The Politics of Pineapple: Examining the Inequitable Impacts of Southern Costa Rica's Pineapple Industry

Friday, May 1, 2020
by Jennifer Brown, Tara Flint, Jessica LaMay

By Jennifer Brown, Tara Flint and Jessica LaMay


The Global North’s growing demand for fresh pineapple has created a system that is disproportionately profitable for companies and consumers in those countries to the detriment of people living and working in the Global South. Since the mid-1980s the Pineapple Development Corporation (PINDECO), a subsidiary of U.S.-based Del Monte, has established a monopoly over fresh pineapple exports in southern Costa Rica. We conducted pilot research in the municipalities of Buenos Aires and San Isidro del General in 2019, where the majority of PINDECO’s production takes place. PINDECO and the Costa Rican state claim pineapple production is beneficial to national development through its contribution to Costa Rican gross domestic product and employment opportunities, but our research and recent data reveal that in pineapple producing areas in the southwest, poverty levels remain high with worsening water and food security despite PINDECO’s large profit margins. There are numerous human and environmental health concerns linked to pineapple monocropping. Intensive pesticide use often utilizes chemicals that are banned or restricted in the countries they are imported from. PINDECO has been able to evade responsibility for environmental damages and social welfare obligations to employees while maintaining a largely positive public image through a lax regulatory environment and extensive subcontracting structure. This article connects regional socioeconomic issues to the intricate power dynamics and collusion between industry and state. The findings suggest that Costa Rica is not as environmentally conscious and sustainable as its public image portrays, with pockets of profit-driven industries taking precedence over community well-being and environmental sustainability.


The global demand for fresh pineapple has been steadily increasing since the 1980s. The exponential growth of Costa Rica’s pineapple sector has risen to meet this demand, with exports increasing by more than 200 percent from 2000 to 2013 (Maglianesi-Sandoz 2013). This rapid increase in production was fueled by a growth in demand, but made possible by a shift from small-scale farming to large-scale monocropping.[1] The systematization of the pineapple industry has depended on intensive pesticide application due to dense planting patterns,[2] high numbers of pests, and a desire to speed up the maturation process (Maglianesi-Sandoz 2013). In fact, Costa Rica ranks first in the world for both pineapple exports and the use of pesticides per hectare.[3]

Pineapple crop grown in an intensive monocropping system in the municipality of Buenos Aires, Costa Rica

Pineapple crop grown in an intensive monocropping system in the municipality of Buenos Aires, Costa Rica. Image by Jennifer Brown, Tara Flint, and Jessica LaMay.

Two United States (U.S.)-based companies dominate the pineapple industry in Costa Rica: Dole Food Company (Dole) and a subsidiary of Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. (Del Monte) called the Pineapple Development Corporation (PINDECO). While these companies provide employment throughout Costa Rica, the industry has also contributed to widespread public and environmental health concerns. This article will examine and expand upon how these issues largely stem from an inability and unwillingness by the state to impose stricter regulations.

Transnational pineapple companies and the Costa Rican state[4] advertise the industry as beneficial for both national growth and community development, but our research and existing literature reveal many inconsistencies with the country’s “green” image (Araya, Lherisson, and Lomberk 2014; Marot 2019; Thrupp 1990). Costa Rica is considered the most sustainable Central American country, yet the pineapple production practices observed in southern Costa Rican communities tell a story of intricate power dynamics between industry and state that favor the “right to profit over health and environment” (Meyer 2009; Rosenthal 2005, 436). This argument illustrates the ways in which communities in the Global South[5] are disproportionately shouldering the human health, environmental, and economic consequences of the Global North’s demand for cheap agricultural commodities.

Through interviews and site visits with institutional stakeholders, our research contributes to existing literature by providing information specific to the operations of PINDECO in the municipality of Buenos Aires, Costa Rica.[6] This article is organized into four thematic portions, followed by a brief conclusion. First, we explain the research design and methodology utilized in our original research. The second section provides more extensive context on the timeline of the pineapple industry in Costa Rica. The third section presents our analysis of the impacts of PINDECO’s pineapple operations in southern Costa Rica. Lastly, we discuss parallels between Del Monte’s Costa Rica operations and the larger global agricultural industrial complex.


Research Design and Methodology

While a large part of this article reviews existing data and literature, the questions posed in our original research were motivated by a need to fill knowledge gaps. The pilot research used a qualitative approach to provide insight into the power dynamics exacerbating environmental, public health, and economic concerns in southern Costa Rica. A group of 18 international graduate students took part in a field research course over ten days to research the broader topic of land use conflict in southern Costa Rica. This larger group was broken down into five smaller teams focusing on more specific topics, including the history of land tenure, comparative community analyses, and the environmental health impacts of pineapple monocropping. Research was largely made possible by the support of two community collaborators who have been living and working in the area for almost a decade. The researchers were based out of a community of 700 people who are actively resisting the encroachment of widespread pineapple farms.

Students gathered research and data in communities bordering the municipalities of San Isidro del General and Buenos Aires from June 1 to 14, 2019. Our team relied on semi-structured interviewing, which followed an open-ended structure and left space for probing questions, or questions that “stimulate a respondent to produce more information” (Bernard 2006: 217). The authors conducted eight interviews with government officials, NGO leaders, and health practitioners. Interviews were coordinated with individuals in Buenos Aires from the Mayor’s Office, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG for Spanish acronym), and Ministry of Health (MOH), as they represented the government agencies most likely to have contact with agricultural business in the region. We interviewed local medical practitioners and healers who could provide insight into common illnesses and remedies in the area. Further, we spoke with leaders of community and environmental advocacy groups to gain an organizational perspective on local issues. While we contacted PINDECO representatives, we were unable to interview them.[7] We also attended several community-organized presentations, panel discussions, and site visits pertaining to the history and current production practices of PINDECO.

