The Growth of the Banana Industry

in Costa Rica and

Its Effect on Biodiversity


Kendra Worobetz

Department of Biological Sciences

University of Alberta

ENCS 465, Dr. Wein

April 14, 2000


Special Thanks to Foro Emaus


    Throughout the world, habitats are being lost, degraded, destroyed, and natural biodiversity is in danger of being overexploited by the ever increasing demands placed upon them by our expanding and resource hungry population (Goss- Custard and Sutherland, 1993). Deforestation in the tropics, which has converted vast tracks of forest to agricultural lands, has caused a marked reduction in biodiversity (Rivera and Aide, 1998). Costa Rica, like many other developing countries, utilizes a heavy government interventionist approach to the management of its forest resources. The recipient of much international attention, due in part, to the richness of its biological resources and the relatively large emphasis given environmental concerns by the government, Costa Rica never the less possess the highest deforestation area in Central America (Gottfried et al., 1994). Originally Costa Rica was 99.8% covered by forests, these forests now cover less than one third of Costa Rica (Gottfried et al., 1994). It can therefore, be expected that forests which bear the marks of human influence will play an increasingly important role in species conservation (Jong, 1997).

    Particularity in tropical communities like Costa Rica, where biodiversity must be preserved, but also where economic needs put considerable pressure on natural resources. In Costa Rica, forests are managed for economic interests therefore, maintaining a diverse forest with a large number of species is often considered contradictory to the principal goal of increasing returns (Jong, 1997). This is the case with most of the plantation development within Costa Rica.

    Much of the deforestation in Costa Rica is largely, a result of banana plantation expansion, to make matters worse many of the sites for expansion are close to national parks, nature reserves, or conservation areas (Lead, 1996). This crop needs vast areas in which, plantations can be created this means that hectares of virgin forest must be cleared on a regular basis to support Costa Rica’s ever growing need for agricultural land. Primary and secondary forestland, in Palacios and Sarapiqui has been converted for exactly this reason (Lead, 1996). Therefore, this loss of forest in Costa Rica has caused an undeniable loss of biodiversity within and surrounding Costa Rica’s rain forest due to a conversion to a banana monoculture (Astorga, 1996).


    Historically banana plantations have played an integral part in Costa Rica's economy. It all began in the 1880's when Minor C. Keith was commissioned to build a transnational railroad and in the process built a sprawling banana empire (Hernadez and Witter, 1996, Lead, 1996). The first banana plantation was created in 1872 and commercial export began in 1879. By1899, Minor Keith had merged with the Boston Fruit company to form The United Fruit Company. This company was to become well established throughout Central America within several countries, which were known, as the "banana republics". However, by 1956 the Costa Rican government had become concerned about the number of plantations, which had been developed and abandoned due to "Panama Disease" (a root fungus), not to mention the careless use of the countries natural resources by the United Fruit Company (Hernadez and Witter, 1996). It was with this government concern that the second era of banana production in Costa Rica began. At this point the government recruited the Standard Fruit Company (now Dole, a subsidiary of Castle and Cooke) who began purchasing small amounts of fruit from local growers. Unfortunately it was also at this point in time that the use of agro-chemicals was put into practice, with this came the use of large amounts of pesticides, fungicides, nematocides, (Astorga, 1996) and other chemicals, as well as other intensive field and processing management.

    As of 1967 the United Fruit Company became known as the United Brands Company and the Chiquita label was introduced into Costa Rica. In 1968 another company, Del Monte, through it’s subsidiary, BANDECO, started producing and exporting from the Atlantic Zone. These three companies, Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte are known as the "Big Three" in Costa Rica (McCracken, 1998). In 1985, Luis Alberto Monge’s administration issued the Banana Expansion Decree, which transformed the production and commercialization of bananas in Costa Rica (Emaus Forum, 1998). This decree brought in new transitional and national companies and began what was known as the ‘uncontrolled banana expansion". The magnitude of this process is evidenced by the fact that Costa Rica doubled its banana production in less than seven years to 103 million boxes in 1994 (Emaus Forum, 1998). As well by 1985 banana plantations had taken over 20, 000 hectares, which jumped to 32, 000 hectares in 1991, and by 1996 over 52, 000 (approximately 1% of the total land mass of the country) hectares were been cultivated as banana plantations (McCracken, 1998, Mortensen et al., 1998). However, it should be of great concern that of the recently expanded 32, 000 hectares thirty five percent of this was under forest cover at the time of purchase by the banana companies (Vargas, 1998)



