Water contamination from pineapple production in Costa Rica

Due to the peculiarity of the fruit and its production cycle, which is falsely accelerated, approximately 60 per cent from every tonne of chemicals used in the cultivation of pineapples goes directly into the environment.[1] This is of primary concern to the communities of Cairo, La France, Milano and others in the Siquirres district of north-eastern Costa Rica. In 2007, the agrochemicals Bromacil (associated with thyroid, liver and kidney cancer), Diluron and Tridamefón (also known to be carcinogenic and prone to induce chromosome abnormalities) were detected in water sources here.[2] Despite article 31 of Costa Rica’s Water Act requiring a protection perimeter of no less than 200m in radius, pineapple crops are less than 20 meters from water sources in some of these areas.[3] Rashes on the skin are now commonplace, and an increase in asthma and miscarriages have been recognised.[4]

Another example of environmental contamination as a result of pineapple production comes from Del Monte’s ‘Babylonia’ farm on the Caribbean coast. Studies have found evidence of the carcinogenic herbicides Bromacil and Diaron being prominent in the water source, thereby rendering it unfit for consumption. For the last 3 years pineapple workers have been fighting this case. The government’s only response is to bring in tanks of potable water at a cost of US$27,000 a month. A new reservoir would cost US$80million.[5]

The journal Surcos claims that some 6,000 people in the Atlantic zone are affected by this contamination and that the Costa Rican Water and Sanitation Institute’s water tests “confirm the presence in domestic water of toxic agro-chemicals used on the pineapple plantations”.[6]

The Biodiversity Act article 109 establishes that the alleged polluter is the one who must prove they are not responsible for the damage caused; but this case remains unresolved due to controversy over the law regarding the tolerable limits of such agrochemicals in potable water.

[1] Omar Alvarado Salazar, July 2008, Pineapple production in Costa Rica. FRENASAPP, www.detrasdelapina.org.
[2] Gabriela Square, September 2008, Legalisation of pollution of water for human consumption (the case of Diuron and Bromacil). FRENASAPP, www.detrasdelapina.org.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Alex Leff (April 2009) ‘Costa Rica’s pineapple country is no piña colada’, Global Post: Inside Costa Rica, www.insidecostarica.com/dailynews
[5] Didier Leiton Valverde of SITRAP, presentation to Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA), 17/06/10, London.
[6] Surcos (July 2010) ‘Comunidades y FRENASAPP luchan contra piñeras y demandan a empresa Del Monte’, Surcos 32, Costa Rica.

Nemagon and DBCP

The pesticide Nemagon contains the active chemical DBCP (Dibromochloropropane) and was used for many years on banana plantations to kill nematode pests in the soil. Shell and Dow had conducted animal studies in the 1950s that found that exposure to DBCP led to sterility as well as liver, kidney and lung damage.

Nemagon was banned in 1977 in the United States after it was linked to sterility in workers at an Occidental Chemicals plant in California. Since then experimental evidence from animals has shown it to cause brain and kidney damage, and it is considered a highly toxic and likely highly carcinogenic compound. Regular contact with the toxic chemical has been linked to birth defects, sterility, skin diseases and cancer. After its ban in the United States, the companies continued to export their existing stocks to Nicaragua where it was used by Standard Fruit on banana plantations.

The chemical can be absorbed by ingestion, inhalation or skin contact, and persists for decades in the water and soil of contaminated areas, giving it a particularly dangerous legacy.

Banana Trade News Bulletin, no. 27, January 2003.
Stephanie Williamson (March 2003) ‘Nicaragua backs its banana workers’ fight for compensation’, ENCA Newsletter no 33, London: ENCA.
ENCA (July 2004) ‘Banana workers die in march to Managua’, ENCA Newsletter no.36, London: ENCA.
James Watson (December 2010) ‘Nemagon and the Nicaraguan bananeros’, ENCA poster.

Pesticides in Costa Rica’s banana zones seriously affect pregnant women

By Pablo Rojas in www.crhoy.com and sent to ENCA by Didier Leitón Valverde, General Secretary of SITRAP, the Union of Plantation Agriculture Workers in Costa Rica. The original report on which the article is based can be found at: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/wp-content/uploads/advpub/2014/9/ehp.1307679.pdf

(Translated by Martin Mowforth)

Key words: pesticides; pregnancy; banana plantations; aerial fumigation.