Post-interview, our research team worked to translate, annotate, and code qualitative data to better understand the perceptions of organizational-level stakeholders in the region towards the pineapple industry. We organized the data to identify crosscutting themes and trends (and their frequency), sorting it into the following overarching categories: background, health concerns, environmental concerns, and power dynamics.   


Contextualizing Fresh Pineapple in Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s complex relationship with large-scale agricultural industries dates back over one hundred years. This history is paramount to understanding present-day agro-industrial extraction. At the beginning of the 20th century, Central American countries invited United Fruit and Standard Fruit Companies to spur economic development through large-scale banana production (Ferreira, Fuentes, and Ferreira 2018; Tucker 1990). These companies established vast transportation networks, accumulated massive tracts of land, and gained considerable influence in both local and national governments (Edelman and Leon 2014). Decades later, in tandem with the Green Revolution,[8] the same companies began to promote and utilize higher quantities of pesticides to expand banana and coffee plantations (Ferreira et al. 2018). In the 1970s, coffee and bananas made up 50 percent of the country’s total exports, but with increasing export taxes on bananas[9] and declining coffee prices on the global market, the government looked to diversify its export portfolio (Ferreira et al. 2018). In 1978, Del Monte launched its Costa Rican subsidiary, PINDECO, to begin intensive production, as well as research and development to streamline pineapple exports for the international market (Vagneron, Faure, and Locillet 2009).

In fields directly managed by PINDECO, “labor flexibilization” has been adopted. Workers are issued short-term contracts, which enables a cycle of firing and rehiring workers.

The 1980s brought growing global demand for pineapple,[10] an expansion of pesticide use in Costa Rica, and the Latin American debt crisis. Costa Rica was hit hard by debt payments and was one of the first countries in the region to default on its loans (Ferreira et al. 2018). Under the general premise of market-based reforms, international actors were eager to capitalize on existing agricultural economies. The Costa Rican government launched a number of initiatives with the help of the United States Agency for International Development and other international actors to further develop infrastructure (transportation, processing plants, etc.) and reduce domestic barriers to trade for transnational agricultural firms (Acuña-Gonzalez 2004; Mannon 2005; Jorgenson and Kuykendall 2008). Through structural adjustment, international financial institutions obligated the Costa Rican state to adopt policies that favored firms like Del Monte and Dole, such as tax exonerations for foreign entities, financing for farming organizations, incentives for agricultural research, and exemptions from environmental health laws (Vagneron et al. 2009). During this time, Costa Rica and other regional governments focused more than ever on non-traditional exports as a means to expand their economies and repay debts (Thrupp 1988; Mannon 2005). As transnational agricultural companies continued monocropping, progressively higher pesticide applications became necessary to maintain consistent output. This opened the doors for the use of pesticides and fertilizers from chemical companies based in the United States, some of which were banned by the U.S. government for domestic use in the 1970s (Frey 1995). By the end of the 1980s, PINDECO was receiving more tax credits from the Costa Rican government than any other corporation, creating a boom in fresh pineapple exports and triggering foreign investment from other companies (Vagneron et al. 2009).

In the 1990s, PINDECO expanded its operations and began a shift towards subcontracting operations. A report written by Costa Rica’s Asociación Servicios de Promoción Laboral (ASEPROLA)[11] explained subcontracting as “satellite farming,” where PINDECO supplies domestic producers with the needed technology and guarantees the purchase of pineapple harvests, while the subcontracted companies manage the land and labor aspects of production (Acuña-Gonzalez 2004, 23). PINDECO maintains control over decision-making, as their foremen give direction to the subcontractors (International Labor Rights Forum 2008). In fields directly managed by PINDECO, “labor flexibilization” has been adopted where workers are issued short-term, two to three-month contracts, which enables a cycle of firing and rehiring workers (ILRF 2008, 20). These approaches remove responsibility from PINDECO to provide social benefits, thus reducing labor costs to make up for the high costs of pesticides (ILRF 2008). Costa Rican pesticide imports exploded almost threefold from the 1980s to the early 2000s, which coincided with Costa Rica becoming the lead global pineapple exporter in 2012 (De la Cruz et al. 2014; Ferreira et al. 2018).

Costa Rica harbors 3.6 percent of the world’s estimated biodiversity, with 25 percent of all land falling under some degree of environmental protection; these unique factors play a significant role in driving the ecotourism industry and contributing to the country’s “green” reputation (OECD 2017).

Ironically, Costa Rica’s pineapple monocropping and ecotourism industry have simultaneously expanded since the 1980s. In the 1970s, Costa Rica unintentionally began to attract foreign biologists and conservationists as “science tourists” due to its vast biodiversity and rainforests (Jones & Spadafora 2016). Currently, Costa Rica harbors 3.6 percent of the world’s estimated biodiversity, with 25 percent of all land falling under some degree of environmental protection; these unique factors play a significant role in driving the ecotourism industry and contributing to the country’s “green” reputation (OECD 2017). By 1985, the government saw revenue potential in tourism and established tax exemptions for tourism sector development, similar to existing policies for transnational agricultural investments. Foreign scientists and travelers alike began to flock to Costa Rica to establish their own environmentally friendly tourism businesses, which were bolstered by international “Save the Rainforest” campaigns and the continued creation of nationally protected parks (Jones & Spadafora 2016).

