SEPTEMBER 1996 · VOLUME 17 · NUMBER 9
G O I N G B A N A N A S I N C E N T R A L A M E R I C A
SIQUIRRES, COSTA RICA -- Although multinational banana companies no longer install governments of their choosing in Central America, the global banana market still wields enormous influence over the region's environment, people and politicians.
Accelerated Central American deforestation, for example, came as an unintended consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Spurred by exaggerated speculation about the extent to which Eastern Europe harbored a pent-up demand for bananas, plantation owners cut down large swaths of secondary forest in Costa Rica's northeastern Sarapiquí region to supply a perceived market that never materialized.
Deforestation is just the first cut of the environmental destruction that occurs to keep fresh fruit in European and North American cereal bowls. Large-scale, intensive banana production utilizes extremely toxic pesticides on a scale that few Northern consumers realize.
In Costa Rica, bananas occupy 5 percent of cultivated land, account for 20 percent of export revenues and are the targets of 35 percent of the country's staggering pesticide imports, according to the Pesticide Program of the National University of Costa Rica in Heredia.
Typical banana plantations in Central America apply 30 kilograms of active pesticide ingredients per hectare per year (more than 10 times the average for intensive agriculture in industrialized countries) plus additional "inert" additives and solvents, according to the Pesticide Program. Crop dusters spray fungicides up to 40 times a year, often in the form of "cocktails" of two or more mixed pesticides and often when workers are in the fields; plantation workers directly apply highly toxic nematicides to the ground around banana trees two to four times a year in order to kill nematode worms; and workers spray herbicides on plantation grounds eight to 12 times a year, and douse the fields with large amounts of chemical fertilizers. Additionally, after harvest, fungicides and disinfectants such as formaldehyde are used in the packing stage, before the product is shipped to market.
Pesticide use poses serious threats to consumers and the environment, but it is plantation workers who apply them and on whom they often are inadvertently applied who bear the brunt of the chemical assault.
Of course, all pesticides are not created equal. The specific pesticides used by banana plantations, however, offer little comfort. The World Health Organization categorizes many of them in its most dangerous or second-most dangerous pesticide categories. Several of them also appear on the "Dirty Dozen" list of the world's worst pesticides compiled by the San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network.
Some of the nastiest pesticides are used to deworm banana plantations of nematodes. Among the nematicides used are (common trade names appear in parentheses) terbufos (Counter), fenamifos (Nemacur) and etoprop (Mocap). Costa Rica suspended use of aldicarb (Temik), a Dirty Dozen pesticide, in June 1991 after the U.S. Department of Agriculture detected impermissible residue levels in shipments from several countries, including Costa Rica. After the aldicarb crackdown, banana plantations began to experiment with other nematicides.
All of these nematicides are of grave concern, according to the Pesticide Program, because they inhibit the action of an enzyme, cholinesterase, that plays an important role in the human nervous system. A 1991 study in the medical journal Lancet found that agricultural workers in Nicaragua who had had been poisoned by cholinesterase-inhibiting organophosphate pesticides suffered a significant deterioration of such neuropsychological capacities as reflexes, memory and the capacity to distinguish between colors and smells. Because of such dangers, nematicides are under strict control in the United States, where only specially trained workers are permitted to apply them.
Among herbicides, paraquat, a Dirty Dozen pesticide, has most hurt Central American agricultural workers, causing severe skin burns and eye damage, including blindness in severe cases. In the United States, a license is required to apply paraquat. In addition to paraquat, many Central American banana plantations use Monsanto's glysophate (Round-Up), a suspected carcinogen.
Banana plantations typically apply fungicides from the air with less than surgical precision, leaving these clouds to drift down on banana workers, nearby communities and rivers and streams. Some of the most troubling fungicides used until recently were chlorothalonil (Bravo) and benomyl (Benlate), which are suspected carcinogens and mutagens. With the threat of restrictions on these fungicides in the early 1990s, many growers switched to mancozeb (Monzate), a suspected metabolic carcinogen.
