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Banana Cultivation in Costa Rica
Agriculture exerts major influences on economic, environmental and social developments. A society’s dependence on agriculture and the types of crops produced can often dictate economic and environmental political policies, as well as influence the social structure of a country or region. Costa Rica’s agricultural sector has been and is largely influenced and dependent on banana cultivation. Banana cultivation and export have been, and continue to be, integral components in the growth and development of Costa Rica’s economy. Costa Rica was primarily a society dependent on subsistence agriculture until the mid-nineteenth century, when coffee became the most popular and lucrative export. Bananas soon followed and these two crops continue to be two of the most important agricultural exports for the Costa Rican economy, supplemented by sugar and meat exports (Economy of Costa Rica).
Costa Rica currently has a relatively stable economy; however coffee and banana exports have recently been somewhat volatile. Banana exports are affected by the overproduction and overabundance of bananas on the world market, thus negatively impacting the agricultural sector. Banana cultivation in Costa Rica can be a double-edged sword. Although the revenue generated from banana production and export is vital to the economic sector, there are severe environmental, health and social impacts that ensue. This paper will discuss the history of banana cultivation, the processes of cultivation and the environmental, health and social impacts. Movements toward more sustainable banana cultivation will be briefly discussed.
History of Bananas in Central America
Although bananas are commonly associated with Central America and the Caribbean, bananas originated in Asia, primarily in the Indo-Malaysian region (Bananas). The introduction of bananas to the Central American region was a result of early Spanish exploration. Banana cultivation in Costa Rica specifically, was initiated in the 1870’s by Keith Minor, an American entrepreneur. Minor was commissioned by the Costa Rican government to construct a transnational railroad and began planting bananas alongside the railroad. In 1872 he started the first commercial banana plantation in Costa Rica and began exporting bananas to the United States. In order to increase the production and export of this commodity, the Costa Rican government began to offer generous land concessions and incentives to attract foreign investors and companies (Hall 567). Minor’s company merged with the Boston Fruit Company in the 1890’s and became The United Fruit Company, which held a monopoly over the banana industry until the 1950’s.
In the 1950’s, transnational companies began leasing company lands to local growers. However, local growers were not allotted much autonomy in the cultivation of the banana crops. The growers could only sell their bananas to the transnational company, who would then be responsible for transport, marketing and distribution abroad. “Banana corporations maintained strict control over the growers, fixing prices and volumes. These independent contracts became win-win situations for the fruit companies: They were able to maintain profits and control, yet eliminated all risks of production” (McCracken). Currently, control of the banana industry in most of Central America is maintained by U.S. fruit companies. Chiquita Brands (formerly United Fruit), Dole and Del Monte are the largest banana producers, controlling over 65% of world banana exports, combined (McCracken). Chiquita and Dole are U.S. based companies. Del Monte is owned by the Chilean-based IAT group (Banana Companies). Bananas are the fourth largest staple crop in the world. The major banana variety grown for export is the Cavendish.
Costa Rica is currently one of the top ten exporters of bananas in the world, although in 2004 Costa Rican export volumes were down. The vast majority of the bananas produced in Costa Rican are for export, as opposed to local consumption. Most exports go to industrialized countries; the top three consuming countries in 2004 were the United States, the European Union and Japan (Banana Commodity).
Banana production in Costa Rica is primarily located on the Caribbean, or eastern, side of the country. Banana cultivation requires specific, optimum conditions to be successful. Banana crops will only be successful on the best soils. “Banana plantations require flat terrain and deep (no less than 1.20 m), well-structured, and well-drained soils (humid but not saturated) with a high balance of nutrients (especially potassium) and a pH between 6 and 7.5” (Hall 567). Prime soils are frequently found in alluvial plains and on volcanic ash deposits. Additionally, bananas require 10-15 months of frost-free conditions. Most plants will not grow when temperatures drop below 53 degrees F. Conversely, plant growth significantly slows at 80 degrees F and stops at 100 degrees F.
According to Chiquita, the banana production process consists of four major segments: plant growth, fruit protection, harvest, cleaning and packing and shipping. Fruit growth, discussed in the preceding paragraph, culminates in the development of a flowering stem with a large bud after approximately 6-8 months. Within this bud are tiny flowers that will eventually develop into bananas. After the stem has emerged, the fruit protection process begins. Fourteen days after the stem has developed, leaves that may damage the fruit are removed and the fruit is bagged to shield it from sun and insect damage. Colored ribbons are tied at the top of the bag to denote the scheduled harvest week. The plants are supported by twine to protect the plants from being blown over by the wind and pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are applied during various stages of plant growth (Banana Operations).