    World banana trade is an important component of the world market for fruit second only to grapes, and has many unique characteristics due to the nature of the producers (mostly tropical developing countries) and the consumers (predominantly in the industrialized world). Many of the main banana exporting countries are highly dependent on a small number of basic agricultural commodities to generate a significant portion of their foreign exchange earnings (Lead, 1996). For example in 1986, four of the major Latin American exporting countries: Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras and Panama, earned more than 20% of their foreign exchange by exporting bananas. Therefore, the behavior of the international market has contributed as well as hindered the development of a group of countries that have been given the stereotyped name of "banana republics". Production and marketing of bananas are highly integrated and concentrated activities. Ten countries account for over 60% of the world production, while the top five produce over half of the world’s banana production. These are Brazil, India, Philippines, Ecuador and Colombia (Lead, 1996). However, only 15% of the world's total production is traded internationally. Seven countries (Ecuador, Costa Rica, Philippines, Colombia, Honduras, Panama and Guatemala) produce about 80% of the world’s banana exports. However, the two top producers of bananas (Brazil and India) do not figure among the top seven exporters (Lead, 1996).

    The total share of production has shifted between different regions during the last three decades, with an increase for the Latin American and Asian producers vis-à-vis African and Caribbean producers, many of which are former European colonies and therefore, protected by the Lome Convention (World Development Movement, 1997). This is a critically important fact to understand some of the recent trends in market development, such as the decision by the European Economic Community (EEC) to impose quotas on Latin American banana exports starting in 1993 (Lead, 1996). At the beginning of the sixties, Central and South America accounted for 66% of exports and this figure rose recently to above 71%. Exports from the Philippines, which were insignificant in 1950, reached almost 12% three decades later. At the same time, African and Caribbean countries, as well as the rest of Asia, decreased from 34% at the beginning of the sixties to less than 20% today (Lead, 1996).

    Imports are also highly concentrated, the United States, Canada and the European countries account for over 75% of world imports. The United States is also the major importer from Costa Rica. See table 1. This concentration partially explains the tight control over markets and distribution exercised by the three largest US multinationals: United Brands (now known as Chiquita Brands), Castle and Cooke (Dole), and Del Monte Corporation. These multinationals were used to commercialize the entire Central American production (excluding Nicaragua), as well as most that of Philippines, and some of Colombia and Ecuador (Lead, 1996). Five large corporations commercialize over three-quarters of banana imports, and the three largest account for over 60%. Chiquita, Del Monte, and Dole control maritime transport of their fruit as well as the distribution processes in the key markets. This vertical market integration gives these multinationals very high leverage with the producing and exporting countries, which are highly dependent on banana exports to generate badly needed foreign exchange (Lead, 1996).
Table 1. Imports of Costa Rica bananas by major countries (1992) (Source: CORBANA, 1993)
Country Boxes (millions)
United States 27.9
Germany 26.2
Belgium 12.6
Italy 12.2
Sweden 5.9
Other non-traditionals 3.8
Table 2. Costa Rica banana exports by company (in 1992) (Source: CORBANA, 1993)
Company Boxes (millions) %
Standard Fruit Co. (Dole) 27.9 30.5
Banana Development Co. (Del Monte) 26.2 28.7
Comerc. Bananeros de Costa Rica 12.6 13.8
Comp. Bananera Atlantica (Chiquita) 12.2 13.4
Uniban 5.9 6.4
Others 3.8 4.2
Chiriqui Land Co. 2.7 3.0
(Lead, 1996)


