because of the devastating leaf rust fungus known as roya.

Francisco Blandon, a coffee farmer in the steep green hills outside Yali, Jinotega, said that two years ago he noticed the rains were no longer reliable. “It was dry when it should’ve been wet, and wet when it was supposed to be dry,” he said. Blandon said that a lack of rainfall and lingering damage from roya cut his harvest by 70 percent, to 53 60-kilogram bags of green coffee during the 2013/2014 season, compared to 184 bags in a normal year.

Francisco Blandon balances the pH of coffee wastewater on his farm in Jinotega, Nicaragua, on Nov. 20, 2014. (Zach Dyer/The Tico Times)

Blandon isn’t alone in his assessment. Drought and increasingly unpredictable rain cycles are among the symptoms of climate change that scientists say are making coffee a risky investment for farmers on the isthmus. Amid these conditions, farmers and other stakeholders in the coffee business have begun to look for ways to reduce the caffeinated crop’s environmental impact with a special eye on water management. A series of pilot projects in Nicaragua funded by the Dutch government and the sustainable certification label UTZ Certified have seen positive results in reducing water consumption, treating wastewater and providing farmers with a clean burning fuel as a by-product. Coffee is Nicaragua’s most valuable agricultural export and employs thousands in the poor Central American country. Changing the way farmers process their coffee for market could have a significant impact on the quality of life and environment in many coffee-growing communities here.

Effluent from El Carmen wet mill before treatment in Diriamba, Nicaragua. The wastewater has an average pH of 4, the same as acid rain. (Zach Dyer/The Tico Times)

Regardless if the coffee is organic or not, wastewater from coffee processing plants has been cited as a major source of river pollution in Latin America. The red fruit must be cleaned off the coffee in a process called de-pulping before the beans ferment, dry and are milled for export. Traditional de-pulping wet mills use large amounts of freshwater to transport the fruit though various stages of the milling and fermentation process. After de-pulping, the water is a brown frothy sludge. Coffee wastewater has a typical pH of 4 — the same as acid rain— compared to a neutral pH of 7 for pure water, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Farmers and processing plants would traditionally dump their coffee wastewater straight into streams without any treatment. The organic matter in the effluent encourages bacterial growth that pulls oxygen out of streams and lakes, suffocating fish and other marine life. A report from the Guatemalan Instituto Centroamericano de Investigación y Tecnología Industrial estimated that the processing of 547,000 tons of coffee during a six-month period in 1988 created the water pollution equivalent of the raw sewage from a city of four million people.

Blandon said that people downstream of his coffee farm would complain of stomach pains and irritated skin after drinking or bathing with water from the stream during the harvest.

Rigoberto Mendoza, another farmer outside Yali, has been farming coffee for 30 years. “Before, I didn’t understand the impact I was having on other people. I was harming them and others were harming me,” Duartes said, wearing a cowboy hat as he looked downhill from his farm.

Both Blandon and Mendoza were selected among the first 19 UTZ pilot programmes here that started rolling out in Nicaragua in 2010. Water savings are achieved by recycling water up to three times through the mill before the discharge is sent to a septic tank where the large solids are filtered out and the remaining fluid passes on to a bio-digester. There, the effluent mixes with manure and bacteria breaks down the organic matter from the coffee, producing methane gas that is captured and stored for use later. Filters in the digester isolate the physical waste from the water, which can be sent to a retention pond after lyme and other bases are added to it to reduce its acidity. At this point, the wastewater’s pH and organic concentration levels are safe enough to release back into the environment.

Before and after: Coffee wastewater prior to treatment, left, and once it’s safe to release back into the environment, right, at El Carmen laboratory in Diriamba, Nicaragua. (Zach Dyer/The Tico Times)

Small farmers benefit from these programmes, but they also have application for large commercial wet mills. In the Pacific town of Diriamba, CISA Exportadora — the largest exporter of coffee in Nicaragua, accounting for 30 percent of the country’s annual crop — has reduced its water consumption by 70 percent at the El Carmen wet mill, according to Tito Sequiera, vice general manager in Nicaragua for Mercon, the mill’s owner. CISA has the largest wet mill in Nicaragua and processes some 2,300 metric tons of green coffee, consuming up to 3,000 litres of water daily, depending on the volume of coffee processed. Before, CISA used 1,500 litres of water to process 256 kg of coffee fruit; now, the wet mill has reduced its water usage to 400 litres to process the same amount of coffee. Besides using less water, El Carmen’s water management system reduced contamination in the effluent by 80 percent.

