Didier Leiton Valverde

Interviewee: Didier Leiton Valverde of SITRAP Costa Rica
Interviewer: Presentation for ENCA
Location: London, United Kingdom
Date: 17th June 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
Notes: This is a transcript of a presentation by Didier for ENCA and the subsequent conversation. Translation by Stephanie Williamson

Didier Leiton Valverde (DLV): My name is Didier Leiton Valverde, I am a union organiser in the banana and pineapple plantations in the Caribbean cost of Costa Rica. Before that I had almost 19 years experience working as an agricultural labourer working in these plantations, but for the last ten years I’ve been working as an organiser promoting trade unions and labour rights in the plantations. I have been invited here by British organisations who have fraternal links with my trade union in Costa Rica.

Martin Mowforth (MM): We’re conscious because of our work of the problems caused by the cultivation of pineapples in the South and South West of Costa Rica, through of the work of our partners, such as Unaproa and El Frente Contra la Contaminacion de Pindeco. But we’re not aware of the new things that are happening in Costa Rica surrounding the expansion of pineapple cultivation. Can you tell us a little about this recent expansion please?

DLV: Well, in Costa Rica, the pineapple cultivations have been in the South for 25 years or so. But in the last few years, this has expanded in to the Caribbean side of the country and the Northern zone of Costa Rica.

In the last ten years but especially in the last two, the expansion in the Caribbean North zone has been incredible, increasing the total area under pineapple cultivation in the country up to 47,000 ha. This is compared back in 2005 when there were only 20,000 ha. But this increase has been specifically in the North and Caribbean zone.

The worst thing about this expansion is that this is totally uncontrolled, occurring day by day. Each day there are more and more small campesinos losing their land as the plantations expand, and this is often done with support from the government.

Even though Costa Rica has a law saying that any new agricultural activity must have an environmental impact assessment, that just doesn’t happen in reality. The expansion is being supported by the general policies of the Costa Rican government, who support large scale capitalist projects and monoculture.

In the new zones there is more and more environmental contamination and human health impacts daily, including contamination of groundwater.

Stephanie Williamson (SW): One question, because I thought that there were also smaller campesino farms produciENCA members who attended Didier’s talkng pineapples in Costa Rica, not just these large plantations.

DLV: Yes, there are some smaller farms and producers too, but they’re not that small, and only really in the North. In the Caribbean zone all the production is by the large companies such as Chiquita, Dole, and Del Monte and Pindeco. Although there are some smaller independent producers, they still have to sell their produce to the multinationals, who have control of the distribution and marketing chains for export.

Two years ago Pindeco bought a company called Caribana (?) that has banana and pineapple plantations in the Caribbean and Northern zones, for more than 500 million dollars. Pindeco is a subsidiary of Del Monte, and this buy out has now made them the by far the strongest and most dominant plantation company in Costa Rica.

ENCA member: In England at the moment there is a strong push for Fairtrade. I’d like to know if there is a difference, or big difference with the pineapple production that is grown under Fairtrade programs.

DLV: In Costa Rica, and I believe in all the banana producing countries of Latin America, the producers obviously want Fairtrade, because it means more money – the consumers pay a higher price, and this is better in general. But although Fairtrade’s aim is to improve the working and social conditions for the workers, in practice plantations are pretty much the same, under Fairtrade or not.

There’s a very strong anti-trade union culture in Costa Rica, and the companies of the plantations generally don’t permit real trade unions. We have tried to find out why there isn’t more of a difference with Fair trade – I’m part of a Latin American regional coordination of Banana Workers’ unions called Cociba. We have shared our experiences with people in Colombia and Peru regarding Fairtrade programs, and they say the same thing about them not providing much of a difference. I’ve worked as a union promoter in Costa Rica in companies that sell their products under Faritrade, but it’s still been impossible to establish a trade union.

We know that the premium that the consumer pays for Fairtrade actually stays in the hands of the companies.

SW: And what about the people who do the certification for Fairtrade? Why is this clear violation happening – is it something to do with what they call ‘yellow’ trade unions?

DLV: The unions constantly have to work with a very wide range of people, including very anti-union companies and the anti-union government. We also work with the certifiers from Fairtrade (The FLO) and from Rainforest Alliance. There is a struggle to get the foreign certifiers to come in to the country and realise the reality of the plantation conditions -the companies have people inside the certifying agencies to make it very difficult.

The unions, we are planning for alliances for a campaign to make a stronger link with the European consumers, to let them know what’s happening. Our organisation is totally pro Fairtrade but it has to be Fairtrade that actually delivers on its promises.

MM: We received something last November saying that Chiquita bananas now have Rainforest Alliance certification – they of course are one of the worst companies. Pindeco also have advertised the ISO (international standards organisation) 14001 certificaiton on their plantations. It’s hard to believe that these companies are able to get certification for good environmental practice.