    Unfortunately in Costa Rica, both human wants and needs have prevailed, and the natural resources have proven to be exhaustible. This is due to the fact that the allocation of the of the benefits from the exploitation of the natural-resource base equitable among Costa Ricans or between the Costa Rican and transnational companies that exploit these resources (Hernandez and Witter, 1996). As of 1997 Costa Rica’s gross domestic product (GDP) stood at approximately $9.76 billion U.S. with agriculture contributing 22.4% of that total. Agricultural exports now average close to 59% of the countries total exports, with over 1044.4 million tones per year being exported to the U.S. (Committee on Commodity Problems, 1999). In total Costa Rica exports over 2099.4 tones of bananas per year, to over eight major countries making it the largest source of foreign exchange earnings among agricultural commodities for Costa Rica every year since 1990. Bananas are currently the second most important export from Costa Rica and account for between 16-28% of all exports.

Summary of banana statistics from CORBANA, 1997 (National Banana Corporation):

Number of Boxes Exported: 101, 173, 266

Destination (%): United States- 53%
                            Europe- 47%

Total Value of Receipts: $551, 496, 424 U.S.

Government Receipts (in taxes): $22, 258, 118 U.S.

CORBANA Receipts: $33, 843, 479 U.S.

Percent Marketed:

Standard Fruit- 33%
Bandeco- 27%
Chiquita- 23%
Others- 16%

Net Receipts (U.S.$):

Standard Fruit- $186, 351, 440
Bandeco- $148, 036, 396
Chiquita- $121, 242, 845
Others- $95, 865, 741

Total Hectares: 49, 191
- hectares in the Atlantic zone: 46, 557

Workers (estimated number): 40, 000

Productivity (boxes/hec./year): 2, 057

    It is obvious from statistics how much the national banana growing sector in Costa Rica depends on the three large transnational companies whose marketing possibilities reach as far as United States and Europe. The government of Costa Rica is not actively seeking an additional quota for selling "fair Bananas" to the European Union; this is unfortunate as this added quota could open up more possibilities of exporting more bananas, produced in a more humane and environmentally sound manner (Emaus Forum, 1998). Neither is there an initiative to reinforce the national banana growers sector to lessen the dependency on the transnationals’ power of commercialization. There has also been a decrease in both the levels of banana exports and productivity in the past few years. Companies like CORBANA see this primarily as a problem related to the costs and quantities of agro-chemicals, instead of looking at the aptitude in general of the soils and in particularly at their quality as an ecosystem with its needs of biodiversity (Emaus Forum, 1998).

    The banana industry also employs more workers than any other single agricultural commodity sub-sector or industry in Costa Rica (Committee on Commodity Problems, 1999). Banana plantations employ between 5 and 10 percent of the entire population of Costa Rica (Astorga, 1998). Each of these workers produces approximately $20, 000 per year for the transnational but is compensated the minimum wage of only $2, 000 per year and are exposed to horrific working conditions and several highly toxic substances on a regular basis (Mora, 1998). In recent years there have been regulations for banana imports into certain countries unfortunately, no clauses were included to regulate the protection of workers or the environment in the face of over-expanding and unlimited banana production in countries like Costa Rica (Emaus Forum, 1998).


    Efforts to protect vulnerable environmental resources have focused largely on legal prohibitions and sanctions or on economic rewards and penalties. The roles of social and cultural factors have been much less considered in Costa Rica (Uphoff and Langholz, 1998). The preoccupation with the idea that either public or private sectors will provide solutions to the problems of environmental conservation has caused a neglect of social values and community consensus (Uphoff and Lahgholz, 1998).

    However, in Costa Rica it is a combination social, economic, and cultural practices that have led to the destruction of Costa Rica’s natural resources, including its virgin and secondary forests. Therefore, in order to find a solution to the problem one cannot point fingers at the private and public sectors in Costa Rica, everyone must make an effort to undo the damage that has been done. In the development of sustainable management and protection regimes that can preserve vulnerable natural resources not just for years but for decades and centuries will require the input from all stakeholders involved not just private and public sectors (Uphoff and Langholz, 1998). If we are not able to do this we are not likely to have endangered resources intact and surviving for generations to come (Uphoff and Langholz, 1998).