A study published in the international journal ‘Environmental Health Perspectives’ warns of the risk to pregnant Costa Rican women who live near plantations where certain pesticides are frequently used.

The pesticide mancozeb is used to treat banana plantations. According to the report, the pregnant women who were examined in the analysis record a significant amount of etilentiourea (ETU) in their urine. This is a component of the mancozeb pesticide.

“From March 2010 to June 2011, the study included 451 women, of whom 445 gave urine samples which were analysed for ETU. The analysis showed that the amount of ETU found was higher than the quantities found in countries like the USA, Italy and England, at an average rate of five times more ETU in their urine,” explained Berna van Wendel de Joode of the Regional Institute of Toxic Substances of the National University (IRET-UNA) which took part in the research.

Along with IRET-UNA, the Lund University, the Swedish Karolinska Institute, the University of Quebec in Canada and the University of Berkeley California took part in the study. This is the first study which has detected the presence of herbicides in the urine of pregnant women who live in areas around plantations. A small part of the sample were agricultural labourers during their pregnancy and a half of their partners worked on banana plantations.

“Current regulations covering fumigation areas appear to be insufficient to prevent the contact of women with this pesticide, but according to the study’s results it would be possible to take measures to reduce the contact – measures such as: reducing the frequency of fumigations; replacing aerial fumigation with techniques with lower dispersal; and implementing additional measures to diminish the drift generated by aerial applications. These measures would probably reduce the environmental and worker contact with the pesticide,” explained the researcher.

A quarter of the women lived within 50 metres of the plantations. According to the data, some women had higher levels than others because they were living within the banana plantations, and were working there during their pregnancy or were washing clothes for their families.

“Using the data on the amounts of ETU found in the urine, researchers estimated the quantity of the substance which was entering the body each day. For three quarters of the women, their estimated dose was greater than the Integrated Risk Information System’s reference indicator of the US Environmental Protection Agency. For a quarter of them it was double the level of the reference indicator, and for a tenth it was three times higher,” said the official statement provided by the UNA.

The major concern is that herbicides directly affect thyroid illnesses. Other cases of this have occurred in Mexico and the Philippines and it is held from these cases that the regulations for aerial fumigation continue to be weak.

“The researchers show the importance of increasing the distance between the bananas and the houses, planting natural barriers and implementing an automatic system for washing work clothes so that they aren’t washed alongside other items in the workers’ houses,” stated the document.

Thyroid hormones are essential for the healthy development of the foetus and for a healthy pregnancy in general.

Permaculture in El Salvador

The Permaculture Institute of El Salvador (IPES) was founded in 2002, by a small group of farmers concerned about the destruction of their environment and way of life (Permacultura America Latina). Juan Rojas, a Salvadoran political and trade union activist, as well as a key figure in the solidarity movement, was the instigator of the organisation. Keen to revive the country’s agricultural potential after the war, he introduced the concept of permacultural design, which he learnt whilst exiled in Australia.

IPES is a grassroots organisation whose members are small-scale farmers. They use the ‘campesino a campesino’ approach to teach methods of ecological agriculture and sustainable living (Permaculture America Latina). “Our prime focus is on sustainable farming for family food production” (Karen Inwood, 31/07/10). In its infancy, IPES worked directly with self-selected communities, simply teaching them to farm in a more natural way. Karen Inwood, the British director, believes the organisation has developed in such a way that IPES will no longer go into communities directly, as it is for the best that heads of municipalities teach their peoples themselves. Once the community leaders, who become ‘promoters’, have learnt the necessary skills, it is more effective that they pass on their knowledge to create a sub-system of leaders, and therefore the permaculture network is built up with minimal intervention from the primary institute. The heads of communities acquire permacultural knowledge to share in their respective districts via the design course run by IPES.

Many people have lost the concept that they are able to solve their own problems and a dependence on aid from NGOs has evolved in places (Karen Inwood, 30/07/10). What makes IPES’ work different is that “the promoters are taught on the basis that they have a commitment to educate others, and with this methodology, it truly becomes a process within their community that doesn’t need outsiders to be part of.” (Karen Inwood, 30/07/10)

There are eight employees receiving a small salary at IPES, thus the institute relies heavily on its 25 voluntary staff. Together the team have just revised the curriculum of the design course and are currently writing a book to accompany it. The year long course is run for two or three days each month in the municipalities of the course attendants. The programme begins with an overview of El Salvador’s agricultural history, including how the land has changed and why. Participants are then introduced to the fundamental principles of permaculture: relying on natural resources, everything being interrelated and interactive, and every design attribute having more than one practicality and function (Karen Inwood, 30/07/10). “We open their hearts to the concept of a link with Mother Earth, and this also develops naturally as the course progresses” (Karen Inwood, 30/07/10). Groups of students then start designing a particular plot of land on paper. The designs are then put into practice, whilst learning techniques such as improving soil fertility, natural pest control and seed selection. The final module relates to permaculture in everyday life and how to enlighten others of its benefits. “Everything learnt on the course can be replicated without outside help, resources or technology” (Karen Inwood, 30/07/10).