When banana fruits begin to develop, workers wrap them in plastic bags containing the neurotoxin clorpyrifos (Lorsban or Dursban). Once matured, the bananas are treated with tiabendazol (Mertec) and aluminum sulfate (Alumbre), which can cause severe dermatitis when they come in contact with skin. Women workers are most likely to be exposed to these disinfectants, since women banana workers are found in the highest concentrations in the packing plants.
"Apart from DBCP sterilization, the most harmful pesticides have been terbufos produced by American Cyanamid, aldicarb by Rhone-Poulenc and paraquat from ICI, especially in the banana industry," the Pesticide Program's Catharina Wesseling testified before U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee in April 1992. Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita were among the major users of these pesticides, she said.
In the past decade, Wesseling says, large Central American banana plantations have taken some steps to limit worker exposure to to cholinesterase-inhibiting nematicides. Little attention, however, has been paid to worker exposures to less acutely toxic pesticides such as herbicides, fungicides and disinfectants, she says. These pesticides may cause fewer immediately acute problems, but they pose serious cancer and birth-defect risks, she says. While low-tech, inexpensive measures such as protective clothing can go a long way to preventing such problems, use of rubber boots, aprons or even long-sleeved clothing and gloves is still the exception rather than the rule on Central American banana plantations, where temperatures are hot and humidity levels often exceed 95 percent.
The work of poison
The banana workers who labor hour after hour at pesticide ground zero have paid the highest price for these agrochemical-intensive production methods. One of the worst tragedies is the mass sterilization of banana workers around the world in the 1960s and 1970s -- including an estimated 10,000 workers in Costa Rica alone -- by the extremely toxic nematicide DBCP (Fumazone or Nemagon) [see "1995's Ten Worst Corporations,"Multinational Monitor, December 1995]. Between 1966 and 1973, Costa Rica imported 5 million kilograms of this pesticide from the United States, or more than 2 kilograms for each person in the country, according to the San José-based Association of Labor-Promotion Services (ASEPROLA), a think tank with ties to banana worker and other unions.
Alberto Espinosa Carrillo worked for six years in plantations around Siquirres, Costa Rica that are either owned by or produce bananas for Del Monte, Dole or Chiquita. One of the jobs he performed was injecting DBCP into the ground around banana trees. "It is very potent," he says. "You would inject it and all the little animals, the crickets, frogs, lizards and all the insects, would die -- immediately."
A clinical test conducted two and a half years ago showed that Espinosa Carrillo is sterile, a condition that is most likely the result of DBCP exposure. Espinosa Carrillo is part of a class action suit that is seeking to prove this in U.S. courts and to recover damages from the U.S. companies that produced or used the product after it was found to have caused sterility in U.S. workers.
In some ways, Espinosa Carrillo and his wife are among the luckier victims because they had a daughter before Espinosa Carrillo became sterile. The girl, however, was born with an allergy that produces the same itchy eye and skin inflammation problems from which her father and many other former DBCP workers suffer. Other symptoms sometimes found in DBCP cases include atrophy of the testicles and impotence. The inability to have children or, in some cases, sex has prevented many banana workers from either forming families or keeping those that they have. Other workers who may be able to father children do not do so, Espinosa Carrillo says, out of fear that the children may be stillborn or born with serious birth defects.
"It's dangerous for the companies when you link the ecological with the social," says ASEPROLA's Hernan Hermosillo. "If you want to save the butterflies, even the corporations will pay you money to do it. But if you link the health of the butterfly and the fish to the child of the worker -- that's another story. Ten thousand sterilized people don't just die, they keep living and watching and speaking. Their problem wasn't caused by God; it was caused by the transnationals. From this realization, people begin to question the logic of capitalism."
