In early 2016, the Ambassador Program of the ETH Zurich World Food System Center gave me the great opportunity to work on a young project that aims to support the indigenous Maleku people in northern Costa Rica with the establishment of their own sustainable species-rich cocoa agroforest. I was welcomed with open arms in the territory; the Maleku were proud to share with me their home, stories about their culture, indigenous tales, indigenous food recipes and a glimpse of their vast medicinal plant knowledge. Most of all, I have started to better understand the struggle of these people, trying to preserve their cultural and natural heritage in a globalizing world.
The Maleku are one of the smallest and poorest indigenous communities in Costa Rica with around 800 people that live in three little towns, called “palenques”. Like most other indigenous communities in Latin America, they face serious problems with their land rights. Although the indigenous territory has been protected since 1977 by the indigenous law (N°6172), almost 80% of the territory is appropriated by non-indigenous people (Castillo Vásquez, 2005).
To the Maleku, the territory signifies much more than the patches of soil and trees; their land deeply connects them to nature. The original Maleku territory extends far beyond the borders defined by the government when the reserve was established in 1976 which back then included the rich rivers and lagoons between the Guanacaste mountain range and the volcanic sierra along the Pacific coast.
In addition to the lost land from their ancestors, the Maleku are deeply concerned about Caño Negro, one of Central America’s largest wetland systems located at the north of their original territory close to the border of Nicaragua. These wetlands have been declared a “wetland of international importance” in 1991 by the RAMSAR Convention. Caño Negro, occupying an area of 102 km2, is a paradise for a huge biodiversity of wildlife as well as an important refuge for many endangered species, like jaguars, tapirs and abundant monkey species. Local people are especially proud of the presence of gaspar, a native fish species that is referred to a living fossil because it has not changed for millions of years and is essential to the ecosystem.
The Maleku culture is strongly interlinked with Caño Negro. The indigenous people have been using the wetlands as fishing and hunting ground for more than seven hundred years. Many Maleku tales talk about Caño Negro and how the dependence on these natural resources comes with a huge responsibility to respect the fragile ecosystem of the wetlands. The Maleku see themselves as caretakers of Caño Negro; they do not only use it as a pool of resources, but rescue fishes from drying lagoons and control invasive species.
For some years, they are desperately observing how the health of the Caño Negro is rapidly deteriorating. With a helpless, stunned voice, one of the village’s eldest would ask me “Please explain me. Please explain me how it is possible that the great Caño Negro is dying.”
The explosion of illegal pineapple plantations in Costa Rica threatens the Caño Negro
The main driving force behind the destruction of this fragile ecosystem comes from the pineapple, whose production in Costa Rica has virtually exploded in the past years. Pineapples are one of Costa Rica’s most lucrative exports and even surpass both bananas and coffee (Ferguson, 2011). Since 2007, Costa Rica has been the leading exporter of pineapple worldwide, with nearly 2 million tons produced in 2013 (Central America Data, 2014). Three-quarters of pineapples sold in Europe are grown in Costa Rica, mainly by a few big companies like Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita who control the sector (Lawrence, 2010).
Pineapple, a bromeliad that is accustomed to growing beneath the shade of rainforest trees, is cultivated in vast monocultures beneath the hot tropical sun. They need extremely heavy and frequent applications of agrochemicals to survive, which makes them one of the most polluting crops in Central America. These highly industrialized pineapple plantations are causing many problems in the country, including contamination of above and belowground water bodies as well as deforestation of virgin forests. But in Caño Negro their destructive power is unprecedented, putting one of the world’s most important wetlands in danger of serious environmental damage.
The development of pineapple plantations often only leaves tiny islands of forest, cutting off biological corridors and limiting biodiversity (Sherwood, 2011). In addition to the deforestation of Caño Negro’s virgin forests, pineapple cultivation drives the illegal digging of drainage canals, which carry water, sediment and agrochemicals into the nearby marsh. This affects downstream water bodies detrimentally; the lagoons, that have been of crystalline color before, are now brownish, choked by sedimentation from land-clearing and are in risk of drying out (CAVU, 2009).