    Based on past experience and conservation assumptions, however, overpopulation, economic growth, and rapid urbanization will make the preservation of the environment, especially Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystems. Considerable legal protection of the environment exists in Cost Rica but enforcement is rare and ineffective. Therefore, despite governmental environment protection efforts, over the past fifty years the percentage of land covered by forests declined from 80 to 25% (Holl et al., 1995). Deforestation is often followed by unsustainable management practices. As is the case with the cultivation of banana plantations, which has resulted in an estimated loss of 680 millions tons of topsoil. As well as over 20% of the mammal and bird species in Costa Rica are at risk of becoming extinct as a result of these unsustainable practices (Holl et al., 1995).

    The preservation of biodiversity and other aspects of environmental and human well being in democratic countries depend on an electorate sufficiently educated to promote appropriate government policy (Holl et al., 1995). Public education is especially important when powerful individual and short-term economic incentives are inconsistent with the best interests of society and over the long-term. The earth’s species diversity is concentrated in tropical nations where poverty and rapid population growth, exacerbated by the international socioeconomic system make these incentives especially potent (Holl et al., 1995).

    Public understanding of general environment issues is critical for successful conservation efforts (Holl et al., 1995). That is the problem in Costa Rica, generally Costa Ricans have a limited awareness of the problems in their own backyard, and those that are aware of the problems consider them less important than various other problems. However, many Costa Ricans are willing to pay more for commodities such as water and power if the extra money were to be used to protect the countries biodiversity (Holl et al., 1995). Broadening the scope of environmental education material available is critical to public appreciation of the dependence of a robust economy upon healthy natural ecosystems and other natural resources (Holl et al., 1995). Environmental education efforts need to do more to inform the public of the changes that they can make in their own lives to minimize environmental degradation. Although, public education alone will not suffice in creating sustainable economy in Costa Rica, public support of the goal is ultimately necessary and depends on understanding of general environmental and conservation issues in Costa Rica (Holl et al., 1995).


    There can be little doubt that the lowland forests of the tropics are the most species rich of all terrestrial ecosystems. Unfortunately, these masterpieces of biological diversity and complexity are under the continual threat of destruction form human activity. The clearing and conversion of tropical forest is the root of the current global biodiversity crisis (Turner, 1996). Deforestation in the tropics often involves the conversion of landscapes with continuous forest to ones with remnant forest patches set in a matrix of non-forest vegetation. Many forest types in the humid tropics now occur only as fragmented remnants, as is the case of the Atlantic lowlands in Costa Rica (Turner, 1996). This manipulation of tropical environments has consequences for biodiversity at all levels of the ecosystem (Turner, 1996). This degradation is likely to continue with a severe loss in biological diversity unless there is a reduction in the technification in favor of policies that reward land stewardship (Perfecto et al., 1996).

    Costa Rica represents only three ten-thousandths of the Earth’s surface but holds nearly 5% of the planet’s species. Its biodiversity density (species per unit area) is one of the highest in the world (Lead, 1996). It has been estimated that more than 505, 660 species inhabit Costa Rica. 72% of this total is comprised of anthropods (366, 6000 species), fungi and plants represent 12% and 2.5% respectively of the total biodiversity of the country (Lead, 1996). From this total number of estimated species only 17% of them have been described (84, 392 species) with the majority of them being arthropods. However, plants have also been well described, with nearly 80% (10, 353 species) of the estimated total described, as well 94% of the estimated vertebrate species have been described (Lead, 1996).

    From the estimated 13, 000 plant species in Costa Rica 12% of them are considered threatened. More than 25% of these are rare, and 50% have been labeled as valuable, as well more than 75% of the insects are natural forest species (endemic) and are therefore, in the same predicament as the plant species (Lead, 1996). However, it is difficult to determine the rate of species extinction, but there are some fish, bird, and amphibian species that have not been seen at all in the last three years. As well more than 10% of plant species, 15-30% of the insects, 31 amphibian species, 18 reptile species, and 6 bird species are endemic to Costa Rica. Most of these species inhabit Talamanca, the Cordillera Volcania Central highlands, Golfo Dulce, ad the Cococs Island, which are the areas of the highest endemism in the country (Lead, 1996). Although many of these areas are protected the surrounding lands are not, it is these surrounding lands which are rapidly being converted to banana plantations.