“I’m from this area. For me, this project lifted a weight off my conscience because before I knew we were polluting,” said Gilberto Monterrey, chief of operations for the CISA wet mill. Monterrey said that CISA used to receive complaints from the community about the effluent’s vinegar-like smell. “You’d smell it in the homes and when it rained, the [retention] ponds would overflow. With this project, all that stopped,” he said.

 

(I am also grateful to Zach Dyer for his permission to use his article in The Violence of Development website, as well as to The Tico Times. Amongst all the negative news of violence from the region of Central America, it is pleasing to be able to report on developments that have a beneficial effect on both people and the environment.)

 

http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/11/26/nicaraguan-coffee-farmers-seek-creative-solutions-to-drought-climate-change

Costa Rica: the country that turns its back on the consequences of pineapple cultivation

The following comment was received from DELFINO.CR in Costa Rica on 23rd January 2019. It may now be a little out-of-date but its subject typifies the attitude of the Costa Rican government to the dangers of mono-cultivation and over-use of pesticides over the last two decades. Beware the country that internationally paints itself so green whilst at the same time turning a blind eye to the contamination and health risks it creates through its pineapple mono-cultivation.

Key words: Costa Rica; pineapple cultivation; pesticides (bromacil); water source contamination.

Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court ordered six institutions to initiate the clean-up of six water sources which supply residents of Río Cuarto de Alajuela and which were contaminated with the herbicide bromacil. It has been established that all of these institutions knew of the existence of complaints about pollution risks for various water sources in the affected communities and, well, they did nothing.

The declaration was made as a result of a protective measure imposed by the Associations of Aqueducts and Sewers of Santa Rita, La Tabla and Santa Isabel de Río Cuarto de Alajuela which published the following communication:

“The Magistrates declared with reference to the resource that for years the institutions involved – the Costa Rican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers, the Administrative Environmental Court, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, the Fitosanitary Service of State and the Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle Ranching – knew of the existence of complaints about the pollution risks in diverse springs in the affected communities, but despite that, they failed to comply with their obligation which was to coordinate the environmental action between the institutions and to exercise the precautionary principle necessary for this type of problem. What happened in this crisis of drinkable water was contamination by agro-chemicals in the Brenes, Nicrodal, La Flor del Acueducto de Santa Rita, la Flor del Acueducto de Santa Isabel, La Culebra and Nicolás Rodríguez springs.”

  • As a result of this, the listed institutions must immediately begin the process of cleansing and eliminating agro-chemical residues from the water sources which supply the communities of Santa Rita, La Tabla and Santa Isabel de Río Cuarto de Alajuela; it is well known that in the past these were contaminated with bromacil, but nobody did anything about it.
  • Pineapple plantations, pineapple plantations, pineapple plantations, and again! And the State looks away – again. Because as if the medicine hadn’t already been bitter enough to swallow, the day has come when the new edition of the ‘Cards on the Table’ programme, in which this time RT International decided to test the water and to remind us of the very high price that the country pays for its exports of pineapples.
  • The programme, which is in the round table dialogue style, includes the presence of a UNDP official in sustainable development and resilience, Kifah Sasa, environmentalist Mauricio Álvarez of the Ecologist Federation of Costa Rica, and the environmental lawyer and legislative advisor, Sofia Barquero. They discussed the consequences of the billions of dollars which enter the country from the cultivation of pineapples. These are consequences which everyone talks about but which we ignore, preferring to look in the other direction.
  • According to the UNDP data provided by Sasa, Costa Rica produces 50% of the fresh pineapple consumed in North America and 50% of that consumed in Europe. What makes it so attractive for the consumer is that what we produce is sweet enough for it to be marketed elsewhere. Twenty years ago, we used to split our tongues eating pineapples. Well now with our pineapples that doesn’t happen and it has become an export of preference. What happens is that now these consequences aren’t felt by our tongues but in the environmental impacts and the denunciations against bad labour practices which are associated with this cultivation.
  • “In Costa Rica the pineapple plantation which becomes the norm is the exception,” said Sofía Barquero in a warning that couldn’t be sharper: namely that by putting 58,000 hectares under pineapple production, we are trampling the environment underfoot. As well as the denunciations about bromacil and multiple pollutants associated with this mono-cultivation, we can add that last year the UNDP reported that between the years 2000 and 2015, 5,565.9 hectares of forest cover were lost to pineapple production, to which we should add the erosion of soil, the loss of cattle through the pineapple fly and the non-compliance with labour laws, already well-known.
  • In fact, a denunciation has been made this very week on the Twitter account of the Executive President of INAMU and the Ministry of the Condition of Women, Patricia Mora, which announces that: “The situation of women in many of the mono-cultivation plantations of our country (pineapple, banana, yucca and melon plantations) is one of absolute disrespect of their labour rights. Since I have been in the National Institute of Women, INAMU has held meetings with women workers in this sector who have presented me with their denunciations and looked for support in defence of their rights.”
  • Right at the beginning of this year we can tell you of the denunciations made by the workers of the Bellavista Packers on the northern border, who told us that they had been sacked for having been affiliated to the union, and that they had even been obliged to sign work agreements which RT International made known when it reported on pineapple cultivation in this green and democratic country.
  • According to UNDP data, a high percentage of the country’s pineapple plantation production is controlled by 40 large companies with enormous names such as Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte which are supposedly the easiest to control because of the power behind their name.
  • There are, however, the others, the small ones of which there are more than 1,400 and which are the most polluting and which fail to address denunciations. Those companies then sell to the large companies which in their turn can wash their hands of the responsibility, declaring that it is small ones that are guilty because they are the ones that don’t have the necessary technology to ensure that their agro-chemicals don’t contaminate the soil or that can’t pay appropriate wages, etc, etc.. And so, once again, they all wash their hands and turn their heads away.
  • This is ‘the price of the sweet fruits’, as the title of the German DW described it last year in its report on our country’s pineapple production. The report indicated that in Germany each fruit costs between 1 and 3 euros (between 700 and 2,000 colones) giving a total of 1 billion dollars that reach the state but not the wages of the workers, nor the cleanness of the rivers contaminated with bromacil. That is the issue that we must begin to see, without looking the other way, thereby genuinely calculating the true cost of the 2 million tonnes that we export every year.