The water bodies are increasingly contaminated with agrochemicals, including highly toxic substances like glyphosate, bromacil and even paraquat, a wide-spectrum herbicide that is banned in most parts of the world (UCR, 2011). This dangerous pesticide is still used in Costa Rica as it is considered the cheapest option for killing the remaining conical stem after the pineapple harvest. In this stem, water accumulates and provides perfect conditions for bloodsucking fruit flies to develop. To prevent an invasion of these flies attacking cattle in the region, the cone needs to be removed after the harvest (Grabs, 2015).
The less people pay in Europe, the more people pay in Costa Rica
The main burden of excessive pesticide use for cheap pineapple production falls on the workers in the plantations. Accidental poisonings are common. The long working hours under the full tropical sun make the work in pineapple plantations one of the hardest in agricultural exploitations. In addition, the wages in the pineapple sector are too low to barely live on. The conditions are so tough that the jobs are filled not by locals but by Nicaraguan immigrants. Many of the migrants are without proper papers, which makes it impossible for them to even assert their basic rights (Grabs, 2015). These migrant workers are the shameful secret to Costa Rica’s cheap pineapples.
A situation out of sight and out of control
The continuous aggravation of the situation outlays the drastic failure of national and international bodies to efficiently protect this highly valuable ecosystem of wide-ranging importance. In fact, the remoteness of the area and its vast extension makes it hard for governmental agencies to control the situation. The Administrative Environmental Tribunal (TAA) is so overloaded with denunciations that it cannot keep up with its investigations (UCR, 2011). The authorities rather concentrate their efforts on the protection of the major tourist regions in Costa Rica (Sherwood, 2011). Nevertheless a small success came in 2010, when an environmental court closed three pineapple plantations near the Caño Negro Wildlife and Wetland Reserve in the Northern Zone (UCR, 2011).
The media and European NGOs were slow to pick up on the problems in the pineapple sector, mainly because the pineapple production exploded in a very short period of time. This rapid growth, combined with the big political and economic influence of the corporations behind the pineapple hampered the initial regulation of the sector (Lawrence, 2010).
Meanwhile more stringent standards are in place for the export market. However, the reality is that only very few shipments going to the U.S. and Europe are actually tested (Ferguson, 2011) and the pineapple corporations continue exploiting and destroying valuable nature reserves in one of Central America’s “greenest” countries. This raises the question for consumers, if a mango or even better a coconut (that does not need any pesticides at all) may also be able to satisfy the hunger for exotic fruits. At least for my part, my taste for pineapples has soured.
- Castillo Vásquez R (2005) El territorio histórico Maleku de Costa Rica.
- CAVU (2009) EXPOSED: Caño Negro wetland in critical state.
- Central America Data (2014) Costa Rica established as largest producer of pineapples.
- Ferguson W (2011) Industry regulations keep pineapple, environment safe, say Costa Rica producers.
- Grabs J (2015) Costa Rica’s pineapple monopoly not so sweet.
- Lawrence F (2010) Bitter fruit: The truth about supermarket pineapple.
- Sherwood D (2011) Scrutiny at last for key Costa Rican wetland.
- UCR (2011) MINAET rehuye debate sobre Caño Negro en Universidad de Costa Rica.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Noémie Graas is an environmental scientist from Luxembourg who is passionate about sustainable food systems. She believes in the strong potential of cocoa agroforests to combine biodiversity protection with the production of healthy and sustainable food. Currently, she is working on a young project that aims to support the indigenous Maleku community in Costa Rica with the establishment of their own species-rich cocoa agroforest.
"Overall, my time in Costa Rica was an extremely fruitful and inspiring experience. Together with the Maleku, we have already planted the first 300 cocoa trees and currently we are researching endangered and neglected plant species that can be integrated into the agroforestry system. I am very thankful for the great support of the Ambassador program, which made all this possible. It is very satisfying to see how a small amount of investment can go a long way, in particular in such marginalized and poor communities."