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Synthesis/Regeneration 17   (Fall 1998)


Bananas: A Danger To Human Health and the Environment

by Stefan Thiele, Foro Emaus

Though U.S. consumers may not be conscious of the title's truth, it is the reality faced by those who work on Costa Rica's vast banana plantations. Evidently, consumers in the US and Europe do not run the same risks: were it otherwise, changes in the social and environmental conditions of banana production might be easier to bring about.

Looking out over the green plantations it is difficult to believe the proliferation of social and environmental ills that they have generated:

For the last six years the network of Costa Rican organizations, the Emaus Forum (FORO EMAUS in Spanish), has struggled to improve the conditions prevailing in the export banana industry. Resistance comes from the most powerful institutions of Costar Rican society-the major political parties, government ministries, the mass media, and the banana companies themselves. There is little inclination to face the changes needed despite social and environmental statistics which raise major questions about the real costs of this source of foreign exchange earnings.

Agro-industrial banana production is pesticide-intensive; employing principally fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and nematicides that seriously affect the health of humans and the environment due to the toxicity of these chemicals. The sterilization of 8,000 Costar Rican banana workers in the 1980's due to DBCP exposure is dramatic testimony to the lack of effective protection.

"Scientific studies demonstrate the poisoning going on everywhere" throughout the area of agro-industrial banana cultivation, writes Sonia Astorga in summarizing the dangers from pesticides for "El Productor," a non-governmental organization serving on the Coordinating Committee of Foro Emaus. A study titled "Pesticides in the water bodies influenced by banana production," published by the Pesticides Program at the National University and presented at the International Conference on Pesticides in February 1998, states that agro-chemicals like the fungicides thiabendazole, imazalil and propiconazole which are used in aerial fumigation, are found in the Suerte River and even in the channels of the Tortuguero National Park. In these same waterways the nematicides terbufos and cadusafos were found as well as the insecticide chlorpyrifos that impregnates the plastic bags used to protect the bunches of bananas as they mature. Some of these chemicals are highly poisonous to aquatic life.

How can it be that Costa Rica, which is celebrated in international forums as a standard bearer for human rights, should permit such flagrant violations at home?

On July 31, 1998, the FORO organized a prominent delegation to visit the region. Workers at Isla Grande Farm told of difficult working conditions compensated with paychecks totaling a meager $65 for two weeks of work. Due to the company's refusal to build adequate number of housing units, many workers travel two hours on foot from their homes in Panama and return home after dark each evening. Workers have chosen overwhelmingly (90%) to affiliate with the union UTRAL and filed complaints with the labor tribunal of Sixaola regarding labor and safety violations on the plantation. While the a number of organizations including the Commission of Human Rights in Central America (CODEHUCA), legislators, and the FORO itself have sought to speed the process, the transnational company Chiquita Brands has thus far dragged its feet, slowing any substantive response to workers' complaints.

In reprisals overseen by the Company crew bosses, agents from the Sixaola police command, working from written lists, barred indigenous workers affiliated with the union from crossing into Costa Rica from their home communities in Panama.

The absences were then used as a pretext for their firing, for failure to report to work. When the indigenous workers were finally able to present themselves at the company's offices, they were refused work assignments.

Workers affiliated with another banana workers union named SITRACHIRI have also suffered pressure and harassment due to their energetic support of workers at Isla Grande Farm. These workers engaged in work stoppage for several hours on the August 25 when they were ordered to transfer to Isla Grande to replace the fellow workers fired there.

As members of popular sector organizations, we are compelled to speak out in protest against these violations of human rights. How can it be that Costa Rica, which is celebrated in international forums as a standard bearer for human rights, should permit such flagrant violations at home?

We condemn the abuse of our indigenous Panamanian sisters and brothers who have come to Costar Rican soil seeking to earn an honest living only to be subject to such abuse on the part of unscrupulous companies.

Faithful to our mission Foro Emaus lifts its voice in protest and calls on all concerned to speak out. In seeking international solidarity, Foro Emaus is aware that the mission of many of organizations does not encompass the issues of banana production in their entirety since many focus on problems in either their social dimensions (e.g. migrants, human rights, labor rights, health, fair trade) or in their environmental aspects (e.g. pesticide use, waste, land use etc.). Nonetheless, the realities of the world of banana production know no such distinctions.

Foro Emaus formed six years ago to coordinate the struggle against the uncontrolled expansion of banana industry plantations on Costa Rica's Atlantic Coast which was destroying forests, rivers, towns and small farms and reshaping an entire region in the course of four years. That expansion was halted and has remained steady at 50,000 hectares of monoculture (some 35,000 acres). Today, the 25 organizations that are members of Foro Emaus represent a broad range of civil society-churches, environmental groups, unions, grassroots organizations, and educational institutions-struggling to improve the social and environmental conditions prevailing in Costar Rica's agro-industrial banana production. Integral to this goal is promotion of organic production and fair trade of the goods exported to the First World.

For several years Europe has had an active solidarity network, EUROBAN, made up of a range of organizations concerned with themes of banana production and fair trade not only with Costa Rica but all banana producing countries. To date, no similar organization has formed in the United States or Canada which might act as a vehicle for consumers interested in improving the conditions under which bananas are produced. Foro Emaus continues to hope that at some point organizations in North America will come together to take up the solidarity struggle. Multinational banana companies like Standard Fruit, Chiquita and Del Monte, as well as the governments in the exporting countries, will not be thrilled by a movement in solidarity with the human and environmental aspects of banana production. So be it. There is too much that needs to be tackled to permit any further delay.

For more information, contact: FORO EMAUS, P.O. Box 106, Siquirres, Limon Costa Rica (506) 768-8276 foremaus@sol.racsa.co.cr

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