Big Ag an Eco-Menace
Scientists are warning of a potentially devastating trend in Costa Rica’s agriculture.
Sprawling banana, African palm and pineapple plantations are becoming increasingly dependant on agro-chemicals a situation, they say, that is already harming the country’s natural resources.
We have swapped to dessert’ agriculture, said Fabio Chaverri, director of the NationalUniversity’s School of Environmental Studies. Where once we produced rice and beans, now we have turned to an export agriculture that demands large quantities of pineapples, coffee and banana.
According to Chaverri, the swap has prompted increasing use of chemicals to meet the demands of the world market.
Costa Rica ranks highest in Central America in its use of agro-chemicals per inhabitant, per farm laborer and per cultivated hectare, according to a recent State of the Nation report.
Since 1990, our cultivated area has remained constant, around 11%, but our use of chemicals per hectare has shot upwards. It’s completely disproportionate, said Elba de la Cruz, another researcher with the university.
The chemicals, she adds, are among the most toxic in the business.
Eighty percent of the herbicides imported into Costa Rica are highly toxic to the environment, both on land and in the water, she said.
Such statistics prompted a meeting of biologists last week at the university, in which they warned that Costa Rica may be approaching the tipping point.
According to the State of the Nation report’s findings, the continued use of chemicals, if unregulated, will cause serious ecological damage, including the loss of habitat for wildlife, bio-accumulation of chemicals in plants, animals and soils, sedimentation of rivers and drinking-water contamination.
Pesticides, explains the report, are spreading downhill, to coastal rivers, and downwind.
Agrochemicals have been detected in the air and ground in BraulioCarrilloNational Park and around Poás Volcano, warns the report.
University officials are most concerned about pineapple sprawl enormous, squat monocultures in which little else can live.
The number of hectares planted with pineapple increased more than any other crop last year and 208% since 2000.
Most alarming, according to the report, is the pineapple’s ravenous appetite for herbicides and pesticides. Pineapple plantations averaged 24.5 kilograms of herbicide per hectare per year. By contrast, coffee averages just 6.5 kg.
According to María Luisa Fournier, who recently completed a study on the effects of industrial agriculture on the country’s ecosystems, the problem isn’t with the farmers, rather with those who regulate them.
Our laws are weak. We are getting to the point where we have to say enough is enough, or soon it will be too late, she said.
She said large-scale farming most often disregards the country’s regulations, which prohibit clearing along riverbanks and set limits on the use of agro-chemicals, particularly near water supplies.
The State of the Nation also cited weak control, as the critical issue.
According to Jorge Rodríguez, Environment and Energy Vice-Minister, the laws are clear.
It’s enforcement that’s lacking.
We simply haven’t dedicated enough people to managing this situation over the years. Now we are paying the price, he said.
Rodríguez said the ministry is in the process of adding more inspectors, to reign in the now almost unregulated use of chemicals.
Chaverri hopes the increasing demand for organic, sustainable agriculture will help force the change and the government’s hand.
We already have a green image around the world, he said. Now, we just need to apply those same standards to our agriculture.
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