In recent years, major pesticide poisoning cases in Costa Rica have involved terbufos, paraquat and aldicarb. The Pesticide Program has determined that, in 1987, 6 percent of salaried workers in Costa Rica's banana-growing regions reported a pesticide accident. This is the highest reported rate in the world for accidents requiring medical attention. Although Costa Rica has tougher accident-reporting laws than many other banana-exporting countries (work injuries must be reported by law), many on-the-job injuries still go unreported, according to the Pesticide Program's Catharina Wesseling.
"The Ministry of Health has a lot of responsibility for what is going on," says Dr. Olman León, who worked for a Ministry clinic until recently departing to private practice. The Ministry must "approve any pesticide used in the country, but there are huge economic interests that come into play."
These interests are intertwined with the country's top political leaders. Among the owners of Costa Rican banana plantations, Dr. León says, figure President José María Figueres and the head of Costa Rica's Legislative Assembly, Antonio Alvarez Desanti. Recently, the government has proposed the complete elimination of export taxes on bananas. Noting the ties of many top government officials to the industry, one representative, Ottón Solís of the National Liberation Party (PLN), has denounced this proposal as "legislating in the self-interest."
Dr. León often provided emergency care to banana workers at the Cariari clinic. "We would know when the plantations were doing heavy spraying because we would get two to five serious cases a week," he says.
Out of control
People are not the only victims of the heavy pesticide use. Nematicides are highly toxic to fish and have been responsible for repeated mass fish kills. In a single rainy month in 1994, five fish kills were reported in the Cariari banana region where Dr. León practices. Water samples collected in the area by the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mines tested positive for nematicides. Discarded clorpyrifos plastic bags have also found their way into rivers and oceans, where they have been found in the stomachs of dead sea turtles. A 1988 study found residues of clorpyrifos and paraquat in the river waters and sediments of the Guápiles banana region northeast of San José.
Although the active pesticide ingredients used in Central America are imported from developed countries, they are often mixed or "reformulated" at local plants. One of the largest Costa Rican reformulation plants is Formuquisa, located northwest of San José in Chomes. Among Formuquisa's products are Velsicol's heptador, American Cyanamid's terbufos, and Rhone Poulenc's etoprofos and aldicarb. The plant has repeatedly dumped pesticides and wastes into the Lagarto River -- which feeds into the Pacific's Nicoya Gulf -- causing shrimp and fish kills in these waters. The most recent spills occurred in conjunction with floods that swept the country in early 1996. Costa Rica has no ongoing program to monitor pesticides in its waters.
Catharina Wesseling, a medical doctor and native of the Netherlands, summed up the Pesticide Program's concerns about the banana industry in her 1992 testimony to the U.S. Senate. "In our investigations in all the Central American countries, we have encountered intense, excessive pesticide use that is out of control. We have seen and documented many cases of poisonings and deaths among workers and their families. We have seen the contamination of waters, domestic animals and wild fauna poisoned to death, as well as food contaminated with pesticides. This is the price that Central America is paying to convert itself into an agro-export region in an attempt to free itself from its enormous debt."
One of the most striking aspects of Central America's pesticide tragedy is the improvements that could be realized if the responsible parties were willing to take relatively modest corrective steps.
Costa Rica's regulatory system is widely viewed as the most advanced in the region, but this is not much of a claim. The country has a tiny, inadequately trained and poorly equipped staff to oversee pesticide use. The former head of the Ministry of Health's pesticide poisoning division, for example, had no vehicle or money budgeted to visit plantations where pesticides are used, Dr. León says.
To compensate for its lack of regulatory toxicologists and biologists, Costa Rica, like its neighbors, looks to the North for guidance. Because many U.S. and European companies have exported pesticides that they are not allowed to sell at home, Costa Rican law requires imported pesticides be approved for use in the country of origin. In practice, however, what sometimes passes for the country of origin is nothing more than a trans-shipment point. A pesticide banned for use in the United States can be shipped to an intermediary country to circumvent these restrictions. This has occurred with U.S.-made haloxfop, for example, which has entered Costa Rica through Colombia.
