Costa Rica is generally known as the oasis of calm within oft-chaotic Central America. Its tourism industry has long thrived because of its lush rain forests and biodiversity. But when it comes to business this country, only a little smaller than West Virginia, has emerged as an agricultural power in its own right. Companies including Dole and Chiquita have long invested in Costa Rica, and the country has become a large exporter of bananas and pineapples.
The country’s pineapple industry in particular has surged in recent years. In 2000 it was a nascent business with only a few farms. Only 12 years later, it became one of the world’s biggest producers of this coveted fruit. Estimated to supply 35 percent of the world’s pineapple crop only a few years ago, Costa Rica’s contribution surged to an estimated 60 percent of global production last year.
But Costa Rica’s riches from pineapple have come with a high environmental and social price tag. Writers at large publications and blogs alike have charged that the excessive pesticides and fertilizers used in tandem with pineapple production have wreaked havoc on soil, water, farms and, of course, the people living in and near these farms. One chemical often used, paraquat, was deemed so toxic that it was banned by the European Union and Dole ceased its use almost a decade ago. And for a country that has long been hailed as a leader on protecting human rights, the plight of Nicaraguans who have crossed the border to work within Costa Rica’s farming sector has stained its reputation.
Now the Costa Rican government says it is serious about taking on the social and environmental concerns that have swirled around its pineapple industry, one valued as much as $800 million annually. Government agencies partnered with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and stakeholders across all sectors to take action on what is billed as the National Platform for Responsible Production and Trade of Pineapple.
Launched in 2011, this coalition includes retailers like Walmart and Tesco, along with NGOs, consumer groups, trade unions and the small-scale producers who largely comprise Costa Rica’s pineapple sector. Together, this group insists that it is committed to cleaning up an industry that has been profitable but for many, polluting and punishing. For three years, over 900 representatives worked to hammer out an agreement that could clean up Costa Rica’s pineapple business. Two years later, they insist that they are ready to enact change.
Over the next five years, this coalition will tackle a bevy of problems that have beset Costa Rica’s pineapple production: Solutions for agriculture runoff, new farming best practices that will benefit the country’s small farmers, and more equitable labor policies are a few of the improvements this group promises.
Whether this “National Platform” can score the buy-in of three of Costa Rica’s biggest producers, Dole, Del Monte Foods and Chiquita, remains to be seen. While all of these firms are quick to promote their sustainability work and social welfare efforts, they have plenty of detractors. Del Monte has been ensnared in allegations of unfair workplace practices; Chiquita has been accused of promoting false sustainability claims; and critics have long called out Dole for what they are say is a long history of labor violations at its banana plantations.
This transformation will not happen without these companies’ commitment if Costa Rica’s environment, social welfare and economic opportunities for more of its citizens are to improve in the long term.
Image credit: UNDP