After the fruit has sufficiently matured, the bananas are cut from the stems and placed in water tanks for cleaning. Workers cut the bananas into small clusters and wash the clusters again. Chiquita stickers are then applied to the clusters and then packed and loaded into boxes on pallets for shipment. Bananas are primarily transported by truck or train to port where the bananas are loaded on refrigerated ships, normally within 24 hours of harvest. Within 3 to 11 days, depending on the final destination, the fruit arrives at the market where it is ripened and distributed. Most companies generally tend to follow the same production process, although this is a specific description of the Chiquita process.
There are a variety of threats to the successful cultivation of bananas. As previously mentioned, growth conditions, including weather, can greatly affect the success of a banana crop. Recently, in January, 2005, numerous banana plantations and the respective crops in Sixaola, the main banana producing region of Costa Rica, were damaged by floods.
Bananas are not grown from seeds—they grow from existing plants. Therefore, when plants are destroyed, it is not possible to replant. Additionally, plants in the same area are not genetically diverse, meaning they will share the same genetic weaknesses. In addition to the weather, banana plants are susceptible to a variety of fungus. Black Sigatoka disease is a fungus that affects the leaves of Cavendish plants. A more common, serious disease is the Panama disease that attacks the roots of the banana plant. As opposed to the Black Sigatoka disease, there is no chemical treatment for the Panama disease—infected plants must be destroyed (Ritter).
Environmental and Health Impacts
As a result of the optimal conditions needed to produce bananas, numerous chemicals are used in banana production to enhance the success of these crops. Moreover, the demands of North American and European consumers for a cosmetically attractive banana also induce the prevalent use of agrochemicals. As previously mentioned, fungicides are used to ward of fungal diseases and pests, fertilizers to accommodate for declining soil quality and availability and herbicides to keep the ground free from vegetation. Fungicide applications are the most prevalent chemical inputs. These applications are not limited to two to three times per year—applications can occur up to 45-50 times per growth cycle (yearly) (McCracken). Many of these chemicals are applied by airplanes, so much of the chemical has the potential to pollute air and surface waters in Costa Rica. Additionally, although Costa Rica has similar regulatory requirements regarding chemical use to those in the U.S., these requirements are often ignored in practice. With the philosophy of minimizing risk, “the transnational companies have traditionally determined the volume, kinds, and frequency of the chemicals used in their own plantations as well as those of their independent producers” (Hall 579).
Obviously, such intense chemical use has negative repercussions for the environment. The volume of pesticides applied for agriculture in Central America is approximately ten times the amount used in industrial countries. Compounding the issue, many chemicals used on banana plantations have been prohibited in the United States, the major manufacturer and exporter of these chemicals. Soils on banana plantations have been contaminated by excessive chemical use; the land of many abandoned plantations has been so contaminated that future agricultural use is not possible. Additionally, monitoring of areas proximate to banana plantations has detected chemical residues from these agrochemicals in the soil, ground and surface waters. “During the mid 1980’s studies done in the Valle de Estrella region of Costa Rica found residues of fungicides in wells and rivers in concentrations two time that know to cause adverse impacts to fish” (McCracken). Moreover, heavy rains wash the chemicals into rivers and streams—massive fish kills have occurred as a result.
Another source of environmental concern is the aforementioned plastic bags used to protect the fruit. These bags are coated with pesticides and are generally disposed of in open air dumps. Sea turtles are especially vulnerable to rogue bags and have been suffocated when the bags were mistaken for jellyfish in the ocean.
The human workers are also susceptible to health problems caused by intensive agrochemical use. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, 10,000 Costa Rican banana workers were sterilized due to the use of Di Bromo Chloro Propane (DBCP), a nematicide. This chemical was not banned in Costa Rica until 1987, ten years after it was banned in the U.S. Accidental poisonings may occur due to lack of instruction and equipment. Humidity and high temperatures discourages workers from wearing safety equipment, such as rubber gloves and boots, coveralls and respirators. In rural areas, workers may not be able to read the English labels.