Because they lack resources, Central American regulators typically resort to copycat pesticide restrictions. If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bans a pesticide, for instance, it catches the attention of Costa Rican regulators, especially if it is a pesticide that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spot checks at the border. In 1991, for example, U.S. regulators rejected shipping containers of Costa Rican produce for having illegally high residues of aldicarb (Temik). But these regulators do not check for many dangerous U.S.-made pesticides used in Costa Rica, according to the Pesticide Project.
The 1991 incident shows that Costa Rican regulators can crackdown on a pesticide almost overnight, Wesseling says. There is something twisted, however, in the fact that they will do so in response to market pressure but not in response to the death of Costa Rican workers, says ASEPROLA's Hernan Hermosillo.
Another serious problem involves pesticides not prohibited outright in the United States, but subject to strict controls. These controls typically get lost in translation to the developing world. This is the case with many dangerous pesticides that -- typically under industry pressure -- are authorized for restricted use in the United States by specially trained workers who must follow specified safety conditions. While these stipulations and conditions may provide some measure of protection within the United States, they keep the door open to abuse in the developing world, where the stipulated safety conditions are not met in practice. Monsanto's alachlor (Lasso), for example, poses such an elevated cancer risk that it can only be applied in the United States by workers operating from inside sealed cabins. Such equipment is nonexistent in all but a few Costa Rican plantations.
Although pesticide registration in Costa Rica leaves much to be desired, this is often the beginning and end of pesticide regulation in the country. There are approximately 200 active ingredients registered for agricultural use in Costa Rica, which can be configured into more than 800 specific formulations.
"Costa Rica depends almost entirely on foreign companies for pesticides ... which results in a large loss of foreign exchange for the country," observed Fabio Chaverri and Jorge Blanco in a May 1995 Pesticide Program publication, "Importation, Formulation and Pesticide Use in Costa Rica, 1992-93." During this period, Costa Rica imported more than 5,500 tons of pesticide active ingredients a year, or 12 kilograms of active ingredients per cultivated hectare. The cost of these pesticide imports exceeded $80 million, up from $35 million a decade before.
While local reformulation plants provide some jobs and economic activity within Central America, periodic problems with reformulation recipes have compounded the accident rate of agricultural workers. In two cases in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in recent years, carbofuran formulations with excessive dust content resulted in workers inhaling the toxic mix. In one respect, these cases were relative success stories because they occurred in the one region of each country where pilot pesticide monitoring projects were in place. As a result, the resulting worker injuries -- in Cariari in northeastern Costa Rica and near the northwestern Nicaraguan cities of León and Chinandega -- were reported to health officials who had received special training that allowed them to identify the problem. Ordinarily, there is no monitoring system to identify faulty formulations, which keep injuring workers until the bad batch has been exhausted, and the resultant health problems may never be recognized or linked to their cause.
Despite this monitoring, the Chinandega area is a toxic pesticide hot spot. In late February 1996, the regional delegate of the Nicaraguan Institute of Aqueducts and Sewage (INAA) for that area, Sergio Mayorga, reported that the aquifer that serves 70 percent of the Chinandega population is heavily contaminated with 30 different pesticides that are causing health problems including cancer and birth defects.
Replicating the pilot monitoring programs set up in Cariari and Chinandega throughout Central America and creating aggressive response agencies with the authority to enforce environmental and worker safety measures could substantially reduce the toll that pesticides have taken on the region. Given Central America's low salaries and wages, such programs could be implemented without adding substantially to the price of a bunch of bananas. There is not a single government in Central America, however, that is sufficiently independent of large agro-export interests to seriously propose such measures. For this reason, many experts in the region say that business as usual in banana plantations and the rest of the agro-export industry will not change unless consumers in northern market countries demand it.
"Bananas are like [illegal] drugs," says Hernan Hermosilla of San José's ASEPROLA. Changes in the status quo are not likely to occur in the production countries, which are controlled by a small economic elite, he says. "But if people in the United States were to demand a banana produced with less pesticides and better labor conditions, the situation here would improve markedly."