Dominic McCann (DM): Are there any lands that are no longer fertile due to pineapple or banana growing that have been abandoned, and is that part of the reason for the expansion up into the North and Caribbean regions?

DLV: Not really, despite the expansion in to new regions, the companies are still producing over their old areas in the South.

James Watson (JW): Is there any particular reason for the recent expansion?

DLV: I believe that the consumer markets have been expanding – globally there is more consumption of pineapples, in Europe and the US. So they’ve needed to expand production to cover this market expansion. For example in the last year in Costa Rica, there’s been a Russian backed company coming in, to try and find production for the expanded demand in Eastern Europe and Russia. And China is getting involved as well – I don;t think anything’s likely to put the brakes on this expansion, as long as the demand is increasing. There’s a lot of profit to be had by these companies.

ENCA member: What kind of regulations or pressure would you like to see to control this expansion, either from the government of Costa Rica, or possibly from consumers?

DLV: The government is very pro-capitalist, and has shifted further to the right in recent years – they’re very pro big-business. There are trade unions and environmental NGOs in Costa Rica, but at the moment the government and the big companies don’t allow them to develop. For example, the companies will set up so called representative organisations in place of unions, but which they run themselves. So the only thing that has really worked in favour of the unions in the last few years has been getting international media attention on to what’s happening there. For example, through Banana link, we’ve had people working with Fairtrade unions in Costa Rica for over two years, and the government and the companies see Banana Link as an enemy.

MM: But internationally Banana Link has a very good reputation. They can put pressure on the companies.

SW: I’ve a question, because Banana Link had an international forum with supermarkets and others in December 2009, which we wanted to go to but couldn’t. They were trying to create a basic minimum for social and environmental standards. What came out of that forum, and from Banana Link’s influence?

DLV: Yes, this was the ‘World Banana Forum’. It went well – supermarkets, unions and NGOs and some producer governments participated, and talked particularly about social and labour issues. The supermarkets and government representatives of course said they wanted improvement, but in practice there haven’t yet been any changes from the companies.

The conversations are continuing, trying to get some practical change, but at the moment we haven’t seen changes in the supermarkets or organisations. Costa Rica is unique in some ways around this – they’ve been trying to set up something called a forum for social dialogue. But this process has caused difficulties for Banana Link and the trade unions as part of it involves recognising the ‘representative organisations’ that the companies have set up. This is difficult for us.

We also need to look in more detail at exactly what Costa Rican labour law involves. For over 10 years we’ve had investigations and monitoring by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in to the conditions in Costa Rica, and they’ve said that Costa Rica needs modifications to its labour laws. In particular, they’ve said that Costa Rica needs to show proof that it’s adhering to laws Costa Rica has signed on to protecting workers’ rights and regarding the recognition of trade unions. But the government isn’t supporting the unions, and are now creating laws that are really against trade union rights. At the moment the ILO has a global summit and they’re really pushing for proof from Costa Rica that it’s improved in its union recognition.

We’re always fighting, and we’re optimistic, but the recognition is very limited and the Costa Rican government’s attitude is that the ILO isn’t that important and doesn’t have the influence to enforce changes. They feel that as long as they’ve got the support of the US, what the ILO or the rest of the world says doesn’t make any difference,.

SW: So what can we as consumers, or NGOs, do about something like this, around this issue with the ILO?

DLV: I think the way to help is, we have to work together, the trade unions, NGOs and people in Europe to put pressure on our governments and companies to push for change. Much of the bananas and pineapples produced in Costa Rica go to English supermarkets.

Some supermarkets have already gone out to Costa Rica and met up with Banana Link. On the seventh and eighth of June we’re having a meeting with a person responsible for Tesco’s social responsibility program in Costa Rica, for example.

But it’s difficult to get these people to understand the reality, because people think that Costa Rica is a nice stable country with a democracy and with strongly protected rights, and the government and companies hide behind this. The supermarket representatives don’t see the bad things that happen – they get hosted by the companies and taken to the beach, and so on. So when they do have a visit to the plantation the workers groups they meet will be carefully selected by the company beforehand, briefed and led by so-called representatives. The representatives get good salaries and perks for towing the company line, and so the corporate social responsibility auditors are deceived.

ENCA member: Can you explain a little bit about how you and your organisation is organised in the country and how your network works?

DLV: Our union’s headquarters are in the Caribbean area, and we’ve got five unions in the pineapple sector, of which three are active, and the other two have more or less died out. There’s also a banana sector network among them. The groups are subdivided by region, and each person works in their regional area. Together they make up the ‘Cociba’ banana and pineapple trade union network. Cociba is then also affiliated with the Latin American regional network.