Global Permaculture. www.permatopia.com/dictionary.html (accessed 09/08/2010).
Permacultura America Latina (PAL), IPES, http://www.permacultura.org/elsalvador.html (accessed 09/08/2010).
Karen Inwood (30 July 2010) in interview specifically for this book. Suchitoto, El Salvador.

IFAD’s conclusions from evidence of organic farming in Central America

In its 2003 report entitled ‘The Adoption of Organic Agriculture Among Small Farmers in Latin America and The Caribbean’, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) drew the following conclusions and lessons.

The shift to organic production had positive impacts on the incomes of small farmers in all the case studies.

Small farmers dominated organic production in all the countries in which the case studies were located.

The organic models of production have also been associated with positive effects on the health of producers and workers and on the environment.

Most successful organic producers own their land, and small farmers with unstable land tenure … have been unable to produce organic products.

The most successful organic producers have been those who were already applying a production system characterised by technologies not based on chemical inputs.

Exporters and marketing firms recognise that the buyers of organic products in industrialised countries are becoming increasingly more demanding in terms of quality.

Groups of small farmers could be hurt significantly if only one group member or a few group members do not comply with the organic methods of production.

Organic production in all the cases studied has developed in spite of the limited availability of formal sources of on-farm credit.

Shifting to organic production has not required significant on-farm investments.

The transitional period – the first two or three years after farmers start to produce organically – has been the most difficult period for organic producers in terms of financial needs.

The most important off-farm investments required by organic production are similar to the ones required by conventional production, including packing and storage facilities. … They have usually been carried out by farmer associations and marketing firms.

Projects working with small producers should focus on strengthening associations that will play a major role in the marketing of production, the dissemination of organic technologies … and the monitoring of their members’ compliance with organic methods of production.

The marketing of organic products through farmer associations that have established direct contact with buyers has been key in helping small farmers obtain better prices.

Contract farming schemes involving processing and marketing firms have facilitated the marketing of the production of small farmers and given them access to extension services.

Small farmers have a relatively weak position in negotiations with firms because they have limited information and are poorly organised.

The domestic market for organic products in developing countries show good growth prospects.

NGOs have played the most influential role in the emergence of organic agriculture, usually by promoting alternative models of production among indigenous farmers that are based on the use of local resources rather than on the purchase of external inputs.

Sugar cane production and the CKDnT epidemic

In May 2016, ENCA members Esma Helvacioglu and Martin Mowforth, spent a day as guests of the organisation PASE (Profesionales para la Auditoria Social y Empresarial / Professionals for Social and Business Auditing), a non-profit organisation formed in 2003 that is dedicated to the promotion of labour and human rights in the agricultural and textile industries of Nicaragua. Their work has alerted many people to the epidemic of chronic kidney disease suffered particularly by workers in the sugar cane fields. The following report uses much of PASE’s education and awareness-raising material along with various impressions gained by Esma and Martin during their visit.

As we sip our tea, coffee, lemonade, juices and numerous other sugary drinks, it is quite possible that most of us have no idea that there is a global epidemic of chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT) amongst sugar cane workers around the world. In particular this is affecting cane workers in the Indian sub-continent and in Central America, especially El Salvador and Nicaragua. Sugar, one of Nicaragua’s most lucrative crops, feeds our insatiable sweet tooth. It is harvested by workers who labour under intense heat for poverty-level wages. They are also dying in epidemic numbers.

Researchers have linked poor labour conditions to the epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT) sweeping across Central America. One of the populations most acutely affected by the epidemic is sugar cane cutters in western Nicaragua, although the same disease is noted in plantation workers in the Indian sub-continent and in El Salvador.

The lack of treatment options and resulting medical complications mean that a CKDnT diagnosis in Nicaragua is likely to lead to a slow and painful death. In the past ten years, 46% of male deaths in Chichigalpa, the most affected town, were caused by CKDnT. The epidemic devastates not only the lives of the sugar cane workers, but also the well-being of their families and entire communities.