AGUILAR BUSTO ROSALINO is 38 years old and has been working at banana
plantations on Costa Rica's Atlantic Coast since he was 16. One of the jobs he
performed over the past 22 years was injecting the now-prohibited nematicide
DBCP in plantation grounds, a job that he says left him sterile. More recently,
he has worked applying pesticide-filled plastic bags around developing banana
fruits, a job he says he now refuses to do because the pesticides gave him
Although he no longer works directly with "poison," as he calls it, Busto Rosalino still works on the banana plantations, which means he continues to be exposed. In February 1996, Busto Rosalino was employed tying support strings around banana tree fruit for a Costa Rican-owned finca near Siquirres that sells to Chiquita. On the job, Busto Rosalino says he often gets sprinkled by crop dusters.
Six days a week, Busto Rosalino starts work at 5:00 a.m. and works until 6:00 p.m., stopping for a 30-minute lunch break. Any additional breaks would cost him too much, he says, because he gets paid piecework. He makes between $5 and $14.50 a day, depending on weather conditions and the density of the bananas. Because he lives too far away to commute, he only sees his wife on Sundays.
Busto Rosalino rarely spends a full three months at any one plantation. After three months, employees are legally entitled to severance pay and are eligible for other benefits, so employers typically fire workers before they complete their third month.
Workers who protest these abuses and demand their rights, however, are liable to be fired and end up on a "black list" that prevents them from working on other banana plantations, says Alberto Espinosa Carrillo, a former banana worker and union organizer who was blacklisted himself.
A crate of bananas sells for approximately $18 in international markets. Of this amount, agricultural inputs including pesticides account for $2; labor costs account for $1.05, according to estimates of the Emaús Forum, a Siquirres-based coalition of labor, environmental, religious and indigenous groups dedicated to improving labor rights and environmental safeguards at Costa Rican banana plantations.
Given these conditions, Costa Rican banana plantations sound ripe for union organizing. Historically, Costa Rican banana unions were a force to be reckoned with -- often with severe repression. The government broke a massive strike in 1928 by massacring workers, an event that provided inspiration for part of Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. More recently, government strike breakers shot and killed several banana workers in the mid-1980s, and the Civil Guard, backed by armed guards of the Geest banana company, shot 18 workers in May 1994, gravely injuring three of them.
In the 1980s, however, Costa Rican banana unions ceased to be serious contenders in national politics or even on the banana plantations. In the past 15 years, private sector Costa Rican unions have been beaten, broken and outmaneuvered by management, the Costa Rican government and a right-wing sector of the Catholic Church. Unions were decimated by state repression and internal weaknesses, but especially by the astonishing growth of so-called Solidarity Associations, a type of company union based on a paternalistic ideology of labor-management cooperation. The Solidarity Associations typically place a heavy emphasis on serving the social needs of workers, organizing soccer teams and establishing credit unions for workers with contributions from workers and employers.
The Costa Rican Solidarity Associations grew at the direct expense of unions on the banana plantations and elsewhere.
The government, national and multinational business groups, the overwhelmingly pro-business press (led by the journalistically thin but advertising-intensive daily, The Nation) and a sector of the Catholic Church have promoted Costa Rican Solidarity Associations as a path to labor-management cooperation and harmony. Solidarity Associations began to take root in the early 1980s, when the Cariari Agricultural Ranching Finca established a Solidarity Association in the midst of the Cariari banana country. Around the same time, a right-wing Catholic pastoral group, the Juan XXIII Social School, began to promote Solidarity Associations at the national level as a pious alternative to communist unions. Studies by the union-linked Association of Labor Promotion Services (ASEPROLA) contend that the banana multinationals funded Juan XXIII and other Solidarity promoters.
Written testimony obtained by ASEPROLA from an early 1980s Solidarity promoter says that promoters were paid a bonus for every collective bargaining contract that was replaced by direct negotiation. Direct negotiations are particularly beneficial for the fruit companies, according to ASEPROLA's Hernan Hermosilla, because management not only controls its side of the negotiating table but has considerable influence over the Solidarity Association side as well. At times, management is essentially negotiating with itself, he says.