Throughout the 1990s, Costa Rica implemented a number of programs to promote more sustainable development measures such as its Payment for Environmental Services policy, largely to stop and reverse the previous decades of deforestation and environmental degradation caused by intensive agriculture (Valverde Sanchez 2018). By 2002, the United Nations International Year of Ecotourism, Costa Rica was hailed worldwide as an ecotourism destination, yet was importing more pesticides than ever to support its agricultural sector (De la Cruz et al. 2014, Jones et al. 2016). More recently, there has been a massive push for the expansion of renewable energy, adding to Costa Rica’s eco-friendly agenda  and putting it on track to be 100 percent renewable by 2021. Even as organic and fair trade farming operations have received attention for their efforts to reduce intensive pesticide use across the country, many of these larger operations still utilize monocropping, which continues to impact erosion and biodiversity loss (Marot 2019).

Over the last 40 years, behind Costa Rica’s environmentally sustainable image, the influence of PINDECO and other pineapple companies has continued to grow as many of the structural adjustment policies established in the 1980s remain in place such as the export tax exemption. Pineapple monocropping presents a paradox when considered against the country’s marketing as an eco-friendly destination (Vagneron et al. 2009, Marot 2019, Valverde Sanchez 2018). Vagneron et al. concluded that Costa Rica’s success in the international pineapple market can be explained by innovations led by Del Monte and the enabling regulatory environment aimed at promoting non-traditional exports. However, intensified pesticide application and natural resource extraction have coincided with insufficient consideration for local communities, resulting in numerous socio-economic issues.


Understanding the Implications of Pineapple Monocropping in Costa Rica

Public Health Concerns

Existing literature on the banana and pineapple industries in Costa Rica indicates a strong correlation between the presence of plantations and deteriorating public health (Wesseling et al. 2001). Occupational health concerns tied to pesticide exposure in the agricultural sector range from acutely symptomatic headaches and nausea to chronic issues such as cancer, neurological damage, and endocrine disruption (Galt 2007). Many of the moderate to highly toxic pesticides used on Costa Rican banana plantations, such as paraquat and carbofuran, are proven respiratory irritants, endocrine disruptors, or carcinogens, and are utilized parallel in the pineapple industry (Barraza et al. 2011). Our interviewees specifically named these pesticides, amongst others, as toxic products utilized on pineapple farms. Despite existing human health risk assessments, import levels of these highly hazardous pesticides have continued to rise in Costa Rica since the 1970s (De la Cruz et al. 2014).

The clear connection between large-scale pineapple production and the deterioration of human health in Buenos Aires was one of the most prominent themes in our interviews.

The clear connection between large-scale pineapple production and the deterioration of human health in Buenos Aires and surrounding communities was one of the most prominent themes in our interviews. Two of the three government officials interviewed noticed an increased prevalence of long-term, chronic illnesses such as cancer, and respiratory issues during their lifetime in Buenos Aires, particularly since PINDECO’s arrival. Their observations directly align with the aforementioned literature. Seven of eight interviewees, including government officials and community leaders, perceived a risk of pesticide exposure via inhalation for both workers and communities in close proximity to PINDECO’s fields. While the focus of our research was specific to the pineapple industry, MOH and MAG officials said proper pesticide handling and awareness must improve across the entire agricultural sector, as current practices often do not adhere to safety or application instructions on product labeling.

Within the community under study, interviewees more commonly expressed concern over acute rather than chronic exposure symptoms, though they described several accounts of chronic health conditions. Interviews with local medicinal healers and community leaders revealed that family members and neighbors employed by PINDECO regularly experience headaches, nausea, skin rashes, and difficulty breathing immediately after or during shifts. Some of these symptoms were perceived as linked to pesticide exposure, whereas others were described as symptoms of harsh working conditions in a tropical climate and a general lack of self-care. These symptoms align with data on mild to severe pesticide poisoning occurring in agricultural workers (Barraza et al. 2011; Ye 2013; Galt 2007). One chronic case regularly referenced in our interviews was that of a young woman born without arms and with extremely sensitive skin. Several interviewees and community members[12] felt this was connected to the parents’ daily exposure to pesticides at PINDECO facilities—the mother had worked in a packing house throughout her pregnancy. However, other family members questioned the link to the pineapple industry due to a lack of solid proof that the birth defects were caused by agrochemical exposure during gestation. Regardless, the sentiment was clear that local perceptions of the public health impacts of PINDECO's production practices are quite negative.

Two government officials from MAG and MOH testified that PINDECO is permitted to use highly toxic pesticides banned elsewhere. For example, paraquat-based herbicides have been banned across the European Union and are classified as “restricted use”[13] in the United States, yet are widely used in Costa Rica and cause the majority of pesticide-related poisonings and deaths (U.S. EPA 2019a; IRET 2020). Benzimidazole and mancozeb fungicides, both used as post-harvest pineapple treatments in Costa Rica, are also considered hazardous by U.S. and European regulatory agencies and potentially linked to cancer, reproductive, and developmental health concerns (Willis 2016; IRET 2020).

Officials and community leaders implied that Costa Rica has not been able to ban certain pesticides due to lobbying by agricultural and chemical interests.

Despite negative human and environmental health impacts, the Costa Rican state continues to allow the use of these pesticide products, raising questions as to how much influence PINDECO and other agricultural corporations wield within Costa Rican institutions. Officials and community leaders implied that Costa Rica has not been able to ban certain pesticides due to lobbying by agricultural and chemical interests. Several articles from the 2000s examining the international pesticide trade in Latin America support these claims, explaining that multinational chemical companies can sue countries moving to limit their products based on international and bilateral trade agreements (Langman 2008, Rosenthal 2005). The World Trade Organization (WTO) demands harmonization of standards for both pesticides and food products, meaning that if a company or country wants stricter pesticide standards than the WTO supports, it can lead to harsh economic sanctions under the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (Langman 2008). Additionally, both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Central American Free Trade Agreement include investor rights clauses allowing companies to challenge limitations of pesticide imports (due to environmental health concerns) based on their potentially diminished “expected future profits” (Rosenthal 2005). For example, U.S. pesticide manufacturer Chemtura Corporation sued Canada for $100 million in damages in the early 2000s, claiming that the country’s pesticide ban on lindane for canola crops was an “expropriation of its investment,” based on NAFTA’s investor rights provisions (Langman 2008). Lastly, the harmonization of pesticide labels in Central America that has occurred since the 1990s, which seemingly promotes consistency across borders, has actually resulted in the “downgrading” of some pesticide labels from the “highly hazardous” red category to “moderately hazardous” blue (Rosenthal 2005).[14] 

