Cleaning up the pineapple chain

The tropical fruit has long been associated with appalling labour practices and environmental damage linked to intensively farmed plantations. But a sustained international campaign is trying to change all that for good. Forked! talked with Jacqui Mackay, Bananalink’s campaign coordinator, to find out just how much progress has been made and what obstacles remain

Forked!: Many consumers won’t be fully aware of the extent of the problems traditionally connected to the pineapple trade. What are the main issues – both concerning workers rights and environmental impacts – that have tarnished the fruit’s image? 

Jacqui Mackay (JM): 75% of internationally traded pineapples come from Costa Rica where low wages are estimated to be half of what is needed to live on. Workers therefore have to work up to 80 hours a week to survive. Working conditions are awful with workers directly exposed to sun and heavy rains without shelter even during breaks. Heavy and repetitive tasks put enormous strain on workers’ health. Many plantations and packing plants operate 24 hours a day and at night workers struggle to see without adequate lighting and snakes at night have caused a number of deaths. 

Exposure to toxic agrochemicals causes problems from skin and eye irritations, birth defects and male sterility and psychological problems such as anxiety and depression. 70% of workers are Nicaraguan migrants, often without official papers or visas leaving them particularly vulnerable to the power of employers who can sack or deport them if they complain about conditions or join a union. These migrant workers are the ‘secret’ of Costa Rica’s pineapple success story. Poor environmental practices cause problems the contamination of ground water, soil erosion and deforestation. Some communities in the South Atlantic zone now have drinking water bought in by government tankers because toxic chemicals from pineapple production have polluted the local supply.

Forked!: Recently there’s been a big drive to ‘clean up’ the pineapple chain in certain countries – could you outline the background to that and tell us what steps have been taken to improve things?

JM: Costa Rican unions and environmental campaigners have been working hard for many years to improve conditions in the industry but a big impetus came from research commissioned by Consumers International in 2010 into the Costa Rican industry which was accompanied by a Guardian film. These exposed how value is distributed along the pineapple supply chain – workers receiving 4% and retailers 41% – as well as the serious social and environmental impacts of this export production.

Media coverage triggered questions being asked in the Costa Rican Parliament and caused widespread industry debate. In June 2011 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) convened the National Platform for Responsible Pineapple Production aiming to create ‘a model for responsible production and trade for pineapple in Costa Rica managed and supported by all stakeholders’. The platform began with an environmental focus but years of conflict and distrust are hard to overcome and affected communities and environmental NGOs have called the platform a ‘green disguise’ to protect pineapple exports. This February both environmental NGOs and unions issued press releases denouncing the Platform. Unions believe that the industry has never been willing to address trade union freedom in an industry where union repression is so severe only 2% of workers are members.

Forked!: What real benefits will this have brought to those working down the chain; are there examples of lives actually being changed?

JM: Sadly union leaders report that conditions in 2013 are no better than when the research was conducted, in fact the situation worsens as living costs rise. However although unions see the National Platform as a failure they are still keen to engage in dialogue with industry and government, and call on the Labour Ministry to talk with the unions involved and start addressing some of the basic problems facing workers outside the Platform.

One of our union partners, SITRAP, has proposed a big gathering of the social and environmental organisations to work out where the campaign to create a more sustainable industry can go from here. Consumers can support this work and show solidarity with our union partners by donating to our Union to Union programme which builds the capacity of unions to organise, educate and advocate on behalf of the workers who remain in poverty and exposed daily to the harsh conditions of pineapple production.

Forked!: Whose responsibility ultimately is it, to ensure pineapples – and indeed other fruits – on sale in supermarkets and used as ingredients in processed food really are produced ethically and sustainably?

JM: Everyone in the supply chain – from producer to consumer – has a responsibility and a role to play in ensuring fruit is produced ethically and sustainably. However the power to do this differs enormously and this is the crux of the problem. Those with the most power arguably have the most responsibility and in the case of pineapples, as with other food stuffs, this is the supermarkets.

The concentration of power along supply chains in the hands of supermarkets is often described as a ‘bottle neck’; there are millions of consumers in the UK and our food is grown by millions of farmers/producers but only a handful of retailers act as gatekeepers controlling this supply. Supermarkets abuse the buyer power this gives them resulting in downward pressure on prices that squeeze the most flexible cost in the chain: labour. The increasing pressure of low retail prices further decreases the capacity of producers to invest in the improvement of conditions on their plantations, such as sustainable production systems.

Putting pressure on supermarkets – many of whom are increasingly sourcing directly from plantations – to improve their voluntary standards is one approach but ultimately our goal is the regulation of supermarket buyer power. Following years of lobbying, a Code and Ombudsman now exist for the UK market although it is too early to tell how effective these will be but our efforts are now focused on the EC.

Forked!: There’s clearly been some progress in tackling the problems associated with pineapples, but isn’t the simple answer to encourage consumers not to buy, or to buy less, fruits sourced overseas and prioritise domestic, seasonal foodstuffs?

JM: Is there ever a simple answer?! For consumers the choice of where to source fruit from is a personal one. Organisations such as our own can help by providing information but consumers have to be proactive in seeking this – we cannot compete with the advertising that major food companies and retailers bombard us with daily. In the long term choosing local produce over tropical fruits is the more sustainable answer however if we all stopped buying pineapples tomorrow what would happen to the thousands of workers whose livelihoods are dependent upon this export trade?

Throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa there are millions working, often in slave like conditions, to produce the fruit and other products that are imported daily to be sold on our supermarket shelves. These workers and their communities may often in turn now rely upon expensive imported food stuffs as local food production is undermined by the massive expansion of export production under hugely favourable terms for trade for developed nations.

If we, quite understandably, choose local seasonal products then we have to consider how we can responsibly support communities to reduce their dependency on the livelihoods provided by export trades and focus on producing foods for local markets.

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This is an edited extract from the Ecologist Guide To Food, published by Leaping Hare

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