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Costa Rica, part 4: Pineapple, with a side of complexity

Monday, August 17th, 2009 | Author:

By Joe Arvai

8/12/2009

Pineapple, as far as the eye can see.

We drove east today, from the EARTH campus toward the coastal city of Puerto Limón.

As one heads east, pineapple plantations dominate the landscape.  The size of the plantations only underscores the magnitude of the problem facing local communities.  Massive amounts of pesticides need to be used to keep the plants free of insects, and to keep them growing quickly.  Monstrous storage warehouses and packing facilitates, which consume energy like mad, dot the sides of the main highway heading east.  Tractor trailers carrying the fruit barrel down the narrow roads, often making the simple act of driving in a car feel like a ride with the Blue Angels (or the Snowbirds for the Canadians in the audience).

Often, the plantations are set back from the road (and nearby villages) and are ‘hidden’ behind piled earth or tree-lined buffers.  The official explanation for the buffers is to keep airborne pesticides from traveling into populated or well-travelled areas.  This is no doubt true; moreover, local residents have staked these buffers out as an important issue in any policy reform regarding pineapple production.  On the other hand, could it also be that the big producers — Dole and Del Monte — just want to hide what are fairly unsightly and potentially dangerous monocultures from the hundreds of tourist busses and vans that head for the Caribbean coast each day?

This complex of issues is more than enough to fuel the scores of advocates for what many researchers and practitioners are calling “alternative agriculture.”  When I wander the aisles of the well-stocked but relatively environmentally unfriendly grocery stores in the United States and Canada, I too often find myself squarely in this camp.

But, as is always the case, environmental risks aren’t simple cases of good guys versus the bad guys.  The plantations employ tens of thousands of often poor, local villagers.  The producers play an important role maintaining infrastructure — roads and bridges, and the delivery of water and electricity — in places that look like they have been forgotten by time, let alone the government.  And a significant share of pineapple revenue gets plowed back into the country, supporting all kinds of national, provincial, and local programs.  So while “organic” and “local” are hot topics these days in North American agriculture, these agricultural systems — which do exist in Costa Rica — would have great difficulty surviving, and in some cases thriving,  without access to the warehouses, packing facilities, and roads built and maintained by the corporate giants.

So for us, it’s the complex decisions — and importantly, the tradeoffs — embedded in this tangled web of costs and benefits that brought us to Costa Rica in the first place.  I have a feeling that they’ll keep us here for quite some time…

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