Per Costa Rican law,[15] any employer is legally obligated to provide training and personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers to mitigate occupational health risks. Therefore, PINDECO and any of its subcontracting companies are legally responsible for supplying PPE to reduce pesticide exposure. The MAG official we spoke with indicated that PINDECO complies with this obligation to provide PPE, yet other interviewees questioned whether the protective gear provided (i.e. gloves, long-sleeved jacket, rubber boots, and face mask) was sufficient. Wesseling et al. (2001) address this discrepancy, as they explain that when “proper” PPE is utilized in especially hot and humid climates, it could still be insufficient as perspiration can soak through clothing and allow chemicals to permeate the skin (288). Not only is there the possibility of direct skin contact if this is the case, but once trapped beneath clothing, dermal absorption can be magnified up to tenfold (Wesseling et al. 2001). This issue of PPE sufficiency raises additional questions as to whether internationally referenced risk assessments conducted in moderate climates are applicable to tropical countries.

Through its use of sub-contracting and “labor flexibilization” strategies, PINDECO can evade accountability for human health issues in Costa Rica’s pineapple industry.

Per the same occupational health law, companies in Costa Rica are also obligated to report any type of workplace safety incidents to the MOH. It was revealed by current and former PINDECO employees, as well as community leaders, that PINDECO provides its own private healthcare services for employees. This information is not readily searchable or publicly available, however, through our interviews it became clear that communities in the area are well aware of this aspect of PINDECO’s internal operations. While this may appear indicative of PINDECO’s concerns for employee well-being, our interviewees largely saw it as a means to keep work-related health concerns confidential and avoid negative headlines. Some workers we spoke with said the company does not release test results to individuals in order to avoid accountability for workplace-induced illnesses, and fires sick employees to avoid bearing treatment costs. Corroborating reports about labor concerns in the pineapple industry illustrate historical patterns of mass layoffs by PINDECO, the targeting of old age or sick employees to avoid paying social benefits, and the failure to acknowledge workplace-induced exposure and insufficient treatment (ILRF 2008; Acuña-Gonzalez 2004).

A regional MOH official painted a very different image of PINDECO: a company that complies with all occupational and public health regulations and fully reports safety incidents. When specifically asked about the well-being of employees and whether PINDECO provides necessary health services, the MOH official reported if any workplace incident occurs, the employee receives necessary medical attention. These dramatically different accounts give rise to serious questions about the validity and accuracy of PINDECO’s reporting to the MOH. 

Through its use of sub-contracting and “labor flexibilization” strategies, PINDECO can evade accountability for human health issues in Costa Rica’s pineapple industry. Existing publications and our research reveal that by utilizing sub-contracted farms or field supervisors, PINDECO effectively removes any direct link to many of its field workers (ILRF, 2008). In doing so, when a laborer experiences a workplace safety incident tied to pesticide exposure or otherwise, reports filed with the National Institute of Social Security in Costa Rica are not tied to PINDECO, but rather to the sub-contractor. One community leader stated that these short-term contracts not only exempt PINDECO from providing social benefits, but also keep employees in a state of constant fear for their employment, greatly reducing the number of worker complaints. As the MAG official we interviewed stated, “This is a strategy to separate themselves, including when there have been problems… PINDECO has no responsibility for social security, trainings, or any of the labor problems.”

Regional Economic Impacts

Despite assumptions that PINDECO’s presence has boosted economic growth, recent census data and academic publications show that after decades of intensive pineapple production, Buenos Aires remains one of the most impoverished municipalities in Costa Rica (Silvetti and Caceres 2015; INEC 2018). All of the interviewees touched on the enduring issue of poverty in Buenos Aires, linking it to PINDECO’s presence despite messaging to communities that the company is helping local development. Government officials in the region spoke of the corporation’s monopoly over the labor market with low paying positions, which has hindered entrepreneurship and prevented local families from moving upward in the local economy to improve their standard of living. One official made a particularly striking point: he claimed PINDECO sources only unskilled and untrained labor from locals, while bringing in managers from other parts of the country. The interviewee continued by saying the money pumped into the municipality through worker salaries is barely enough for families to survive, let alone pursue further opportunities.

All of the interviewees touched on the enduring issue of poverty in Buenos Aires, linking it to PINDECO’s presence.

Local community leaders made a similar connection between PINDECO’s presence and the area’s deteriorating food security, explaining that small-scale farmers have increasingly abandoned sustenance farming and become indebted consumers rather than producers. Maintaining a personal farm for business or sustenance farming has become less and less common in the area, partially due to high input costs for fertilizers and pesticides. These observations align with literature on the negative implications of industrial agriculture for community food security and malnutrition rates (Frey 1995; Otero 2012). Overall, people in the region understand the consequences of working for PINDECO. However, as the primary employer in the area, individuals accept these risks rather than face economic uncertainty and strain. Thus, an economic dependence on the pineapple industry exists at the local level, which feeds into a cycle of poverty.

