SIQUIRRES, Costa Rica — Every other day, a truck travels down the dusty road flanked by palm trees outside Hilma Duartes' home in the heart of pineapple country here, carrying cisterns of clean drinking water.
In the past, Duartes — like 82 percent of all Costa Ricans — drank clean water from the sink. But now, she said that "we only use the tap for cleaning the house and washing clothes.” The change, she said, is the result of water pollution that emerged with the booming pineapple business in her community of Milano more than five years ago.
“Now if you leave it in a container, the next day there’s a milky residue,” she said of the water from the kitchen sink in her modest house.
Although sweet and delicious, pineapples are causing a great deal of bitterness in Duartes' community, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope in the province of Limon.
The total amount of land used for pineapple production here and in other parts of the country has grown from 12,500 hectares to as much as 50,000 hectares (more than 120,000 acres) in less than a decade. The surge has made Costa Rica the world’s largest pineapple exporter, according to the Agricultural Ministry.
But the title has come at a high cost, according to those residing near the crop.
Studies have detected low levels of contamination in the water near pineapple farms, and local residents fear that the farms continue to shed harmful agrochemicals into the rivers and groundwater, causing outbreaks of health problems ranging from basic skin rashes to asthma and miscarriages.
The health fears persist in spite of a green light from the health authorities to drink the water. “The level of water contamination (in Siquirres) is very minimal,” Health Minister Maria Luisa Avila told GlobalPost. “The residents continue drinking from the cisterns because they don’t want to change over to tap water, but I insist, there is no health risk,” she said.
Agricultural officials and pineapple sector leaders claim there are rabble rousers at work, who are exaggerating the health problems and stoking local fears.
“In that area there are very radical groups of environmentalists and syndicalists who are left over from the banana conflicts of many years ago,” said Sergio Porras, leader of the Agricultural Ministry’s pineapple division, referring to union struggles of the 1930s and 40s. Syndicalism is a movement that promotes shifting production power to workers' unions.
Gerardina Lopez, a leading member of the Syndicalist Association of the Caribbean, pointed to a more recent conflict in the region from 1969 to 1979, during which banana corporations such as the United Fruit Company were responsible for heavy contamination, "which was harmful for workers and their families," she said.
Porras acknowledged that many of the pineapple growers in the country were at one time banana farmers. But, he added, he believes the “radicals” want pineapple farms gone entirely, which would be disastrous for the 30,000 people directly employed by the farms, and the estimated 100,000 whose jobs are related to the prized fruit.
Meanwhile, amid the uncertainty and growing pressure from local groups, regional officials have taken a hard line against pineapple companies.
In early March, the Municipality of Siquirres issued a moratorium on expanding pineapple farms in the region. The ban came on the heels of a police raid on the offices of two fruit companies — Hacienda Ojo de Agua and Frutex — which are believed to be using chemicals such as bromacil and diuron on their crops, which were then allegedly washing off into Siquirres streams and groundwater.
Costa Rica has no legal guidelines on such chemicals. Nevertheless, the police are trying to learn more about what they believe could be potentially harmful pineapple practices.
“The raids gathered documents and evidence that prove the use of bromacil,” according to police investigator William Jimenez, although he said a complete analysis will not be available until later this month. On the water issue, he said “it’s totally recommendable” for residents to continue to avoid drinking water from the tap. “I’m an investigator, but I’m also bothered by this issue (personally) because I use that water too,” he added.
Some researchers are grateful for the moratorium, as it may offer a grace period during which deeper investigations can occur. “Currently there’s no complete panorama” of the impact of pineapples in Costa Rica, said Clemens Ruepert, of the National University’s Regional Institute of Toxic Substance Studies. “The residents are very concerned, and that’s a real issue. If it isn’t investigated, it’ll continue to be nothing more than hearsay. This requires further scientific investigation.”
Marco Retana, a biology professor at University of Costa Rica, believes massive pineapple expansion has taken a grave toll on the environment.
“There are no grasses around them. These are pineapples on totally exposed land. This causes serious erosion problems. After land is used for growing pineapples, it can hardly have any other function,” Retana said.
Locals say they are encountering another problem with the pineapples: a blood-sucking insect farmers call the mosca paletera, or “leg fly,” probably akin to an insect known in North America as a stable fly.
“When the pineapple is cut off, the stalk is left there to rot. Then the fly comes along, developing all of its larval cycles there, and then attacks the cattle,” Retana explained.
Nelson Esquivel, 70, said he noticed the bug problem before selling his cattle farm four years ago to a pineapple company. “The fly sucks the cow’s blood (and) leaves welts all over,” he said. TV channel 7 recently reported that dairy cattle farms are losing considerable amounts of milk production due to the mosca.
But other neighbors remain most bothered by the supposed water problem.
“The United States might have a different level” of agrochemicals permitted in its water, said Carlos Luis Mejia, 65, a resident of Milano. “What we want is zero contamination. That’s what we’re fighting for.”