Given the large numbers of banana workers who are rolled over every three months, Solidarity Associations, once established, were positioned to grow at a torrid rate. In a move of dubious legality, many plantations simply made Association membership a work prerequisite. "When you enter a new job here, you have to sign on as a Solidarista," says Father Gerardo Vargas Varela, coordinator of the Emaús Forum.
By 1991, more than 1,300 solidarity associations with 120,000 members had penetrated all of Costa Rica's economic sectors, according to ASEPROLA figures. The same source estimated that there were 475 unions in Costa Rica with 155,000 members, though union membership figures are extremely suspect.
In 1989, the same interests that have promoted Solidarity Associations in
Costa Rica formed the Interamerican Solidarist Council with the goal of
promoting the model throughout Latin America. This proselytizing effort has
grown more slowly outside of Costa Rica, though some in-roads have been made
elsewhere in Central America. -- A.W.
|SAN JOSÉ, COSTA RICA -- Responding to awakening international
concerns about the environmental destruction of large-scale banana production,
a U.S.-based non-governmental organization (NGO) has teamed up with NGOs in
some banana-exporting countries to promote "greener" bananas through plantation
Three years ago, New York City-based Rainforest Alliance and San José, Costa Rica-based Ambio Foundation certified the first banana plantation in Costa Rica as an "ECO-O.K." producer that agreed to meet production criteria designed to treat workers and the environment in a manner that exceeds standard industry practices. The first certified plantation was a relatively small, German-owned operation near the Panama border.
To increase its impact, ECO-O.K. wanted the top bananas.
"The banana industry ran this region for 100 years -- overthrowing governments," says Diane Jukofsky, who works for Rainforest Alliance in San José. "The first time we tried to talk to the industry, four or five years ago, they slammed the door in our face."
"At the beginning, the big companies looked at us like crazy environmentalists without a consumer force backing us up," agrees ECO-O.K.'s Latin American Office Technical Director Lenín Corrales, a biologist with Ambio Foundation. "To some extent, they were right, because it's hard for an NGO to mobilize consumers. But now Chiquita is advertising its certification in Europe and I think other companies will follow."
Chiquita is the only top banana multinational to endorse the ECO-O.K. program to date. It has set a goal of having all its plantations in Costa Rica and Panama certified by the end of 1997, a goal that may be set back by massive floods that swept the region in February 1996.
Although some Chiquita subsidiary plantations in Costa Rica have been certified and display ECO-O.K. billboards at their gates, the company has yet to slap the program's seal on its bananas. In the likely event that it does so in the future, the seals will almost certainly surface first in Europe, where consumers have shown a concern about the social and environmental impact of bananas in Latin America. "The European consumer is decades ahead of the North American consumer on this issue," Corrales says.
Chiquita "has spent close to $1 million improving its facilities [to qualify for certification] and it will need to spend more in Panama," says Jukofsky. "They must think that, in the long run, consumers will demand less environmentally destructive bananas."
Just as ECO-O.K. has a long way to go in signing up a majority of banana multinationals, it has yet to convince many NGOs of the merits of its program. Critics say the Alliance is too cozy with the companies it certifies and that its certification criteria are too lax.
"The ECO-O.K. seal should signify a real alternative," says Gabriel Rivas Ducca, a biologist who works with the Costa Rican Ecological Association in San José. "The multinationals are seeing a chance to get green seals on the cheap." Rivas Ducca says ECO-O.K.'s certification criteria are too narrowly limited to technical environmental criteria and that the certification process should incorporate broader social sectors, "beginning with the banana workers." Rivas Ducca also says green seals should be reserved for bananas produced on a small-scale, sustainable basis. Similar criticisms have emanated from European groups, some of whom have denounced the program for certifying unorganic bananas.