During our research, we noted that the mere mention of issues related to PINDECO was sensitive and a point of contention, alluding to a sense of vulnerability felt at the local level due to the company’s economic and political power. We spoke with former workers who had been fired and blacklisted due to their participation in protests or speaking out on poor working conditions. An International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) report (2008) confirms that PINDECO often sponsors anti-union campaigns and has fired workers who are even considering union participation. As a result, some PINDECO employees viewed criticizing the company as risking their livelihoods and means of supporting their families. Environmental organization leaders also spoke to tensions working with or around PINDECO, specifically when deciding to accept or reject funding from the company itself. Such decisions create conflict within these groups because they need funding, but do not want the company to have influence over their operations. In addition to this deliberately constructed vulnerability, communities themselves appeared to perceive a lack of control over how PINDECO’s practices affect their families.

The idea that PINDECO has created economic stability for communities within its region of operation is therefore an illusion perpetuated by the company and the state. In Buenos Aires, the Del Monte subsidiary donates resources such as trash cans and small amounts of funding for schools and community centers, creating the appearance that the company is invested in the well-being of the municipality. However, most profits flow out of the country to bolster wealth elsewhere, as PINDECO is part of a U.S.-based transnational corporation. The stark difference in community versus company profits is further supported by the fact that pineapple remains the only industry in Costa Rica to avoid export taxes (Vagneron et al. 2009; Fresh Plaza 2018). In 2018 alone, Del Monte, headquartered in Walnut Creek, California, reported profits of $279.8 billion (Del Monte 2019).

These issues are representative of a larger problem within global industrial agriculture and are reflective of what scholars Phillip McMichael and Harriet Friedmann conceptualized as the emerging “corporate food regime.” This regime is defined by the capital accumulation of agrifood productions, which operate on a global scale via transnational corporations, enabling the consumption of products from international sources in accordance with global market trends. McMichael and Friedmann (1989) specifically point to the fact that the globalization of corporate agriculture has created tensions between proponents of the food sovereignty movement and large transnational agrifood corporations and the state actors who support them (Otero 2012; “Food Sovereignty” 2003).[16]

Environmental Extractivism

In addition to the public health and economic impacts of pineapple production, the pineapple industry’s practices within Costa Rica have clear environmental consequences. Discussing the extractive nature of PINDECO’s operations, we draw on literature and our interviews to focus on three primary environmental issues: water grabbing, deleterious agricultural practices, and effects on biodiversity.

    1. Water Grabbing

During our interviews, several individuals claimed that allocations of water concessions favored larger corporate usage over local community needs. Communities in the region rely on nearby rivers for drinking, domestic uses, irrigation, and recreation. However, community members and visitors have observed significant changes in the quantity and quality of these resources as a consequence of water use by pineapple industries for irrigation (Diepens et al. 2014; ILRF 2008).[17] These river system alterations could be interpreted as violations of Costa Rican Law 7779, Article 78, which states that any water concession issued should include clauses pertaining to the conservation of water and prevention of contamination.[18] Our interviews and site visits revealed that PINDECO has gained considerable concessions over rivers bordering the community in which we conducted our research. This aligns with what Mehta, Veldwisch, and Franco (2012) constitute as water grabbing, or “a situation where powerful actors are able to take control of, or reallocate to their own benefits, water resources already used by local communities or feeding aquatic ecosystems on which their livelihoods are based” (197). Water grabbing results in unequal power relations and blurred lines surrounding legality and formal rights to water resources, and can be paralleled with land grabbing, a situation where terrestrial resources are reallocated and controlled (Mehta et al. 2012). The authors highlight that land grabbing receives more media, academic, and policy attention than water grabbing, with the connectedness between land and water resources often ignored (Mehta et al. 2012). These issues discussed by Mehta et al., combined with insufficient resources dedicated to the measuring and recording of water degradation in our study area, likely explain why we did not encounter much information on the water implications of agricultural-driven resource control in our literature review on the pineapple industry.

Another interviewee shared that PINDECO utilizes water sources located upstream from their town’s water supply.

Aside from pineapple plantation impacts on water access, additional concerns exist about water quality. During our site visits, we witnessed irrigation systems directly sourced from nearby rivers and with direct drainage of untreated runoff back into natural streams and rivers. A local environmental leader mentioned an upcoming study showing contamination of river systems from PINDECO’s pesticide use, which would be the first quantitative study specific to Buenos Aires and nearby San Isidro del General municipalities illustrating drinking water contamination. Another interviewee shared that PINDECO utilizes water sources located upstream from their town’s water supply, creating downstream issues with the quality and quantity of water. A recent University of Costa Rica study substantiates these upstream contamination concerns, finding traces of six pesticides in the Terraba-Sierpe Wetlands located downstream from our research location in the municipality of Osa (O’Neal Coto 2018).

    2. Exempted Agricultural Practices

PINDECO has also been granted special permissions to conduct agricultural practices otherwise illegal in Costa Rica. Many of the laws regulating the agricultural industry in the country have had loopholes effectively written into them, allowing MAG to make special exceptions when it deems necessary (Thrupp 1988). In the case of PINDECO, the state issues controlled burn permits for post-harvest biomass with the justification that burning prevents the spread of the stable fly (Stomoxys calcitrans), which poses a public health concern for surrounding communities and livestock operations.[19] A regional MAG official told us that the state maintains exemptions for PINDECO’s practices, regardless of whether the fields are first sprayed with toxic herbicides, which upon combustion emit highly noxious gases into the atmosphere.[20] The official noted that PINDECO has the option of burying the biomass waste to prevent air pollution and the spread of stable flies, yet does not because it is more expensive. When we asked if this meant the Costa Rican government was favoring the cheaper solution over the prevention of increased chronic illnesses from air pollution, regardless of whether PINDECO would shoulder the cost, the official chose not to comment.

