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I have been asking myself that question for awhile, yet it wasn’t until the second week of April after reading a new controversial article from Deutsche Welle (DW) regarding the use of pesticides in the country, that I decided to look deeper into the matter.

The article displayed an alert emitted by the German health authorities about a cantaloupe shipment coming from Costa Rica with chlorothalonil-based pesticides, exceeding the maximum levels established.

The chemical is considered carcinogenic by the European Union (EU) and it cannot surpass 0.01 mg/kg. The samples taken from the products coming from our country surpassed seven times the limitation established.

¿Where do pineapples come from?

Due to my job, I recently had the opportunity to travel around various Latin American countries, including Costa Rica. I was excited to learn more about the endeavors in terms of conservation and protection of forests and resources in the Salitre Indigenous territory, located in the Puntarenas region, in Buenos Aires.

After arriving, I had the chance to share with some people from the community and check out the conservation actions they develop. However, as the days went by and after touring the area I was able to confirm first hand the problems caused by monocultures, especially by large pineapple companies.

Water, an essential element for all people and sacred for the Bribri People, is being polluted and desecrated by the indiscriminate use of pesticides, herbicides, among other chemicals, as well as the problematic by-products of the inadequate management of solid waste from the extensive pineapple crops.

Despite the complaints, the advocacy actions, and all the processes to conserve and restore the area, the pineapple companies have polluted a large part of the forest and water sources causing serious damage to the population and ecosystems.

Although the situation in Salitre is worrying, it is neither the only nor the most affected area of the country, according to a research article published by Mongabay (2021), the National Environmental Technical Secretariat (SETENA) is only aware of 358,5 hectares of pineapple crops in its records out of the 1.659 hectares of pineapple in protected areas (the most recent data is from 2018).

This means that 74% of the pineapple crops in protected areas would not be endorsed by the institution which one of its main principles include to harmonize the environmental effects with production processes. The aforementioned does not specifically mean that they are illegal crops, but instead that they haven’t gone through any kind of evaluation or environmental control.

The country’s satellite images, presented in the same article, reveal that since 2018, the pineapple cultivation had already grabbed in four protected areas of Costa Rica. Nonetheless, the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment (MINAE) has no records regarding most of these plantations. When comparing the satellite information with the SETENA’s records, there are 1.300 hectares not recorded in its database.

Pineapple, the hope for economic recovery

Pineapple is one of Central America's star export products. In Costa Rica's case, 2021 data presented by the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC) place it as one of the main exporters of pineapples, fresh or dried, in the world, generating an annual profit of 1.14 billion dollars. This is an important figure in a country where agriculture is one of the main economic sectors and contributes approximately 7% of GDP.

A new study published in February 2023 by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) details the macroeconomic context of the region in 2022. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by an average of 5.7% in that year and proved to be more resilient thanks to the recovery in tourism, remittances and less volatile exports in agricultural products.

One of the IDB's recommendations for the region is to diversify investments and products to reduce the volatility of international demand.

Despite this scenario, and the recommendations for the region, the pineapple market has increased substantially instead of declining.

Pineapple is Costa Rica's second largest export product, along with bananas and medical devices. According to data presented by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), pineapple accounted for 7% of the country's total exports in 2021.

Letrero de venta de piñas en un supermercado en Pantin, Francia.
Letrero de venta de piñas en un supermercado /Pantin, Francia.

What do Costa Rican pineapples taste like?

You can easily be transported to the sweet and sour taste of pineapple and its many preparations. Much has been said about the digestive properties or their content in potassium, iodine, vitamin C, of the also called ananás.

With no doubt, this fruit has positioned itself as the dessert of choice in different parts of the world. For several years this product has been the subject of different controversies. There are several disturbing findings that have nothing to do with its gastronomic uses.

The bitter side of pineapple does not lie in the income it generates for the country or in the sources of employment it generates, but in the production processes it involves, generating reactions from many different sectors.

Some of the effects of this crop include the deforestation of large forest areas, soil erosion, water and soil contamination, as well as the loss of biodiversity. In addition, there are concerns over the labor situation of those involved in this sector.

In 2019 Costa Rica received the Champions of the Earth award given by the United Nations (UN). This is the highest environmental award given by this organization. The recognition was intended to raise awareness of "its role in the protection of nature and its commitment to ambitious policies to combat climate change", as detailed on its website. However, there are loose ends.

Among the most serious problems related to pineapple cultivation, there have been reports of inappropriate use of pesticides resulting in health consequences for those living in the surrounding areas.