Daily work involves going out and talking to workers. We make formal complaints to the company bosses and government on behalf of the workers, and send out info and updates to consumer countries including the UK.

SW: Does Cociba have any involvement with the NGO Fora N Aus (?) which was active on pineapple campaigns?

DLV: Yes, we’ve worked with Fora. The Fora is an organisation that networks across the different areas, environmental groups, church groups, and unions. It was very active but it’s been weakened in recent years as a direct result of attacks by the big companies, including through court cases that have been used to weaken them financially, so they can’t do so much awareness raising work. It’s now more or less disappeared.

SW: Didn’t the fora receive funds from progressive European government sources?

DLV: No, though they were receiving funds from the organisation Bread for the World, but that project ended and the funding stopped. The attacks have been made on individuals within the network rather than the network itself, to make the individuals unable to afford their work. Two months ago the individual members of the network stopped supporting their last staff member, who had been a half time person at their secretariat. Now, there have been some attempts to revive the network by one of the member organisations, under the new umbrella of national front of communities affected by pineapple expansion.

And now there are other organisations that have been trying to support the movement, including with legal support. For example Del Monte has a farm called Babylonia in the Caribbean coast, which has contaminated the water used by the nearby communities, making it unfit for consumption. The pineapple workers have been fighting for the last 2 or 3 years, making studies showing that the farm’s activities are responsible for this. They found the carcinogenic herbicides bromacil, and diaron in the drinking water. The government has been bringing in clean water by truck for the last few years, so far costing 316 million colones (about 630,000 US dollars). To set up a new reservoir for the communities would cost 80 million dollars.

So the environmental groups, the unions and others are trying to set up a court case against Del Monte and the government. They’re currently looking for funding to get the legal support for this. The minister for health has tried to show they’re doing something, so they held a health exhibition in the area, but people have got skin problems and respiratory problems.

SW: I can suggest a little help by getting an article in a journal about this court case.

DLV: Yes, we’ve already got a lot of information about it, and we can ask the community members to formally make statements and testimonials about the problem.

SW: And did you know that Felicity Laurence from the Guardian is currently in Costa Rica looking at these issues?

DLV: Yes, these journalists were actually there when there was a fire in a chemical store at one of the farms, which collapsed sending these chemicals in to the canals, and then in to the sea on the Caribbean. There were thousands of dead fish.

We were also at a plantation with the journalists and banana link talking to the workers, making sure they could talk to all of them.

MM: Are these workers associations that you’re talking about the same as the ‘Solidarismo’ unions that we’ve heard of?

DLV: No, the Solidarismo is more of a philosophical approach, like a movement, with kind of an evangelical root. It says that disputes between the workers and the bosses can be solved by Christian principles, and they have a tool for collective negotiation called ‘areglo directo’ (something like ‘direct fixing’). This Solidarismo movement also has a legal financial element – they’re supported by a law and they have a savings and lending style fund. The people in the associations are generally plantation admin staff, and it helps them to build up their own savings by making regular payments from their wages. ‘Areglo directo’ works through unofficial means through a three member permanent committee supposedly selected by the workers but really put forward by the company. This is a way around collective bargaining such as through unions.

There’s a priest called Claudio Maria Solano who promotes this philosophy. He’s the head of an organisation in the Catholic church, called the Escuela Social Juan XXIII (from the Pope of that name). The school has a massive admin staff who promote Solidarismo with the full support of the management of the companies. They and their permanent committees have been formally recognised by the companies to represent the workers, and they maintain the associations among the workers.

They’ve got access to all the resources they need on their farms, as soon as a real trade union nucleus of workers tries to set up, the Escuela Social Juan group will be the first ones to try to pressurise them out. They say that it’s a God given process, and that the trade unions are of the Devil! They threaten workers with putting them on a black list if they join a trade union, or say that the company will have to shut down if they insist on creating a trade union. There’s all sorts of tactics they use.

SW: And this is just in Costa Rica?

DLV: Yes, this orgainsation is just in Costa Rica.

Some of them have gone further, to physical violence, threats, even death threats against the workers who are interested in forming a union. Or they’ll ring up their wife and kids and threaten them over the phone. It’s a very complicated and delicate situation.

MM: Is there any form of Socialismo in other countries in Latin America?

DLV: Yes, the philosophy has tried to spread to other places, such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The priest has gone to Guatemala, for example, but they don’t have the force there that they have in Costa Rica.

When they were talking about the ILO putting pressure on Costa Rica to improve its labour legislation, the Solidarismo groups were trying to counter this. For example, one of Oscar Arias’ government’s last acts before they left office was to pass a law that enshrined the Solidarismo movement in their constitution. The new president and her MPs and friends in big business are trying to go one step further and give more formal power to these ‘areglo directo’ arrangements, and make Solidarismo a recognised and legitimate beneficiary of state funds.