    3. Biodiversity Loss

In their ranking of high-risk pesticides used in Costa Rica, De la Cruz et al. (2014) noted that nematicides and insecticides are linked to the worst environmental degradation, both of which are heavily used in the pineapple industry and contribute to wildlife loss and biodiversity reduction. Several interview subjects mentioned PINDECO’s misuse of land and the implications for communities and biodiversity. To maintain high production levels on what was described as “sterile” land, interviewees told us the industry applies large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. A local medicinal practitioner who spends much of her time in forests told us that trees reliant on insect pollination such as mango, orange, and pejibaye[21] have produced less and less fruit over the years, sometimes resulting in non-existent harvests. Due to monocultures, bees lose foraging habitat, and industrial agriculture practices like high-intensity pesticide use are highly detrimental to bee populations (Suryanarayanan and Kleiman 2016). As such, declining bees and fruit tree harvests in southern Costa Rica are indicative of environmental degradation and have additional implications for local food security.

Among scientists and agronomists, there is also a concern that the deterioration of soil biodiversity on pineapple plantations is so rapid and severe due to erosion, over-cultivation, and pesticide application that the land will become completely infertile (Richardson et al. 2013). Aside from intensive pesticide application, pineapple cultivation utilizes “naked soil” (land stripped of all other vegetation) with irrigation canals throughout, contributing to high levels of erosion and runoff. Agricultural runoff into waterways has had negative implications for aquatic biodiversity. Local leaders noted mass mortality events among fish populations and the disappearance of many invertebrate species in the surrounding riparian habitats. In addition to causing mass mortality events, pesticides are known to bioaccumulate in both terrestrial and aquatic life, prompt eutrophication, and cause reproductive issues in aquatic organisms, leading to depopulation (Araya et al. 2014). One interviewee went so far as to tell us that “the river is dead.”

Collusion between state and industry?

While previous Costa Rican governments established domestic regulations in an effort to limit pesticide misuse and unsustainable agricultural practices, the socio-economic issues discussed thus far imply that enforcement is lacking. A review of Costa Rican regulations in the 1980s revealed that 54 laws relating to pesticide use, sale, and formulation were already in existence. This assessment concluded that while progress had been made on paper, issues with overuse, mishandling, and contamination continued to rise due to lack of government resources and capacity (Thrupp 1988). Several interviewees opined that the Costa Rican government chooses to remain lax with taxation and regulation of the pineapple industry out of fear of losing contributions to GDP and development. Validating our interviews, Jorgenson and Kuykendall state that due to the established dependence of developing countries on foreign investment and the threat of capital flight, states are less likely than ever before to limit the access and rights of large firms (2008). Authors examining the Costa Rican legislative environment find that institutional overlap in regulatory authority makes enforcement difficult and bribery easy, which is magnified by larger forces of the political economy such as transnational corporate pressure and international debt (Thrupp 1988; Araya et al. 2014).

At the local level, our research revealed a clear discrepancy between community perceptions of the government’s assumed open access to information on PINDECO’s operations versus the reality of local officials’ relationship with the company.

At the local level, our research revealed a clear discrepancy between community perceptions of the government’s assumed open access to information on PINDECO’s operations versus the reality of local officials’ relationship with the company. This discrepancy is drawn from interviews with non-governmental community leaders in which many stated that “the government” knew all about PINDECO’s operations. However, these sentiments did not align with the information provided to us through interviews with local government officials. In fact, during our interview with a regional MAG official, they stressed that they do not have accurate production data from PINDECO at the municipal level (e.g. total hectares, pesticide usage, etc.) despite the fact that MAG is largely involved in issuing permits for large-scale pineapple production outfits at many stages. Many of the numbers shared with us by the MAG official were in fact from an independent University of Costa Rica report, which used satellite imagery and GIS to estimate total pineapple production area in the country. Every interviewee, including the MAG official, agreed that there are environmental and public health consequences to pineapple monocropping in Buenos Aires, yet perceived there was insufficient quantitative data to implicate the pineapple industry as the primary driver of these issues. The long-standing presence of PINDECO in the country, however, raised questions about the possibility of withheld information between state institutions and local governments. It is unlikely that the state is completely cut off from information on PINDECO’s operations, even information as fundamental as the number of hectares used for production. 

Inferences on the Global Corporate Food Regime

Regional Agricultural Parallels

Parallels can be drawn between the pineapple industry and other non-traditional exports such as banana and sugarcane, both important Central American commodities. In 2000, Castillo et al. pointed to a study indicating toxic levels of insecticides and herbicides in the Suerter River, which flows near banana plantations and through the Tortuguero Conservation Area of Costa Rica. A more recent study indicated that the Spectacled caiman crocodile, which resides within Tortuguero, had toxic pesticides present in blood samples, signaling danger of pesticide intoxication for all trophic species within the region as a result of banana plantations (Grant, Woudneh, and Ross 2013). Additionally, the Costa Rican banana industry has a history of male worker sterilization resulting from widespread use of 1,2-Dibromo-3-chloropropane (DBCP) (Araya et al. 2014). The Central American sugarcane industry, on the other hand, has been linked to an epidemic of chronic kidney disease in field workers. Kidney disease is often related to chronic dehydration and toxic poisoning, both of which occur under sugarcane field working conditions that require long hours in the sun and exposure to pesticides. These cases point to the often-overlooked fact that export crops originating from Central America often have negative side effects for the workers performing the manual labor necessary to keep those industries afloat (Peery 2014).

Of important note is the role of consumer demand from the Global North. In 2017, half of Costa Rica’s pineapple export value was attributed to the United States, followed by the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Spain (Mulderij 2018). Hence, at the end of these export commodity supply chains often lies an unassuming customer purchasing a cheap, everyday item, unaware of the health and environmental consequences occurring at the beginning stages of the production process.

