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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Push for Greener Bananas in Costa Rica

Air Date: Week of

Bob Carty reports from Costa Rica on the environmental cost of the country's banana industry and the movement to clean up production of its biggest export. Costa Rican banana plantations have doubled in size in the last five years, making the country the world's second-largest banana producer, but the boom has left a trail of worker injuries, deforestation and pesticide poisoning.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up; after salsa beat starts fade, under)

CURWOOD: "All the nations like bananas." Well, why not? The banana, after all, the so-called perfect fruit: tasty, filling, but only slightly fattening. A source of potassium. A foundation for diets. A perfect blend of easily digested carbohydrates, natural sugars and vitamins that both infants and the elderly can chew. That's why the average American eats twenty-four and a half pounds of bananas a year, making it the most internationally-traded fruit.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: The unblemished yellow bunches we purchase unfortunately leave some bruises behind in the countries where they are produced. In the Central American country of Costa Rica, for example, banana plantations have doubled their area over the past five years, making Costa Rica the world's second largest banana producer, after Ecuador. But the banana boom has left a trail of worker injuries, deforestation and pesticide poisoning.

As Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty reports, environmental protests may eventually change the way the golden fruit is grown.

CARTY: In the jungle near Costa Rica's Atlantic coast, four howler monkeys jump across the forest canopy. They stop, and look down at a boatload of tourists moving slowly up a narrow canal. The intruders are craning their necks skyward, and clicking their cameras. They're here to see the monkeys - and the sloths, the manatees, the crocodiles, the river otters, and dozens of the birds. In the bargain, they also get to hear the imitations of their tour guide.

(Tour guide imitates animals)
CARTY: Fantastic...what other animals do you do?
(More animal imitations)

CARTY: Modesto Wilson is half-indigenous and half-black. For the last five years he's been taking groups of tourists up the 60-mile Tortuguerro Canal to see one of the best displays of wildlife in Central America. It's almost a Garden of Eden. But not quite. Branches on the riverbank are draped with what looks like pieces of toilet paper. They are remnants of plastic bags that have been washed into the canal by nearby banana plantations. Modesto Wilson says that's not the only thing they wash into the canal.

WILSON: A few weeks ago as we came through here we had to come to a dead stop with our motors because for about two kilometers it was jammed tight with fishes upside down. You know, hundreds of thousands - about a million fishes, I would say, total - died in this area. And this happens because the banana companies use pesticides in order to get five-star type bananas for exportation.

CARTY: A few miles inland from the canal, a worker is spraying pesticides under an endless row of banana trees. Most ecologists here believe that banana pesticides, washed into the Tortuguerro Canals by tropical rains, are the cause of the recurrent fish kills. This worker wears no gloves, no mask, no goggles, but he is spraying Pariquat, one of the so-called "dirty dozen" pesticides that is highly restricted in the U.S. Another day he might be applying other herbicides or fungicides, insecticides or pneumaticides. From their roots to their leaves, bananas are bathed in chemicals. Chris Willy is a biologist who works in Costa Rica for the U.S.-based Rainforest Alliance. Willy says bananas are almost grown hydroponically - force-fed with fertilizers, and propped up by sticks and strings because they can't even support their own weight. They are trees, but they're not a forest.

WILLY: Banana plantations replace the most biodiverse, the richest ecosystem on earth, and that's tropical lowland rainforest. So you clear away this fabulously complicated and highly-evolved ecosystem rainforest and replace it with a pesticide-drenched monoculture that is absolutely sterile. Biologists call it a biological desert, because nothing lives there but bananas. Here is an industry that literally wipes rainforests off the map.

CARTY: The ecological problems continue after the jungle is gone. Erosion turns once-clear streams into brown culverts. Downstream, the sediment clogs the canals and sometimes blocks the tourist trade. Eventually the soil-and-pesticide concoction reaches the Atlantic Ocean, where, according to local ecologists, it is slowly killing off-shore coral reefs.

Meanwhile, each stem of the fruit is swaddled in pesticide-impregnated plastic, as the bananas mature. The plastic bags are often discarded on the ground, and washed away by the rains. That's what litters the canals. Biologists also say the bags kill some sea turtles, which mistake them for jellyfish. Finally, almost half a million tons of bananas are dumped as waste because they don't meet the banana companies' standards. Conservationists like Chris Willy believe that too much of the whole process is merely for cosmetic reasons.

WILLY: The bananas that we buy are absolutely blemish-free. There's not a mark on them. It looks like you could eat the outer skin, it's so beautiful. What we wonder is if we could convince consumers to buy bananas that are not so perfect, would that reduce the need to use so many chemicals here in the production end. Because a lot of consumers have heard about the problems, and they wonder if it's politically correct to continue eating bananas. Shouldn't we be boycotting bananas?

CARTY: Environmental criticism and talk about boycotts is something entirely new in the banana fields. This industry began a hundred years ago, when a Brooklyn entrepreneur started a little venture called the United Fruit Company, whose subsequent economic bullying and invocation of American gun-boat diplomacy made Central American known as the "banana republics."

Not much has changed over the century. Today at a Dole Company packing plant, a worker staples together a banana box while another fills it with 42 pounds of almost uniform green bananas. It's one of 90 million boxes Costa Rica will export this year, mostly to the U.S. and Europe. Sixty percent of that is still grown by the big transnational companies: Dole, DelMonte, and Chiquita, the company that used to be United Fruit. There's also still a bit of the old "banana republic" mentality. Contributing almost half a billion dollars to Costa Rica's income, the banana companies don't expect to be criticized, least of all by foreign ecologists. Juan Rafael Lizano is the Minister of Agriculture.