“To grow organic is to think different”

The case studies involved in this report and the video link with it come from the Banana Trade Blog produced by Banana Link. The case studies are not from Central America (which is the region of concern for this website), but the issue of organic production of bananas and other tropical produce is of considerable interest to all the producers of such fruits within the region of Central America, especially in the light of increasing resistance of pests to the use of chemical pesticides – and here we refer the reader to the timely article in Media Nature that warns of the most recent banana epidemic to reach the Americas – the article is included here in this month’s updates to The Violence of Development website. So the conclusions to be drawn from the Banana Link blog article and video are certainly of relevance to Central America.We are grateful to Paul Lievens and to Banana Link for permission to reproduce the article in this website.

26 July 2019
By Paul Lievens  – comms@bananalink.org.uk
Banana Link Communications & Policy Officer


There is a growing recognition in the global export banana trade that the prevailing intensive monoculture production model is not sustainable, and that the development alternative production models is a pressing necessity. There is a limited shelf life for a production model that, through increasing reliance on agrochemicals, creates negative impacts on human health and the environment, while also making the predominant export cultivar, the Cavendish, increasingly vulnerable to disease.
 
There are, in some parts of the banana producing world, producers, both big and small, who are pioneering viable alternative production models. Production that utilises integrated pest management (IPM) principles, that employs polyculture or intercropping practices, along with those employing wholly organic methods.
 
As a contribution to the debate, Banana Link is working within the World Banana Forum’s Working Group on Sustainable Production Systems and Environmental Impact to produce a series of case studies documenting viable alternative production methods. 
 
The first of these case studies has just been published. It takes a look at the successful development of organic banana production by Compagnie Fruitière, primarily at its subsidiary Golden Exotics Limited in Ghana (500 ha), and to a lesser extent at SCB in Côte d’Ivoire (100 ha) and Finca la Valentina in Ecuador (150 ha).
 
We have produced this case study, as we also intend with elements of subsequent case studies, in video format, which you can view at the foot of this article. The video isn’t intended to rehearse the arguments in favour of organic production. I don’t think anyone would argue with the reduction in the negative impact on human health, the environment and ecosystems that results from switching from chemically reliant to organic production. But what people do want to know is whether organic production is viable, sustainable and profitable, and if so, how it is achieved.
 
So, in the video we take a look at the technical challenges of organic production, including management of pests, diseases and water resources, and the impact of climate change. In Ghana, the dry, and drying, climate is admittedly more favourable to organic production. For example, the leaf fungus Black sigatoka thrives better in more humid conditions, while nematode pests aren’t present in Ghana. Not that this has deterred Compagnie Fruitière from developing organic production in the more challenging humid climate of Ecuador.
 