    It is not hard to see that banana plantations in Costa Rica have expanded over time at the expense of the tropical rainforest and its biodiversity. It is of particular importance because over 75% of the entire globe’s biodiversity is held within tropical forests like those in Costa Rica. Many species of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and insects inhabit these forests, several which are now at risk of extinction, along with over 18 different tree species (McCracken, 1998).

    Costa Rica is also the home to numerous streams, marshes and mangroves that support an abundance of biodiversity, which are being destroyed in the expansion of banana plantations. Costa Rica’s sea turtles and coral reefs are also suffering great losses due the unlimited expansion of the banana industry (McCracken, 1998). The once fertile and extremely diverse Caribbean lowland of Costa Rica is being transformed into a chemical laden, homogenous landscape made of banana plantations.

    Despite the official discourse in Costa Rica, tropical forest continues to be cut down both legally and illegally, in both protected and unprotected areas, without the effective intervention of the state (Emaus Forum, 1998). In 1992, by the end of the last major banana expansion, the Province of Limon saw its areas of primary and secondary forests reduced by 166, 460 hectares and the area of cultivation expand to 51, 000 hectares. CORBANA has stated that during this expansion they were responsible for felling 4, 677 hectares of forest (Emaus Forum, 1998).

    However according to other estimates, close to 35% of the banana plantations currently operating are on lands, which were covered by forests at the time of purchase by the transnationals. Due to this deforestation 18 tree species are in grave danger of becoming extinct, not to mention the needless death of numerous wild animals, including monkeys, birds, and sloths. This all adds up to have serious effects on the biodiversity of Costa Rica’s plants and animals (Emaus Forum, 1998).

    However, deforestation is not the only way in which banana plantations threaten biodiversity. The major environmental risks of banana production stem from the improper use of agro-chemicals, poor disposal or plastic and degradable waste, not to mention deforestation and erosion (Russo and Hernasez, 1995). The demand by consumers of industrialized nations for bananas of excellent appearance has led the transnational companies to produce a banana of uniform size and color without blemishes. The production of these bananas is dependent upon a highly technified system, in which great quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used (Emaus Forum, 1998, Mortensen et al., 1998).

    Transnational banana production in Costa Rica is totally dependent on chemical control with at least 286 different pesticides authorized for use in the cultivation of bananas. As well, due to their openness, the banana plantations are leaky and inefficient systems causing a large input of toxic substances to the environment (Lead, 1996). See pesticide summary. In spite of the high use of pesticides, the information generated or available or the banana industry concerning the presence of toxic substances in different environmental samples, as well as concerning the impact on fragile ecosystems, is very limited (Astorga, 1996). This means that the total extent of environmental contamination can only be estimated and many contaminated areas may go undetected and untreated (McCraken, 1998). A crude poetic justice is achieved when many of these pesticides return to countries like the United States, from whom they were purchased, as residue on bananas imported from Costa Rica (Rauber, 1997). As well the highly selective production of bananas sees huge quantities of bananas that do not comply with international standards discarded (Emaus Forum, 1998). These enormous amounts of solid and toxic wastes contribute greatly to a loss of biodiversity (Hernadez and Witter, 1996, McCracken, 1998, Lead, 1996, Astorga, 1998).

    Although many Central American counties such as Costa Rica, have attempted to control, regulate, and monitor pesticide use on banana plantations they have been ineffective due to inadequate funding and lack of control over the transnationals (McCraken, 1998). See table 3. Pesticides and contaminated sediments that have been washed away from plantations have caused massive deaths of fish in surrounding waters, as well as the bleaching of 90% of Costa Rica’s coral reefs. The plastic bags used in banana production become especially troublesome when they end up in streams or the ocean and threatens aquatic life (Vargas, 1998). Of grave concern is number of endangered species that are harmed by this pollution, such as the green sea turtle that suffocates on the bags, which are often mistaken for food (McCracken, 1998). The monoculture plantations created by plantations cause an air and ground bombardment of chemicals and have caused mass deforestation throughout Costa Rica that has come too close for comfort to sensitive forest, their inhabitants, as well as other important conservation areas (Lead, 1996).