LIZANO: No es solo la agricultura la que tiene que comarse la naturaleza. La naturaleza también tiene que comarse la agricultura...
VOICE OF TRANSLATOR: It's not only agriculture that has to accommodate itself to nature; nature also has to accommodate itself to agriculture. Bananas are our first export product. If the ecologists boycott bananas, they're gonna have to boycott everything, because the industrialized countries haven't stopped eating wheat, and chicken, and other things they produce where their forests once were. They shouldn't criticize Costa Rica. No other country has 28 percent of its area in natural reserves. Bananas use less than one percent of our territory, and we need money so that our people can have televisions and drive cars. The ecologists want people to go backward. We say they are like watermelons - green on the outside and red on the inside.

CARTY: But it isn't only foreign ecologists who are angry about bananas. On San Jose's Central Avenue, a thousand protesters are chanting, "Minister Lizano, you can keep your banano!" Which, in Spanish, not only rhymes but conveys a certain phallic insult. In Central America, you rarely see this kind of a protest - one that's against economic growth. But at the rally there are peasant farmers with signs that say "We need fewer bananas and more beans." There are trade unions with placards protesting the pesticide poisoning of workers, and the banana company practice of fighting any attempts at unionization. And there are priests, nuns, and youth groups from the Catholic Church. The church activists want a halt to the banana expansion because it has caused a rise in alcoholism, prostitution, drug abuse, the breakdown of families, and it's also caused an epidemic of malaria. Father Gerardo Vargas is one of the protest organizers. He says the protest is not only about trees, but about human rights.

VARGAS: Porque son violados de derechos humanos en las plantaciones bananeros...
VOICE OF TRANSLATOR: Human rights are violated on the banana plantations when people have to work from four in the morning until eight at night, when they have to work Saturdays and Sundays, when women are not respected, when there isn't freedom of organization.
CARTY: What's your message to North American banana consumers?...¿Qué es su mensaje a los consumadores norte americanos de bananos?
VARGAS: Bueno, mi mensaje es que cado banano que se come...
VOICE OF TRANSLATOR: My message is that every banana that's eaten contains the violation of human rights and the destruction of our forests. A banana can taste very good, but it tastes of a lot of human dignity that has been trampled in Central America.

CARTY: Although Costa Rica's Minister of Agriculture is a banana industry defender, the environment ministry here is investigating how the British-based Gees Company got a permit for illegally clearing almost 1000 acres of jungle. And the labor ministry may take some plantations to court for their inhuman living conditions, the use of undocumented workers, excessive work hours, and below-minimum wages. Javier Rojas is president of the National Banana Corporation, an entity which represents both national and multi-national banana companies. Rojas says that a lot of the environmental criticism is exaggerated. He denies that banana pesticides kill fish. That's not been quantified, he says. Nonetheless, Javier Rojas says that banana companies are getting the message. Recently, the corporation set up a commission to establish environmental guidelines. Mr. Rojas says that through self-regulation, the industry is changing its ways.

ROJAS: We have to use less pesticides and we have to use less plastics, and we have to dispose of the banana waste more properly. We've been forced to do that. That's the good part about conservation groups. I mean, if we didn't have them, then we wouldn't need to do what we're doing, probably. Maybe, I'm saying maybe. But there of course is a good side to everything.

CARTY: There's also a large dose of self-interest. The producers are afraid that consumers might begin to think of bananas as environmentally dirty. The word "boycott" is still in the wind. Local ecologists say that's why some companies, especially the multi-national ones who are sensitive about their image, have actually made some changes. They're doing more reforesting near river banks, collecting the plastic bags, and using less of some pesticides. The companies say they conduct inspections to make sure that no bananas with detectable pesticide residues are exported.

It's still too early to determine just how great the improvement is. But Chris Willy is offering an additional incentive. Willy's organization, the Rainforest Alliance, has worked with companies and local ecologists to design a set of social and environmental standards for eco-friendly banana production. The standards are things like reducing pesticide use, providing safety equipment and training, initiating responsible waste management, and protecting virgin forest to offset forest destroyed. If companies meet these standards, they'll earn the right to display a seal of approval. And Chris Willy's group will advertise that to consumers.

WILLY: The goal is that, beginning early in 1993, you will be able to find on your supermarket shelf bananas with a little sticker on them that says "Smart Banana." Our ultimate goal, of course, would be that in five or ten years, the industry has transformed, and instead of being an environmental bad guy, is now an industry that tries its best to grow an important food crop in such a manner that it does the least possible damage to the environment.

CARTY: Back on the Tortuguerro Canals, tour guide Modesto Wilson is trying to coax a spider monkey closer to his boat of tourists. Here is yet one more reason to clean up the banana business. While the fruit may be Costa Rica's first income earner, a close second is tourism, especially eco-tourism. Without change, the banana boom and its dead fish and plastic bags will mean a tourism loss. The "smart banana" program will not stop profit-hungry companies from cutting more rainforest. Ironically, that might only be stopped by commercial, not consumer, power - by the current European Community's plan to put quotas on Latin American bananas. Meanwhile, Modesto Wilson supports the "smart banana" idea. He says something has to be done. In the last five years of banana expansion, Wilson says the quality and quantity of wildlife on the Tortuguerro Canal has fallen in half.

WILSON: You know, you have to project a hundred years down the stretch. Our grandkids a hundred years from now are going to be our age. And what are we leaving for them? I'm not saying that they shouldn't farm bananas. Some countries are going to have to give up some land for bananas. But you shouldn't destroy everything that is in regards to natural resources and the forest just to bring you banana.

CARTY: On the Tortuguerro Canals in Costa Rica, I'm Bob Carty for Living on Earth.



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