Social security can mean life or death for a family

When cane cutters become sick, they are fired from their jobs and illegally denied social security benefits and compensation for their occupational illness, leaving their families with no income and forcing their children out of school and into labour. Nicaragua has few dialysis machines available for treatment and, despite its laws regarding labour conditions of work, there is precious little enforcement of these laws. Obtaining social security benefits in the poverty stricken rural sugar cane communities of Nicaragua can literally mean the difference between survival and death.

In response to this situation, a non-profit organisation has opened up an office in the city of Chinandega, located between the two biggest sugar producers in Nicaragua. Professionals for Social and Business Auditing (Profesionales para la Auditoria Social y Empresarial), or PASE, was formed in 2003 and is dedicated to the promotion of labour and human rights in the agricultural and textile industries of Nicaragua. PASE provides free legal aid to workers regarding their and their families’ rights to social security and other labour rights.

In the last twelve months, PASE has published a manual on social security rights for agricultural workers in understandable language and conducted training workshops of community and union leaders across western Nicaragua. It also holds training workshops on alternative skills for employment for current and former cane cutters.

For the future PASE aims to:

  • become a permanent resource for agricultural workers;
  • expand its services beyond social security assistance;
  • provide more workshops to workers and their leaders;
  • publish and distribute more copies of their manual with a view to reaching the most rural and vulnerable communities;
  • directly aid widows and orphans of deceased cane workers affected by CKDnT;
  • publish a policy paper providing concrete recommendations to government and industry on how to address the effects of CKDnT;
  • engage with the international community to identify practical solutions to this epidemic;
  • produce a short video clip explaining CKDnT and workers’ rights in an easily accessible way that workers will understand.

During their visit to PASE, Esma and Martin visited the Monte Rosa sugar cane processing plant where they spoke with union leaders and workers about the conditions of work, CKDnT and the effects of aerial spraying of pesticides. They briefly visited a newly built school located right next to the sugar cane fields which are sprayed by air. They also visited two clinics where they spoke with a doctor about the kidney disease epidemic and with other medical workers. At La Isla Community Centre they recorded an interview with all the workers at the Centre who run workshops in alternative means of income generation and give assistance in informing cane workers about their social security rights.


  • PASE (March 2016) ‘Project Proposal: PASE Legal Services Office’
  • https://laislafoundation.org/epidemic/
  • http://www.pasenic.org
  • PASE (October 2015) ‘Seguridad Social: Manual para Trabajadores Agrícolas y sus Familiares’
  • Comité Nacional de Productores de Azúcar (undated) ‘Azúcar de Nicaragua: Endulzando el Mundo’

Donations to the work of PASE can be made through the following link: https://www.generosity.com/community-fundraising/facing-an-epidemic-help-dying-sugarcane-workers–2


The principles behind the practice of fair trade in agricultural products

floThe following description is taken from a Fairtrade Foundation leaflet entitled ‘What is Fairtrade?’

Many farmers and workers in developing countries struggle to provide for their families. Poor market access and unfair trade rules often mean that the price they get for their crop does not cover the cost of production. They face the global challenges of food price rises and climate change too.

You will find this label, the FAIRTRADE Mark, on thousands of products from coffee to fresh fruit, as a guarantee of a better deal for people and planet.

Under Fairtrade, farmers receive:

Agreed stable and sustainable prices
An extra payment (a ‘premium’) to invest in their community

As part of the agreement, farmer groups must be democratically organised and meet environmental standards. These include careful use of chemicals, looking after soil and water sources and respecting nature.

Who is behind Fairtrade?

The Fairtrade Foundation is the independent non-profit organisation in the UK that licenses use of the FAIRTRADE Mark on products in the UK in accordance with internationally agreed Fairtrade standards. We also raise awareness of Fairtrade and trade justice issues in schools, businesses, faith groups and local communities. The Foundation is part of an international network of organisations that are members of the standards setting, certification and producer support body Fairtrade International (FLO). You can find out more about FLO’s work at www.fairtrade.net

(Reproduction of the FAIRTRADE Mark by kind permission of the Fairtrade Foundation.)

For further work on fair trade production of tropical crops, the reader is referred to the interviews with Didier Leitón Valverde and Nela Perle, both of which are in the Costa Rica section of the Interviews page.