Pesticide Summary:
Note: this is only a partial list of the pesticides used in the production of bananas in Costa Rica.

Nematicides (organo-phosphates):
    Terbuphos, Cadusaphos, Phenamiphos, Ethoprophos

Nematicides (carbamates):
    Carbofuran, Oxamyl

Insecticide (organo-phosphate):

    Paraquat, Glyphosate

Fungicides (in field):
    Mancozeb, Chlorotalony, Benomyl, Tridemorph, Propiconazol

Fungicides (in packing):
    Imazalil, Tiabendazol, Tridemorph, Aluminum Sulphate

(Astorga, 1996)
Table 2. Summary of environmental impact -causes and damages- related to banana production
  • Application of extremely toxic substances (when the prevailing criteria is for efficiency and cost reduction). 
  • Clear cutting at the margins of rivers, channels and their tributaries. 
  • Inadequate waste disposal (including pesticides cans) .
  • Manual application of pesticides without adequate equipment for tropical conditions. 
  • Working population and their neighbors exposed to pesticides. 
  • Inadequate warehouses for storing pesticides and bags. 
  • Waste water with chemical residues coming from the packaging plants and plantations end up in the rivers without any treatment. 
  • Lack of a monitoring system for water, soil and air conditions, in relation to pesticides. 
  • Water, soils, marine and air contamination. 
  • Permanent soil contamination with copper, with permanent effects. 
  • Sediment production and transport to the watersheds and finally to the sea. 
  • Death of animals especially fish due to pesticide poisoning. 
  • Pesticide intoxication of workers and neighbors, sometimes. 
  • Appearance of secondary plagues, due to excessive application of pesticides. 
  • Deforestation. 
  • Biodiversity losses (still not adequately evaluated). 
  • Water euthrophication. 
(Lead, 1996)

Table 3. Estimated amount of residues from banana production activities in Costa Rica (Lead, 1996).
Type of Residue Tons per year
Polyethylene bags 4, 406
Polyethylene packers 2, 171
Polypropylene twine (rope) 2, 755
Fruit stems 225, 000
Scrap bananas and rejects 278, 000
Fertilizers 110, 000
Nematicides 8, 300



    The Costa Rican National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio) is a private, non-profit institution created for the public good by a governmental commission in the spring of 1989. Its mandate is the conservation of Costa Rica’s wildland biodiversity through facilitating and stimulating non-destructive and sustainable uses of this biodiversity by all sectors of society. Approximately 25% of Costa Rica’s territory is covered with natural vegetation that is conserved for its biodiversity and other social benefits. INBio focuses on (1) knowing what and where this biodiversity is, and (2) putting it to work as an overall contribution to society (Lead, 1996). INBio operates on the philosophy that unless wildland tropical biodiversity can be shown to be economically and intellectually valuable, society is unlikely to pay its high maintenance costs and unlikely to resist the political pressures that lead to its conversion to less productive and less sustainable uses (Lead, 1996).

    INBio is conducting a ten year national inventory of Costa Rica’s half million wild species within the country’s National System of Conservation Areas. This inventory determines where the species are, begins to accumulate data on their biology and ecology, and assures that they are correctly identified - both to correctly manage the new information about them and to relate them to scientific information in other parts of the world (Lead, 1996). This inventory is being conducted systematically by a growing group of rural people - parataxonomists - trained specifically for this vocation and working out of twenty-six Biodiversity Field Offices located in the Conservation Areas around the country. They work together with a team of Costa Rican specimen and information curators, in collaboration with international specialists (Lead, 1996).

    All information is entered into computer databases and GIS, and later managed into user-oriented output. The users range from farmers and ecotourists needing identification guides to gradeschool biology classes to Conservation Area managers to academic researchers to industrial users of biodiversity prospecting samples and information.