By utilising organic fertilisers, biological and mechanical control of pests, and cover crops to maintain soil fertility and retain water, the French fruit producer has been able to successfully develop organic production over the last four years and is planning to double that production significantly in the coming years.
 
And the bottom line, from a commercial perspective, is that organic production is, in this case, more profitable than conventional chemically reliant production. While there are increased labour costs, for example for manual weeding, the increased price at which organic bananas are sold in a growing European market for organic bananas means they are better able to cover the costs of production. But we won’t spoil the video by repeating here their comparative figures for labour costs, fertilisation, yields and margins between conventional and organic. We’ll leave you to watch the video yourself.
 
As Golden Exotics’ Director of Operations, Johan Glo, says at the conclusion of the video, “To grow organic is to think different”.

The video can be viewed at:

The text and video are also available in Spanish too:

http://bananalink.org.uk/es/%E2%80%9Ccultivar-productos-org%C3%A1nicos-significa-pensar-de-manera-diferente%E2%80%9D-0 If you would be interested in supporting this work, or would like to know more, please contact Paul Lievens at comms@bananalink.org.uk

Copyright © 2019 Banana Link, All rights reserved.

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Alarm as devastating banana fungus reaches the Americas

The region produces most of the world’s banana exports — and the fungus affects the most popular commercial variety.

Jonathan Lambert

19 August 2019

Reproduced from Nature Briefing

A worker at a multi-national banana company selects bananas for export in Uraba, Colombia. [Credit: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty]

A banana-killing fungus that has been laying waste to crops in Asia and Australia for decades is now in the Americas, which produce the majority of the world’s banana exports.

Colombia declared a national emergency on 8 August after laboratory results confirmed the presence of the fungus, known as Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4), within its borders. This marks the first confirmation of TR4 in the Americas. The Colombia Agricultural Institute (ICA), a federal agency tasked with overseeing agricultural health in the country, says that about 175 hectares have been affected so far.

Officials quarantined four farms on the Guajira Peninsula in the northern part of the country in June, when they first suspected that TR4 was killing banana plants in the region. But scientists now fear that the fungus has spread beyond the containment zone and could threaten banana production in the Americas for decades to come.

TR4 infects several varieties of banana and plantain, but is particularly harmful to the Cavendish, which is the main variety sold in grocery stores and accounts for the lion’s share of international exports. [Credit medianature.com]

“These epidemics develop slowly, so the [spread] will take some time,” says Randy Ploetz, a plant pathologist at the University of Florida in Homestead. “But eventually, it will not be possible to produce Cavendish for international trade.”

The TR4 strain — which started destroying Cavendish crops in Asia in the 1990s, then spread to Australia and, later, Africa — infects banana plants through the roots and spreads throughout the vascular system, starving the plant of water and nutrients. The fungus can be transmitted by moving infected plants from one area to another, or through water and soil.

It can’t be controlled with fungicides, so the main way of dealing with TR4 is to try to stop it spreading (see ‘In the Americas’). The ICA says that it has eradicated most of the plants from infected fields, but TR4 can linger in the soil for roughly 30 years.

“Soil is very difficult to contain,” says Fernando García-Bastidas, a plant pathologist at KeyGene in Wageningen, the Netherlands, who led the TR4 testing effort on the Colombian samples. “Who knows how many cars and people have entered that farm and carried

[the fungus]

elsewhere?” Containment efforts can slow the fungus’s spread, and Colombia is doing all it can, says García-Bastidas, but once TR4 arrives somewhere, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.

Nature | The Springer Nature Campus, 4 Crinan Street, London, N1 9XW, United Kingdom

Nature Research, part of Springer Nature.
© 2019 Springer Nature Limited. All rights reserved

New Costa Rican Law allows workers to be reinstated quickly

The following article features Didier Leitón Valverde, from the Costa Rican SITRAP union. An interview with Didier is featured in the Costa Rican interviews section of this website. The article is taken from Banana Trade News Bulletin No. 57 (November 2017) and is reproduced here by kind permission of Banana Link.

After years of work and much political and legislative wrangling the Labour Procedures Reform (RPL in Spanish) finally came into force in Costa Rica in July 2017. The independent trade unions that have struggled for years to defend workers they consider to have been sacked unfairly in the banana and pineapple industries, having to put up with tribunal procedures that could take up to 5 or 6 years, are seeing the first tangible results from the new legislation.