Another environmental consequence of banana production is deforestation and land transformations. “The development of banana plantations requires the complete transformation of the Caribbean lowland environment. Marshes are drained to allow for cultivation of the fruit and construction of the plantation. The diverse tropical forests are completely removed right up their river banks and replaced with banana trees. Streams are channelized and drainage canals are constructed to prevent flooding of the fields” (McCracken). Although Costa Rica is excellent when it comes to conservation legislation, it has one of the worst deforestation rates in Latin America. Although forests originally covered 99% of Costa Rica, 24.4% of these forests remain today. Clearing for agriculture (i.e. coffee and banana) is one of the largest sources of this deforestation. The land is now much more vulnerable to flooding and soil erosion, in addition to increased siltation of rivers (Costa Rica).
Although banana producing countries are largely economically dependent on these exports, the local populations do not acquire the major benefits of production. Much of the profit, 88.5% of the total value of bananas generated at the retail level, accrues to the transnational companies, wholesalers and retailers of the importing countries. Workers are often immigrants from Nicaragua that work long, difficult hours for minimal pay and generally no benefits. Additionally, workers are often denied the right to organize as unions. Historically, banana production has been characterized by rapid development and an even more rapid economic decline. “For example, the Costa Rican city of Quepos was developed as a major Pacific port during the 1930’s. production ended in Quepos in 1956 when Panama disease became established. Abandoned company land was used for African oil palm and cocoa production. These new crops only employed 700 people, compared with the 5,600 employed on the banana plantations” (McCracken).
Political decisions continue to be influenced by the banana industry, and in many cases, banana entrepreneurs are also the politicians, resulting in a lack of enforcement of both environmental and human rights legislation (Vargas).
Sustainability & Fair Trade
The banana industry provides much needed revenue and employment to Central American economies such as Costa Rica. However, as previously stated, frequently these benefits are coupled with detriments to the environment and plantation workers. The demands of industrialized countries for flawless, inexpensive fruit contribute to the aforementioned unsustainable production methods (i.e. excessive agrochemical use and deforestation).
However, there are movements afoot to promote a more sustainable, fair commodity. By and large, the push for a more sustainable, fair trade banana must come from consumers willing to purchase these types of bananas. The Costa Rican Ambio Foundation and the Rainforest Alliance implemented the “Eco-ok” program. This program encourages growers to implement growing practices that are better for humans and the environment. Chiquita is the first major banana producer to support the “eco-ok” certification program. The program involves installing solid waste traps in packaging facilities in order to diminish river contamination, monitoring water quality, rebuilding warehouses to store chemicals safely and composting organic waste (McCracken).
Organic production is possible on a small scale; however, large scale organic production is virtually impossible. As is common with most organic produce, it is difficult for small growers to compete with the large transnational companies. Additionally, organic growers located near large banana plantations have to deal with the chemical runoff and aerial drift, which can obstruct organic certification. However, despite these challenges, there is a growing niche market in the U.S. and Europe for organically grown bananas (McCracken).
Additionally, “integrated farm management through such practices as crop diversification, crop rotation, intercropping and biological filters designed to separate intensive agricultural areas from natural ones helps minimize the effects of ecosystem intervention” (Hall 587). Through the use of integrated farm management practices and what is hopefully growing support for fair trade and organically produced bananas, the banana industry in Costa Rica can become more sustainable. However, progress will likely be slow due to the invested interests of the transnational companies and economically, socially and culturally distant consumers.
Bananas are one of the major exports generating revenue for Costa Rica’s economy. Costa Rica is in the top ten countries exporting bananas. However, much of the revenue generated from this crop does not accrue to Costa Rica, but to transnational companies, wholesalers and retailers that are generally not located in Costa Rica. Additionally, banana plantations have contributed to chemical pollution of water, as well as deforestation, not to mention the various social consequences resulting from banana plantations. However, there are efforts taking place to increase consumer awareness and support of free trade, “eco-ok” and organic bananas. However valiant these efforts may be, there are many challenges facing sustainable, fair banana production in Costa Rica and the rest of Central America.
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McCracken, Carrie. “The Impacts of Banana Plantation Development in Costa Rica.” 1998 http://members.tripod.com/foro_emaus/BanPlantsCA.htm
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Vargas, Gerardo. “The Socio-Environmental Problems of Banana Plantations in Costa Rica.” http://members.tripod.com/foro_emaus/p1ing.htm
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