    INBio also conducts and facilitates research to identify medically and agriculturally useful properties of plants, insects and microbes - biodiversity prospecting. Research collaborations have been established with Cornell University, the Costa Rican Ministry of Natural Resources Energy and Mines, Merck and Co. the National University of Costa Rica, the Natural History Museum (London), the Organization for Tropical Studies (Costa Rica), the University of Costa Rica, the University of Minnesota, the University of Pennsylvania, the USDA/ARS/SEL (at the US National Museum of Natural History), the US National Cancer Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Strathclyde Institute for Drug Research (Scotland) (Lead, 1996).

    INBio promotes economic uses for biodiversity by entering into Collaborative Research Agreements with industry leaders, such as its pioneering agreement with Merck and Co. INBio can work with pharmacological, biotech, and agrochemical companies, or other users of the raw materials of biodiversity, to provide high quality samples of plant and insect extracts, micro-organisms, or other research materials for use in natural products screening or other aspects of R&D. All such collaborations are contractually designed in such a way that a significant portion of the profits return to Costa Rica in the form of royalties and direct payments. These payments are used in direct support of Costa Rica’s Conservation Areas and their support system (Lead, 1996).

    INBio’s inventory and subsequent products are gathered, researched and distributed in full compliance with Costa Rican law, and enjoy the full support of the Ministry of Natural Resources. INBio staff, in collaboration with international experts carries out identifications of organisms (Lead, 1996). Resupply of target biological material is facilitated by chemical ecologists (ecologists that specialize in plant and animal chemistry) and parataxonomists conducting the national biodiversity inventory from biodiversity offices throughout the country. INBio maintains close ties with agricultural organizations and scientific laboratories capable of developing industrial quantities of target biological materials (Lead, 1996).


    Sustainable development is grounded on the intertwined relationship of economics, welfare of the human being, and the sound condition of natural resources; a three legged stool of social, economic and ecological concerns. Banana exports may bring great economic benefits to Costa Rica, but at the same time, it appears to adversely affect the natural and cultural environment (Lead, 1996). All hope should not be lost though, if properly cared for the same banana plant can produce fruit for years decades, and the same lands may be cultivated sustainably for years into the future (CORBANA, 1998). This however will take a change in the methods and mindset in which major banana producers go about their business.

    In recent years the formation of the Banana Environmental Commission (CAB) has attempted to lead the industry in conducting agricultural practices according to good principles of environmental protection. This includes the recycling of plastic bags and twine, and the composting of the organic matter created during banana production (Emaus Forum, 1998, CORBANA, 1998). Plastic bags can be returned to the manufacturer to be recycled into other products, such as plastic pots. This is because they are not considered hazardous after eight week as the pesticides have become degraded in this time, and they are placed the fruit stems for approximately fifteen weeks (Russo and Hernandez, 1995). As well, in accordance with Ambio and Rainforest Alliance guidelines, Chiquita has installed solid waste traps in packaging facilities to reduce river contamination, rebuilt warehouses to contain chemicals, started monitoring water quality, restored waterways, and began composting organic waste (McCracken, 1998).

    Transnationals have also been planting trees in key areas, such as those along streams and rivers (but it should be noted that these trees were illegally cut in the first place). However, all of these solutions only mask the problem of decreasing biodiversity and are minimal changes in comparison to the magnitude of the problem (Emaus Forum, 1998). It is also necessary to create new reserves and protected areas that could not be transformed into banana plantations in the future.

    The Agricultural College for the Humid Tropical Region (E.A.R.T.H), CORBANA, and Clemson University in South Carolina have formed a consortium called ECOBANA which intends to develop an alternative to current banana production methods (Russo and Hernadez, 1995). Using its banana farm, E.A.R.T.H has been able to show that through adequate waste treatment the impact of banana plantations on the environment can be diminished. If these production methods can be maintained through time, it will constitute a significant contribution to the sustainability of banana production in Costa Rica (Russo and Hernandez, 1995). If these practices could then be expanded to a regional level they would be able to reduce the environmental impact of banana production at a much larger scale, and could act as a model of sustainable development in that region (Russo and Hernadez, 1995). Even though these processes are costly, they should not be evaluated in economic terms alone; rather, the social benefits of reduced contamination of the environment should be considered (Russo and Hernandez, 1995).