The law now means, amongst other advances, that hearings and decisions on reinstatement after unfair sacking can be expedited in just a few weeks from sacking to reinstatement. Since the RPL came into force two women and eight men working at different pineapple and banana plantations have all regained the jobs from which they were unfairly dismissed, thanks to their affiliation to the SITRAP trade union.

The workers took their cases to the Labour Ombudsman which is the new body established to present cases in the Labour Court. They used the special rapid procedure for cases of alleged discrimination that is one of the measures included in the Reform. In all ten cases in the last few weeks, the pineapple and banana workers, sacked because they were members of the union, got their jobs back in Grupo Acon, Del Monte and Dole plantations and packhouses.

Didier Leitón Valverde

The reinstatements were ordered by judges within less than one week of the cases being presented. In cases where the employer is reluctant to accept the court order, Labour Ministry staff are empowered to accompany the worker back to their former job.

The trade union’s General Secretary, Didier Leitón Valverde, comments that:

this shows us that the RPL is benefiting working people and shows that some people were wrong to say that it would be of no value to workers. It also demonstrates that there are good professionals in the Ombudsman’s office and Labour Courts who are interpreting the legislation properly. People who did not join the union before out of fear that the employer could sack them indiscriminately are now losing their fear.
Banana Link website: http://www.bananalink.org.uk/

SITRAP website: http://www.sitrap.net/quienesSomos.html

ANEXCO harasses and fires union members

The following is a report reproduced here by kind permission of Banana Link.
ANEXCO harasses and fires union members – update on our Urgent Action
November 2015

baThank you for supporting our recent urgent action appeal in support of union members at Costa Rican pineapple producer ANEXCO. More than 23​,000 emails have been sent to the company, calling on them to end harrassment of union members and to engage in constructive dialogue with the union SINTRAPEM (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores/as del Sector Privado Empresarial). This massive effort, plus several articles in the trade press and an intervention by the UK’s Ethical Trade Initiative combined to convince Fyffes of the need to try and resolve the issues we raised.

Initially, three union members were sacked shortly after the urgent action appeal was launched. However, the pressure against union members inside the plantation ​i​s reported to have diminished since then and a meeting at the Costa Rican Labour Ministry on 20th October generated an agreement to explore the potential for the reinstatement of these three most sacked workers.

Subsequently, a meeting in San José on 30th October – involving SINTRAPEM, COSIBA (the Costa Rican banana and pineapple union coordinating body), COLSIBA (the Latin American banana and agro industrial union coordinating body), Banana Link, ANEXCO and Fyffes – did not achieve the real breakthrough that was needed to put an end to the anti-union activities. But ANEXCO and Fyffes did, however, agree to another meeting to review the list of the union’s complaints, provisionally scheduled for 6th November.

Although there is not yet a satisfactory conclusion to our urgent action appeal, the progress made so far would not have been possible without your support. We will keep you updated.​

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The growth of pineapples in Costa Rica

* In 2009, it was estimated that 50,000 hectares of land were sown with pineapples and that 26,000 jobs were directly involved in pineapple production. Source: Ana Cristina Camacho Sandoval (5 July 2009) ‘Insensatez piñera’, El Financiero, No.724, p.4, citing data source as the National Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters.

* In 2009, it was estimated that 50,000 hectares of land were sown with pineapples and that 26,000 jobs were directly involved in pineapple production.
Source:
Ana Cristina Camacho Sandoval (5 July 2009) ‘Insensatez piñera’, El Financiero, No.724, p.4, citing data source as the National Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters.

Exploring alternatives to hazardous pesticides in Costa Rica

Dr Stephanie Williamson

Dr Stephanie Williamson reports on project work by the Regional Institute for Research on Toxic Substances (IRET) at the National University (UNA).

I am grateful to Stephanie for permission to include this article in The Violence of Development website. Clearly, this represents an attempt to stem the environmental violence of development.

Despite its ‘green paradise’ image, Costa Rica has one of the highest intensities of pesticide use in the world. Pesticide use is particularly high on export crops of banana, pineapple, melon and coffee. Much of this production is on large farms but medium and small-scale farmers are also involved. Pesticide use is often high on vegetables grown for local consumption too.

To raise national awareness of the level of use of hazardous pesticides in Costa Rica, agronomist Fernando Ramírez and his team at IRET surveyed pineapple and coffee farmers to find out which pesticides they are using. The team also analysed government data on pesticide imports.  Their findings revealed that in 2015 over 10,000 tons of highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) were imported. Coffee farmers reported using 18 different HHPs, while pineapple farmers reported 8 HHPs in common use.