"Chiquita says it is diminishing its pesticide use and that it now has an ecological banana -- without changing hardly a thing in its technological [pesticide] package," says Hernan Hermosilla of a San José-based think tank, the Association of Labor-Promotion Services, which has close ties to banana unions.
Catharina Wesseling of the Pesticide Program of the National University of Costa Rica in Heredia does not criticize the ECO-O.K. program, but she cautions that expectations are likely to overtake what the program can deliver. "Chiquita has made some improvements in recent years," acknowledges Wesseling. "But the intensive cultivation of bananas has never been -- and probably never will be -- done on a sustainable basis."
Corrales says ECO-O.K. has never made any small-scale or organic certification claims. ECO-O.K. publications include such warnings as, "ECO-O.K. regulations permit the use of agrochemicals where producers think such assistance is necessary and there is no known alternative." But such clarifications are a bit verbose for banana labels.
Part of the confusion, Corrales says, is that the European Union adopted "eco" as its certification for organic products after the ECO-O.K. program began. "We didn't have the money to go over to Europe and register our name," Corrales says. "As a biologist, I would love for all bananas to be organic," says Corrales. What critics fail to realize, he says, is that it is not possible to make large-scale banana plantations organic, at least in the near term. Moreover, banana-producing countries cannot afford to eliminate a source of thousands of jobs. ECO-O.K. is an attempt to establish a middle ground between organic farming and "totally destructive" banana plantations, Corrales says.
Initial certification requirements include modest but important steps such as providing showers, safety gear and training for workers, he says. But to maintain certification, a producer will have to phase in such practices as monitoring nearby river and well waters for pesticides and replacing hand applications of pesticides with automated procedures.
Jukofsky says she understands how environmentalists in the northeastern Sarapiquí region, where secondary forest was cleared in recent years for banana plantations, might be disappointed with the program. To maintain ECO-O.K. certification, plantations may not clear any new forest, but ECO-O.K. forgives any past acts of deforestation.
Another concern of critics is that this watchdog group is not entirely financially independent from the companies that it scrutinizes. Producers seeking certification, for example, pay for the time and expenses of ECO-O.K. staff when they are in the field. Other overhead expenses are covered by a host of philanthropic foundations, according to Jukofsky.
|CARROTS AND STICKS
ECO-O.K.'s nonconfrontational approach sharply distinguishes it from the Costa Rican Ecological Association, which has made a name for itself by conducting campaigns against companies that it has denounced for having environmentally destructive practices, including Stone Forestal, the local subsidiary of the U.S.-based Stone Container Corporation [see "Stone Plunder," Multinational Monitor, November 1993] and an orange juice exporting company, Tico Fruit. While Rainforest Alliance and Ambio Foundation were awarding green seals to their favorite timber and orange companies, the Costa Rican Ecological Association was attacking the environmental policies of its least favorite timber and orange companies -- with considerable success.
There is some evidence, however, that the Costa Rican Ecological Association has paid a high price for its activism -- a price that goes beyond alienating corporate donors who support more business-minded environmental groups.
Two months after the conclusion of the Stone Forestal campaign, three Association activists, including two leaders of the Stone campaign, died in a December 1994 house fire. Investigators never determined a definitive cause of the fire. In August 1995, the group's press secretary, David Maradiaga, disappeared for two weeks, after which time his corpse suddenly appeared in a San José park. According to Maradiaga's successor, Marvin Amador, this death was officially attributed to an excess of alcohol without explaining either Maradiaga's disappearance or the sudden reappearance of his corpse.
Subsequently, the group received three anonymous telephone threats. In one, the speaker referred to the deaths and warned that "the list is not complete." The anonymous speaker also referred to Stone Forestal and Placer Dome, according to Amador. Canadian-based Placer Dome is one of several multinational mining companies that have begun exploring for gold along the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. The mining companies are encountering early resistance from a locally formed citizen group, Committee Opposing Mining in the Northern Zone, which is backed by the Costa Rican Ecological Association.