Concerns raised about pesticides in Costa Rica

By Fabiola Pomareda García |

22 September 2022, Semanario Universidad

We are grateful to Fabiola for permission to translate and summarise her article in Semanario Universidad, the Costa Rican weekly paper. Translated and summarised for the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA) and for The Violence of Development website by Jill Powis with minor additions by Stephanie Williamson of the Pesticide Action Network. 

A virtual seminar ‘From the global pesticide complex to the agripoisons crisis in Costa Rica’, discussed worrying aspects of Costa Rica’s pesticide licensing system and use.  It was jointly organised by a number of Costa Rican organisations:  Biodiversity Coordination Network (RCB), CoecoCeiba – Friends of the Earth Costa Rica, Bloque Verde (Green Block) and Frenasapp (National Front of Sectors Affected by Pineapple Production).

Soledad Castro, doctoral researcher at Barcelona’s Autonomous University, presented the results of research into Costa Rica’s pesticide licensing system carried out from 2018-21 with Marion Werner, professor and researcher at the University at Buffalo, New York State.

She explained that a total of 1,800 pesticides are still licensed for use in Costa Rica without up-to-date studies on their potential risk to health and the environment.  The problem goes back to 2004, when Costa Rica’s Comptroller General formally declared that the pesticide licensing system needed to be changed.  Health and environmental risk assessments would be mandatory, with evaluations carried out in Costa Rica itself before pesticides would be licensed. In 2007 new legislation gave a 10 year deadline for these old licences to comply with the new requirements, which, however, led to a huge backlog of license updating

In 2016, executive decrees were issued relaxing these requirements, a move described by critics as a form of deregulation. Following legal challenges, these decrees were suspended by the Constitutional Court and then countered by legislative attempts to extend further the ‘useful life’ of these outdated pesticides. There is now a Registration of Agrochemicals bill before the Legislative Assembly under which an affidavit would be sufficient for a substance to be approved for use and studies carried out in other countries would be acceptable. The State Phytosanitary Service confirmed to the researchers that 1,800 pesticides licensed before 2007 are still being used, without any updated risk assessments carried out. Soledad Castro expressed concern at their social and ecological impact.

Fernando Ramírez, researcher and professor at the Regional Institute for Research on Toxic Substances (IRET) of Costa Rica’s National University explained that 80% of the pesticides applied in Costa Rica qualify as highly hazardous.  Furthermore, Costa Rica uses 10 times more pesticides per hectare than the United States – on average 25kg/ha of active ingredient as compared to 2.5 kg/ha in the States.

Since 2007, Costa Rica has become an exporter of pesticides, mainly due to its high importation of technical grade active ingredients for making formulations – mixing them with adjuvants to make their application more effective.  The formulated products are then exported to other countries. Costa Rica mainly imports active ingredients from India (63%), China (30%), the United States (3%) and Poland (2.5%).

According to Henry Picado, a researcher with the RCB and member of Bloque Verde, Costa Rica’s pesticide industry has large yearly profits of $2.5 billion for imports and $700 million for exports, while, according to agronomist Elidier Vargas, the state annually loses $22-$27 million in tax exemptions to the sector.  It is concentrated in only a few hands – according to statistics from the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade (MEIC), 63% of glyphosate, 50% of paraquat and 98% of 2.4-D, respectively, are imported by one company each.

Costa Rica is also one of the cheapest countries in Latin America to license a pesticide product, with an average cost of $400, as compared to $1,500-$4,500 in Mexico, $2,000 in Uruguay and $8,500 in Argentina.

While the industry accumulates profits and enjoys tax exemptions and very low licensing costs, 64.3% of the fresh food consumed in Costa Rica contains pesticide residues. “It’s basically an invasion by these businesses of our homes, our tables, our bodies,” Picado said.