The Ministry of Health has listed some of these pathologies in the National Strategy for a Comprehensive Approach to Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases and Obesity 2013-2021, which are associated with cancer, liver and kidney damage, nervous system and cardiovascular system problems, chronic kidney disease (CKD) and skin diseases.

These disruptions in people's health are linked to the contamination of drinking water supply systems. According to the aforementioned government document, these conditions are related to the "excessive use of pesticides in agricultural activities".

But, which pesticides are we talking about? According to a report by the National University of Costa Rica (UNA), chemical residues have been found in the soil of these crops as well as in the water of these areas.

Several of these compounds are associated with pineapple production: bromacil, chlorothalonil, diuron, paraquat, among others. These compounds are used to stop weed growth and pest proliferation and are often used together, as is the case with diuron and bromacil.

According to studies updated to 2017, by the Oregon State University and Intertox, Inc. regarding the use of pesticides in the Washington State Department of Transportation's (WSDOT) Integrated Vegetation Management Program, exposure to these chemicals generates damage to people's bodies.

These studies were applied in different animal species to evaluate the percentage of toxicity in humans and domestic animals, the time of affectation and other health indicators.

The research showed acute toxicity upon ingestion, touching bromacil residues causing chronic toxicity and generating effects such as excess body weight, cellular changes in the thyroid, increase in the number of thyroid cysts, increase in the number of cellular cysts, cellular changes in the adrenal glands and damage to the retina when administered in moderate to high doses for 2 years.

However, no reproductive damage was identified in these studies after administration to rats for three generations. bromacil did cause skeletal changes in the offspring of pregnant rats fed high doses or exposed to very high concentrations in air.

Also, it caused an increase in the number of abortions when given to rabbits at high doses, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Direct effects of pineapple cultivation

In 2022, the Monitoring of Land Use and Land Cover Change in Productive Landscapes (MOCUPP) system presented the results of its analysis of tree cover loss resulting from pineapple cultivation in Costa Rica.

Currently, pineapple production occupies 65 thousand hectares of land in the country, or 1.28% of the national territory. According to this study the time period of highest loss was between 2016 and 2017 with 679.20 hectares. However, although in the period 2018 -2019 the figure was lower it is not equal to zero: about 89 hectares were lost.

The MOCUPP makes an analysis on the loss of tree cover from a crop. That is, identifying the variation between two time periods in forest areas due to the emergence of new crop areas.

Therefore, in order to estimate the loss, gain and no change in tree cover, data from two consecutive years of the cultivated area of the productive landscape must be available. With which it is concluded that in the analysis conducted in 2019, pineapple cultivation caused a loss of tree cover of more than 343 hectares (period 2017-2018), mostly in the Huetar Norte Region.

According to an article published by the Mongabay Latam site regarding the Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge, one of the four Costa Rica protected areas and one of the most important wetland sanctuaries, the implementation of pineapple crops has been seen within the refuge. This crop is considered to be dangerous for the species living those areas, mainly because most of those are endangered species, a consequence related to the loss of their ecosystems as well as deforestation and the use of pesticides, for instance, the harlequin toad.

The Central American Pesticides Manual details some of the effects identified from the chemicals used in pineapple crops that affect in different ways species such as fish: rainbow trout and carp; crustaceans: daphnids; birds; insects: bees, earthworms; plants; algae: Navicula pelliculosa, Raphidocelis subcapitata, Scenedesmus quadricauda, aquatic ferns.

Both bromacil and paraquat have been reported on the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) list of hazardous pesticides as endocrine disruptors or with effects on reproduction, the latter being federally restricted in the USA and banned in 48 countries around the world.

Chlorothalonil is also federally restricted in the USA and banned in the European Union, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, and is also banned in Colombia. Diuron was detected in samples of surface water and aquatic organisms after aquatic fauna mortality events in the Caribbean region of the country.

Various technical data sheets state that these compounds are for foliar application (application on the foliage) and must be used with care so that they do not come into contact with water sources, food and with precaution so as not to be inhaled, which is a real challenge if they are used manually.

Currently there are companies that are dedicated to offer services known as agricultural drones for the implementation of agrochemicals such as those mentioned above, which offer to cover one hectare of land in fifteen minutes, thanks to the generation of geo-referenced maps, land and farm measurements.

One of these companies' web portal identifies as a "Costa Rican pineapple success story" and points out that they offer solutions to: "The pineapple industry that is being affected by high environmental pressure to be able to control more agricultural processes and determine good work practices" and adds that they have implemented solutions "in Costa Rica in the areas of Upala, Los Chiles, San Carlos and Rio Cuarto", coincidentally the areas most affected by extensive cultivation of the fruit.

Author: Fabio Víquez, Colmena Lab.


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