Two pineapple companies are facing criminal investigations for allegedly contaminating the water of four rural communities with chemical herbicides, while officials believe municipal and health authorities may have overlooked a lack of environmental permits for the plantations.
Agents with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) raided the offices and storerooms of the pineapple producers Hacienda Ojo de Agua and Frutex on Jan. 29 and Jan. 30 and visited their plantations – located in the canton of Siquirres in the humid Caribbean lowlands northeast of San José – to take samples of the chemicals being used.
The rural Siquirres communities of Cairo, Francia, Milano and Luisiana – all in the heart of pineapple country – have been receiving water from tanker trucks since July of 2007, when traces of bromacil, an herbicide, were discovered in the communities’ groundwater.
The Public Health Ministry has tried to assure residents that they are at no risk, but continues to send the water trucks.
Recent lab tests of the water supplies for those communities showed continued levels of bromacil, as well as traces of the herbicides diuron and hexazinone, according to a source inside the investigation who requested her name not be used because she has not been authorized to speak to the press.
The official added that the same chemicals were found in the storerooms of both companies, and at one farm workers were in the process of spraying bromacil in the fields.
“Our first (groundwater) sample came back with 1.6 (micrograms of bromacil per liter), and it supposedly should be at 0.5,” the official told The Tico Times Wednesday. “The law is clear that drinking water should not be contaminated with anything.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), bromacil is considered a “possible human carcinogen.”
While the EPA found that the chemical poses a “very low” cancer and chronic toxicity risk
to people who consume pineapples with bromacil residue, the risk to workers that handle bromacil is “of greater concern.”
In July 2008, the government drafted two presidential decrees to better regulate bromacil and diuron, distributed them to community organizations and posted them on the Health Ministry’s Web site asking for comment.
According to a document signed by Health Minister María Luis Avila, and also posted on the site, the public had until Aug. 22, 2008 to opine on the bill. It is unclear what has happened with the project in the six months since.
An e-mail to the Health Minister, and a message left on her cell phone asking for a comment for this article were not returned by press time.
Mariela González, administrative manager of Hacienda Ojo de Agua, insisted the chemicals used by the company pose no danger to either humans or the environment, and said the raids on the company’s offices were the product of “unfounded complaints.” “(Bromacil) is not prohibited, and more than two years ago, we stopped using it on the farm in question. But it is no problem at all for human health,” she said. Opponents in the region, however, are not convinced.
“Internationally, each country has its standards. Some countries allow (bromacil), other don’t. Why can’t we be one of the countries that doesn’t allow it? Just because the United States and Canada do?” said Lourdes Brenes, of the environmental organization Foro Emaus, which has led opposition to pineapple farming in the region. “We don’t want any type of chemicals in the water we drink,” she said.
The investigation is also looking into whether the Siquirres municipality and the local office of the Health Ministry overlooked a series of requirements, including environmental studies, when authorizing the expansion of the pineapple farms, according to the investigation official.
González acknowledged that, while Hacienda Ojo de Agua does have an environmental permit for a treatment plant on its property, it does not have any for its 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of pineapple fields. González also said the company doesn’t need them.
The majority of the company’s pineapple fields were first planted before 2004, when the government began requiring agricultural producers to file environmental impact studies with the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET), González said.
As Hacienda Ojo de Agua has expanded its plantations in recent years, it has not been required to file environmental reports because the new crops were planted on existing agricultural land, González said.
The agency in charge of approving the environmental impact studies for the agricultural industry – as well as the construction industry and every other industry in the country – is MINAET’s notoriously underequipped National Technical Secretariat (SETENA).
Late last year, SETENA’s director, Sonia Espinoza, told The Tico Times her office had approved the environmental impact study for only one pineapple plantation in Costa Rica (TT, Sept. 26, 2008).
“In SETENA, they say that to change crop, you don’t need an environmental viability permit, only if it’s a change of land use, such as from a forest to agricultural use,” González said.
So as long as pineapple crops are expanded over land registered for agricultural use, no environmental studies are required, she said.
According to the University of Costa Rica, Costa Rica is the world’s principal pineapple exporter, earning $485 million in pineapple exports in 2007.
Pineapple plantations have seen “explosive expansion” in recent years from 12,500 hectares (30,888 acres) planted in 2000 to 38,500 hectares (95,135) in 2006, according to the most recent State of the Nation report.
Pineapple exports grew by 48 percent between 2005 and 2007, with more than 102 million boxes exported in 2007, according to the National Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters (CANAPEP). This explosion, while producing jobs for regions that are largely impoverished, and income for local municipalities, has concerned many observers. Costa Rica ranks highest in Central America in its use of agrochemicals per inhabitant, per farm laborer and per cultivated hectare, according to the State of the Nation report, and pineapples require more pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals than any other crop, with the exception of bananas.
But with no environmental impact studies, and outdated regulations and legislation, the pineapple industry largely self regulates how it applies the chemicals it uses. Among the documentation seized in the OIJ raids, for example, are a series of “tickets” that the companies fill out when applying pesticides and herbicides explaining what chemicals are being used and how much.
According to the investigation official who spoke anonymously with The Tico Times, there is no way to know if those tickets are accurate unless they are compared directly with samples taken from the equipment that same day.
Opponents have also raised concern about deforestation, as land is cleared to make room for the plantations, and the spread of a particular fly that reproduces in the waste left after a pineapple crop is harvested, and feeds on blood from livestock. Just two weeks after the raids, and under growing pressure from community activists, the Siquirres municipality ordered a halt to the rapidly growing pineapple industry within its jurisdiction.
In a unanimous vote on Feb. 16, the Siquirres Municipal Council issued a moratorium on the “expansion of pineapple cultivation in the territory of the canton of Siquirres,” and called on the national government and pineapple companies to “take direct and concrete action” to clean up what is increasingly being seen as a noxious and unregulated industry.
“The moratorium, in reality, has no scientific founding or legal founding,” said González, of Hacienda Ojo de Agua. “Unfortunately, it was done according to the heated enthusiasm of students from the University of Costa Rica, who are concerned about the environment, but misinformed.”
In December 2008, the University of Costa Rica’s highest body, the University Council, issued a statement calling for a moratorium on the expansion of pineapple production in Siquirres and 12 other municipalities where the industry has taken root, citing concerns over environmental impact, health risks and labor practices.
Luis Bernardo Villalobos, a member of the University Council and professor at the school, said the council based its decision on a review of government documents associated with the pineapple industry as well as research carried out by university professors in the region.
“We are very pleased by the news (of the Siquirres moratorium), and we believe the country should be promoting more discussion about this,” said Villalobos, who coordinates the university’s research into health policies.
The professor also saw the moratorium as a sign that local governments are beginning to exert more control over their regions.
“Siquirres realized something very important. It has an impressive potential for eco-tourism, and it doesn’t serve them to be known as a place with contaminated groundwater and where they use pesticides that aren’t necessarily environmentally friendly.” Visit us at: ticotimes.net for these and other online exclusives.