Costa Rica orders suspension of Del Monte pineapple project

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Costa Rica orders suspension of Del Monte pineapple project

Just days after announcing a ban on the herbicide bromacil, Costa Rican authorities have ordered the suspension of Del Monte subsidiary Pindeco's 'Osa' pineapple project. 

The two announcements came back-to-back this week. Shortly after the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock issued a decree prohibiting the use of bromacil with a six-month grace period, demonstrators picketed in the capital San José protesting against Osa due to its proximity to protected sites.

The Tico Times reports opponents of the project claimed the farm's 602-hectare area was too close to the Térraba Sierpe wetland and four archaeological sites recognized as World Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Following on-farm inspections on May 9, the National Environmental Technical Secretariat (Setena) announced it had ordered the suspension of the project until Pindeco can readapt its operational proposal for the area, newspaper La Nación reported.

Photo: La Prensa.

Setena has also urged the multinational to present a complementary prevention and protection plan for environmental viability.

"Setena asks the developer to specify the effects there might be in terms of water resources and the use of agri-chemicals...for example, in terms of the control of bodies of water. In this area there is an unnamed stream and the Culebra River," Setena General Secretary Marco Arroyo was quoted as saying.

Luis Gómez, Del Monte's director for legal matters and corporate relations in Colombia, Ecuador, Central America and Brazil, told La Nacion the company was surprised by the decision.

"The resolution doesn't say much more than what the environmental viability [report] said. That's why the announcement took us by surprise. Setena and the National Museum have even participated in the process with us and now we find it strange what's happening," Gomez was quoted as saying. 

"A company like Del Monte would never think of violating legal principles. We signed an affadavit when they gave us the environmental permits and we've stuck by that...I want to emphasize that it's false to say we would plant in the wetlands and that we wouldn't respect the heritage site," he told the publication. 

Bromacil ban

While a 2010 article in The Guardian reported Del Monte had claimed to have stopped using the herbicide bromacil on an operation near the Atlantic Coast, the government's announcement to ban the chemical product will nonetheless come as a relief to environmentalists who have fighting 12 years for the measure. 

In 2009 the Costa Rican Administrative Environmental Tribunal had ordered the closure of a Del Monte processing plant, arguing that chemical samples had shown bromacil levels of 4.8 micrograms per liter in the waterways of Milano, El Cairo and Francia.

This level was reportedly eight times the 0.6-microgram level allowed in the United States.

However, after very few responses from the government on the matter, in March 2015 community members from the rural area of Milano made a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington D.C., starting a dialogue toward conflict resolution. 

In correspondence with Fresh Fruit Portal this week, Agriculture Minister Luis Felipe Arauz said that prior to the recent announcement there was already a "zero tolerance" policy for bromacil in water intended for human consumption. 

Agriculture Minister Luis Felipe Arauz.

"And as the presence of this herbicide was found in aquifers and the risk of contamination was very high, this decision was made," Arauz said. 

"The product is highly leachable and the presence of the substance can be found in variable quantities in rivers and other larger water sources.

"We consider that a herbicide in these conditions, which is also applied in very extensive crop areas, carries a very high contamination risk to water sources," he added, confirming no more imports of the herbicide could take place and in six months' time it will no longer be permitted in the field.

Shirley Soto, who heads up environmental quality management at the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, told us a recent study also helped determine the impact of bromacil on soil. As it is highly soluble in water (815 micrograms per liter) it can have a half-life of 347 days in the soil "where it won't degrade".

"We reached the point of banning it as even though there was a zero tolerance policy for bromacil in water, over the years we've kept finding residues of the herbicide, whether it be through poor production practices, misues or even because this zone has high levels of rainfall which allows residues to stay in the soils and they get transported," Soto said.

"This seeks to break the old dichotomy between agriculture and the environment to find a synergy between agriculture and the environment. The pineapple growers themselves have been developing efforts to improve the sustainability of the crop and documenting the improvements."

She added it was however difficult to incentivize farmers to work with fewer agri-chemicals.

"It's the work of everybody," she said.

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