The team has shared these findings with government decision makers, farmer associations, university students and agricultural extension staff, along with training on understanding how pesticides can harm people and the environment. An important message for farmers was that not only the ‘red’ labelled pesticides under Costa Rica’s hazard colour coding qualify as HHPs, due to their acute toxicity to humans, but others are problematic too. These include known and probable carcinogens, pesticides causing foetal abnormalities or harming the reproductive system, plus numerous pesticides highly toxic to bees, aquatic life and those that persist for months or more in soil or water.

Part of the reason for continued reliance on harmful pesticides is that farmers and policymakers often feel there is no option but to use pesticides or they fear that alternatives will be less effective. IRET therefore carried out pilot field trials to explore safer alternatives. In pineapple, they looked at alternative methods to the HHP ethoprophos for controlling nematodes, microscopic worms which attack the roots of young pineapple plants. Ethoprophos is a priority for phase-out as it is acutely toxic to humans, putting farm workers at risk, and it is also extremely harmful to soil life. The team trialled two different biological pesticides, based on fungi which feed on nematodes, plus ‘wood vinegar’, distilled from burning woody material, and compared these with the standard ethoprophos treatment. Results indicate all three alternatives can be as effective as ethoprophos. Even better is that the alternatives are much cheaper than ethoprophos and can be applied without special equipment or extensive training. An interesting result was that pineapple plants were significantly lower in weight in plots treated with ethoprophos, suggesting harmful side-effects on soil organisms needed for growing a healthy crop.

Sampling pineapple plants in the trials on alternatives. (Photo credit: IRET)

The project held a regional workshop on experiences in growing coffee without the use of HHPs, with speakers from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Presenters highlighted the importance of improving soil health (physical structure, chemical composition and microflora/fauna) to nurture coffee bushes more able to resist pest attack and diseases. Farmers from Cooperative Nahuala in Guatemala are reviving soil life by making solid fertilisers on-farm (worm compost, composted chicken manure). The co-op has a small ‘biofactory’ to make their own organic biofungicides, bioinsecticides and biofertilizers. They report good results in coffee rust control but explain that organic products take more time to work than synthetic fungicides so farmers need to understand that using organic methods is not a quick fix.

The Ecological Coffee Cooperative La Labor (COCAFELOL) in Honduras is helping its members recover from major outbreaks of coffee rust disease but without relying on fungicides. It trains farmers on how to improve biological activity of the soil and to enhance nutrition of coffee bushes, making groves more resilient to pest and disease attack, especially under changing climatic conditions. COCAFELOL have gained good experiences using home-made mineral preparations and biofermented products, plus recycling pulp from coffee processing as fertiliser.

otor-strimming at Monsol farm. (Photo credit: Juan R. Montero Gamboa)

In Costa Rica, medium-sized farm Monsol described their success in eliminating herbicide use, controlling weeds instead with strimmers and manual slashing. Along with pruning of shade trees, this generates around 50 tons of green material cuttings per hectare each year, which the farm owners view as a valuable resource. They use some of this material to mulch the soil around coffee bushes and apply home-made biofermented microbial products to the remainder to speed up its breakdown into compost. Non-competitive plants are allowed to grow between coffee rows to protect the soil from erosion. By recycling horse manure, waste from livestock feeding stalls and making their own worm compost, Monsol farm has hugely reduced its use of synthetic fertiliser, while rebuilding soil fertility in an area where many conventional farms suffer from degraded soils.

These positive experiences show that reducing reliance on agrochemical inputs is feasible, technically and economically, for large and small farms.


For more information about the project Phasing out Highly Hazardous Pesticides in Costa Rica, visit the web pages hosted by PAN UK at http://www.pan-uk.org/phasing-out-hhps-costa-rica/

For more information about the work of IRET, go to: http://www.iret.una.ac.cr/

The Bitter Price of Tropical Fruits – new video

Banana Link gave notification of a new video about pineapple production in Costa Rica. I recommend that readers of this website give the video a viewing.  From Banana Link email newsletter, 14th May 2018.

Key words: pineapple production; plantation labour conditions; chemical pesticide use; supermarket power.

 The Bitter Price of Tropical Fruits

Pineapple production is wreaking havoc on human health, livelihoods and the environment in Costa Rica. This documentary (in English) from Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, takes a look at how low prices in European supermarkets encourage cheap labour and extensive use of toxic pesticides.