International Pesticide Trade

To further add to this complex global relationship, the majority of harmful pesticides used in Costa Rica and the Global South are manufactured and sold by chemical companies based in the Global North (Jorgenson and Kuykendall 2008). Although export of U.S.-banned chemicals appears to have ceased completely due to their highly toxic properties, the United States is not required to track pesticide exports (Galt 2008). This provides a massive opportunity for companies to uphold a façade of ethical business practices, resulting in “unregistered” pesticide exports. As such, chemical companies are able to find a market within lesser-developed countries where regulations are less stringent (Jorgenson and Kuykendall 2008).

One must ask whether Costa Rica’s “green” image truly reflects its environmental realities.

Investigative journalists David Weir and Mark Shapiro popularized the term “circle of poison” in 1981 in their provocative book exposing the phenomenon in which harmful chemicals are manufactured in the Global North for the purpose of being sold to the Global South and applied to export crops. Ironically, these pesticides make their way back to the Global North via crop residues, posing potential hazards for consumers. However, those residing in the Global North have the advantage of regulations put in place to protect them via Maximum Residue Limits or Levels (MRLs), a luxury not extended to those handling the chemicals directly during the production phase (Galt 2008). The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization defines MRLs as the “highest level of pesticide residue that is legally tolerated in or on food or feed when pesticides are applied correctly” (Redmond 2002). The “circle of poison” was partially addressed at the global level via The First Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention held in 1998 establishing legal obligation of Prior Informed Consent (PIC), forcing countries to communicate discoveries regarding harmful pesticides through the framework of international trade. Unfortunately, PIC falls short of imposing restrictions or regulations on pesticides; notification is the only mandatory step (Galt 2008). While the Rotterdam Convention entered into force in 2004, the United States chose not to ratify and as of now only voluntarily recognizes PIC (The Rotterdam Convention 1998). Despite the curtailment of highly toxic pesticide use through PIC and the advocacy of organizations such as Pesticide Action Network, our research suggests the circulation of toxic chemicals persists in the context of Southern Costa Rica’s pineapple industry.

The continual use of hazardous pesticides in Costa Rica leads back to the irony of Costa Rica’s sustainable global image, much of which has been perpetuated through the ecotourism industry and corresponding state agencies. Recent Costa Rican governments have partnered with the United Nations in implementing the Certification for Sustainable Tourism, which aims to integrate elements of sustainable tourism and management practice (Certification for Sustainable Tourism 2001). However, the encroachment of industrialized agriculture like pineapple monocropping poses grave threats to the rich biodiversity of the country, mainly through the application of pesticides (OECD 2017). As a result of this monocropping, Costa Rica continues to have one of the highest intensities of pesticide usage on the planet (Claydon 2017). Considering the importance of industrially grown agricultural exports for the Costa Rican economy, accounting for 31.1 to 37.2 percent of total exports since 1999, one must ask whether Costa Rica’s “green” image truly reflects its environmental realities (OECD 2017).


Policy Prescriptions

Based on our research, we propose three policy changes to begin to address challenges associated with mass pineapple production in Costa Rica. The primary recommendation of this paper is to establish an export tax on pineapples, which is already promoted by local communities and advocates. Regional government officials interviewed for this research agreed that a tax should be imposed due to the extensive natural resource use and human health impacts of the industry in the municipality. The literature illustrates how significantly an export tax could contribute to public funding of education and healthcare systems in Buenos Aires, which lacks public services such as a fully equipped hospital (Ferreira et al.2018; INEC 2018).

An export tax could contribute to public funding of education and healthcare systems in Buenos Aires.

Our second recommendation is to improve water quality and quantity monitoring schemes in Costa Rica. Multi-year monitoring of the region’s water resources is needed to understand the impacts of specific land use patterns, such as pineapple monocropping. There have been no published long-term studies or official data on water quality in the municipality of Buenos Aires since the introduction of pineapple monocropping, and there is uncertainty regarding drinking water contamination from pesticides. With baseline hydrological flow data, the current water concession system could also be structured in a more equitable way that respects the livelihood of community members.

The third recommendation of this paper is to shift the approach to conducting studies and risk assessments of pesticide occupational exposure. As previously discussed, the prescribed PPE is contingent on exposure hazards presented in assessments from countries with generally moderate climates, rather than the tropical climates where many agricultural exports are cultivated. More research needs to be conducted on how exposure mitigation may require adjustments in tropical versus moderate climates for the sake of worker protections.



This article has examined the politics and power dynamics within southern Costa Rica’s pineapple industry to better understand impacts at the community level. Our research reveals the overarching influence that PINDECO has from the local level up to the state. An analysis of the company’s subcontracting system reveals its strategic purpose, allowing the company to avoid direct contact with some of its workers and pineapple fields, thereby evading legal responsibility for both human and environmental health issues that arise from unsustainable production practices. The social and ecological impacts of the pineapple industry threaten the region’s well-being and highlight contradictions with Costa Rica's “green” reputation.

An analysis of the political ecology of the pineapple industry must consider the region’s political history, as well as the nuances of relationships between state and corporate actors. The apparent contradiction between residents’ simultaneous criticism of the industry and participation as employees is understandable in the context of scarce labor opportunities and economic precariousness. Further, based on our interviews with regional government officials, we suggest there is a distinct difference of perspective on issues surrounding pineapple monocropping in the region. There is also a stark juxtaposition between the concerned sentiments of some regional government officials and the state’s vocal support for the pineapple industry. While our research contributes to the existing literature by providing new information and policy prescriptions specific to the region, future research is needed to confront social and environmental inequities exacerbated by industrial pineapple monocropping.