    Although, Costa Rica stands out globally as a leader in biodiversity education and preservation as well as in environmental protection in general, with twenty-seven percent of its land protected in national parks, forest and wildlife preserves, and indigenous reserves. The actual degree of protection varies (Holl et al., 1995) and continued deforestation in the tropics remains a pressing environmental challenge and the creation of protected areas is a key strategy to combat deforestation and to curtail losses of biodiversity (Sanchez-Azofeifa et al., 1999).

    The Sarapiqui region in Costa Rica is of special importance because the Le Selva Biological Field Station of the Organization for Tropical Studies is located in the area and has acted as a magnet and a global center for research in tropical biodiversity. Moreover, the region remains heavily forested and is an important reservoir of biodiversity (Sanchez-Azofeifa et al., 1999). In recent years conversion to banana plantations has been the driving force behind deforestation in this area. Although it is unlikely that all existing forest remnants can be brought under protection, and it is likely that, as forest outside of protected areas disappear pressure on those protected areas will grow (Sanchez- Azofeifa et al., 1999).

    Therefore, it is important to conserve biodiversity outside of protected areas, at least as buffers for protected areas. Implementation of this type of conservation practice will require ecological, economic, and social evaluation of the remaining forest ecosystems outside of the existing protected areas to qualify their uniqueness and value for the well being of human societies (Sanchez-Azofeifa et al., 1999). It will also require the development of management plans for the monitoring, management, and preservation of biodiversity in the fragmented landscapes created by banana plantations.

    By definition and nature, monoculture banana production does not support biodiversity. Large banana plantations alter natural habitats and break the continuity of corridors for many plants and animals. Production practices further hinder reproduction of many other species as is the case of interference of pesticide spraying on pollination, seed dissemination, and plant and animal growth (Buck et al., 1992 in Lead, 1996). Therefore, the challenge becomes to reconcile the production methods and economics needs with the conservation of Costa Rica’s environment. This will require a long term commitment from the Costa Rican producers, transnational producers, the government of Costa Rica, the research community, and the consumers of Costa Rican bananas (Hernandez and Witter, 1996). Although we may believe that we are an innocent shopper, as supermarkets begin featuring more and more winter produce from places like Central America, the costs to us are minimal (Rauber, 1997).

    However, to the producing country whose economy and landscape is deformed to suit North American culinary whims, the cost is far higher: it is paid in the clearing of native forests, the dominance of foreign monocultures, pesticide poisoning, and social inequality (Rauber, 1997). As a consumer, you can help shape the global economy by what you buy (Rauber, 1997). However, if those stakeholders who depend on the production of Costa Rican bananas maintain their traditional methods and rely on new technology to overcome production problems, a further decrease in biodiversity is certain.

    Therefore, the continued destruction of the natural environment must end not at the expense of the revenue and employment provided by the banana industry in Costa Rica. Instead production methods must be implemented which reduce agro-chemical use, evenly utilize agricultural resources, reduce the dependence upon industrialized counties and transnationals, and truly improve the quality of the life of the workers that produce the crop (McCracken, 1998).

I would like to give special thanks to Stephan Thiele and Liz Parker for taking the time to provide me with extensive information on the banana plantations in Costa Rica. Without their support much of this paper would not have been possible. I would also like to Nicole Salamon, Pablo Arroyo, and Ross Wein for their feedback throughout the writing process. Special thanks to Matt Nakamura, Sheri Bownes, Amy Williams, and Andrew Dacks for their support and comments on this manuscript.

What is Foro Emaus?

The Foro Emaus is a network of 30 diverse organizations (labor unions, environmental NGO’s, indigenous organizations, human rights groups, church organizations, and grassroots organizations) that came together in 1992 to counteract the social and environmental problems due to the banana production in Costa Rica. For more information contact:

P.O. Box 106 Siquirres, Limon, Costa Rica
Tel/Fax: (506) 768-8276,

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