About the Authors

Jennifer Brown, Tara Flint and Jessica LaMay are 2020 graduates of the Masters in Global Environmental Politics program at American University’s School of International Service with different concentrations in food systems, transboundary water governance, and environmental conservation politics. Jennifer can be reached at (LinkedIn), Tara can be reached at (LinkedIn), and Jessica can be reached at (LinkedIn).


The authors would like to give special thanks to Scott Freeman and Olivia Sylvester for their key roles in organizing the field course, as well as for their encouragement in pursuing publication and invaluable guidance on early drafts of the article. Thanks to John Andrew McNeish for his contributions before and during fieldwork, and to our partner research team which included Emily Jones, Cristiana Little, Pauline Rutten, and Fiorella R. Duran. The authors extend considerable gratitude to the people and community groups who made this research possible in Costa Rica. Acknowledgement is also due to the group of editors who provided useful revisions. Finally, the authors would like to note that this publication was written independently and does not reflect the views or opinions of their employers, or the U.S. or Costa Rican governments.


[1] Monocropping is an agricultural practice whereby the same crop variety is grown year after year on the same plot of land. This is the opposite of polycropping systems where multiple crops are grown on the same plot of land utilizing crop rotation techniques.

[2] Pineapple plants on PINDECO plantations are grown so densely that workers must walk over the leaves to harvest the fruit. This high-density planting pattern makes it more difficult for pesticides to penetrate the soil and root systems. In addition, the density of pineapple plants provides an environment where pests can thrive with plentiful roots, leaves, and fruit and few natural predators . These factors contribute to intensive application of pesticides.

[3] Calculation attributed to the Regional Institute of Studies of Toxic Substances at the National University of Costa Rica: Use rate for pesticide application is in kg/ha.

[4] Throughout the article, “state” is used to refer to the structural and organizational components of the political system. “Government” on the other hand refers to the administration or group of people in a particular time period working within the state structure and utilizing the power of the state (See Robinson, 2013 for further discussion).

[5] The “Global South” and “Global North” are terms originally coined in 1969 by American writer Carl Oglesby to replace the previously utilized terms First, Second, and Third World countries, popularized by French anthropologist Alfred Sauvy. International institutions, such as the World Bank, now commonly use the North-South terms for newly industrialized, developing, and developed economies. Global Northern countries are often developed economies whereas Global Southern countries are often developing economies, and the distinction alludes to a history of colonialism. The terminology does not inherently refer to a geographically northern or southern region (see Di Nicola 2020 for further discussion).

[6] Note that in Costa Rica, municipalities are referred to as cantons. We utilize “municipality” for comprehension.

[7] Phone contact was made with PINDECO in Buenos Aires at the beginning of the research timeline. However, they required a formal, written solicitation for a meeting. The research team immediately submitted this request, as well as several follow-up emails and phone calls. PINDECO contacted the research team on its last day in the area to set up a meeting the following week, but this was not feasible given time constraints. The research team also tried to meet directly with PINDECO’s occupational health office, but was told to come back at a later time with no guarantee of an actual meeting, which was not feasible given time constraints.

[8] The Green Revolution was a period of agricultural technological advances and initiatives to promote higher levels of production during the 1950s and 1960s. Increases in production were largely due to the development and promotion of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as new high-yield crops and more mechanized farming practices. Adoption of these new technologies and products were especially promoted in developing economies as a means of decreasing poverty and hunger.

[9] While increased export taxes were beneficial to the government, they reduced the profit margins of transnational fruit companies, leading the companies to diversify their export portfolios.

[10] The history of global pineapple trade (outside of Costa Rica) falls largely outside the scope of this paper. However, pineapple demand grew at the end of the 20th century similarly to how demand for bananas grew at the beginning of the century. Both tropical fruits grew in popularity due to transnational fruit companies’ intense commercialization and marketing campaigns that advertised bananas and pineapples as nutritious and exotic, luxury goods (See Tucker 1990 & Okihiro 2009 for more information).

[11] Translation: Association of Labor Promotion Services, Costa Rica’s equivalent of the Fair Labor Association.

[12] The authors lived with families in the area of study for the duration of the research and therefore had daily informal interactions and conversations with many community members beyond those formally interviewed.

[13] “Restricted use pesticides” are only available for sale to and use by certified pesticide applicators who undergo training, testing, and continuing education. These products are regulated due to risk assessments and/or acute toxicity reviews revealing serious human and/or environmental health exposure concerns (National Pesticide Information Center,

[14] The color categorization labeling is particularly important in rural Central American farming communities that report high illiteracy rates.

[15] Ley Riesgos del Trabajo No. 6727.

[16] The food sovereignty movement was initially spearheaded by the international organization La Via Campesina in 1996 at the World Food Summit. La Via Campesina advocates for the rights of small-scale and peasant farmers to influence agriculture and food policy. They also strongly oppose neoliberal policies they believe undermine the well-being of farmers in favor of international trade (“Food Sovereignty - Via Campesina” 2003).

[17] According to Mekonnen and Hoekstra (2010), the global average water footprint of pineapples is 255 m3/ton.

[18] This law also holds the concession recipient responsible for correcting any damages incurred.

[19] Article 86 of Costa Rican Law 7779 (Reglamento a la Ley de Uso, Manejo y Conservación de Suelos) states that any burning of lands or fields must gain approval from MAG, who in turn confers with the Ministry of the Environment and Energy.

[20] During our interview, the MAG official specified the release of dioxins. However we were not able to confirm that dioxins would be the toxic compounds released into the environment based on the common herbicides used on pineapple fields.

[21] Pejibayes are small starchy pods produced by certain Central American palm tree species that are harvested and boiled for consumption. They were traditionally eaten to supplement meals, but have since become hard to find and expensive. Recent harvests have been inedible due to infestation of non-native wasps, which use the pods to lay their eggs.


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