Costa Rican Agricultural Cooperative Resists Expansion of Large-Scale Pineapple Plantations

The Costa Rican village and agricultural cooperative of Longo Maï—also known as Finca Sonador—works to resist the expansion of multinational pineapple plantations and defend the land, water, and labor rights of the local community.

Located four hours from Costa Rica’s capital, San José, in the southwestern region of Buenos Aires, Puntarenas, the Longo Maï community has 900 hectares of land. More than half of the village’s land is designated a wildlife refuge. Residents use the other half to cultivate corn, beans, cassava, bananas, meat, milk, eggs, and fruits for local consumption.

But in several rural Costa Rican communities, including Longo Maï, pineapple monocultures have triggered socio-environmental conflicts. According to a 2020 report from the Centro Nacional de Alta Tecnología (CENAT) and the Consejo Nacional de Rectores de Costa Rica (CONARE), 7,056 hectares of pineapple plantations stretch across the Buenos Aires region.

A report from Oxfam Germany finds that this expansion and intensification of pineapple plantations has led to surface and groundwater contamination, soil erosion, river diversions, and the build up of sediment in rivers. And the intensive use of agrochemicals can contaminate community aqueducts near the plantations, according to research in the Revista Latino-Americana de Geografia e Gênero.

By hosting dialogues and forums in the community, Longo Maï works to “connect food and water security movements,” and is “guided by an overall vision of environmental justice,” Madeline Kiser, an environmental educator and poet who collaborates with the cooperative, tells Food Tank.

In Costa Rica, Longo Maï began “as a project of international solidarity…one of the cooperative’s core principles is that the people who live here have access to land for housing and for cultivating food,” Jiri Spendlingwimmer, a Costa Rican anthropologist, resident of Longo Maï, and son of Roland Spendlingwimmer, founding member of the Costa Rican cooperative tells Food Tank.

A movement of agricultural cooperatives, Longo Maï—which translates to Long Life from the Provençal language in Southern France—originated in Switzerland in 1973. During this time, youth in post-war Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and France sought to return to the land with a vision of agricultural self-sufficiency and an alternative to capitalism.

In 1979, the European Cooperatives of Longo Maï, with support from the United Nations, founded the agricultural cooperative in Costa Rica to assist refugees fleeing from the United States-backed Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. Shortly after the national liberation movement won the war in Nicaragua, many Nicaraguans returned home. But in El Salvador, as the civil war worsened in the 1980s, many refugees escaped violence and settled in Longo Maï. The village soon became a place for refugees and poor landless Costa Rican farmers to call home.

The cooperative’s beginnings coincided with the arrival of the United States-based company Fresh Del Monte Produce, Inc. Through the Pineapple Development Corporation (PINDECO), a subsidiary of Fresh Del Monte, the company established a monopoly over fresh pineapple exports in southern Costa Rica, according to research from Comunidades Ecologistas LA Ceiba (COECOCeiba).

When Fresh Del Monte initiated operations in Buenos Aires, the company “destroyed nature to prepare the pineapple fields because they’re very intensive to produce,” Spendlingwimmer tells Food Tank. “The people who work at the plantations are also exposed to chemicals and harsh working conditions, and this has been constant throughout 40 years. The [Costa Rican] government itself attracts this type of corporation to generate employment, but this model is the opposite of what Longo Maï promotes.”

Longo Maï is particularly concerned with PINDECO’s water use and the pollution of nearby rivers. A study by the University of Costa Rica found traces of six different pesticides in the Térraba-Sierpe Wetlands located in the municipality neighboring Longo Maï.

Pesticide contamination in the Térraba-Sierpe Wetlands, a Ramsar site, has “completely altered the ecosystems and local economy,” Oscar Beita, who works with Longo Maï on environmental issues, tells Food Tank. Beita is also a member of the Movimiento Ríos Vivos—or Living Rivers Movement—in Costa Rica.

Beita, Kiser, Spendlingwimmer, and other residents of Longo Maï and surrounding communities campaigned against further expansion of the pineapple plantation project near the Térraba-Sierpe Wetlands. In 2019, Costa Rica’s Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) announced its decision to suspend a project that would have established a 500-hectare pineapple plantation near the wetlands.

The cooperative is now continuing its fight, turning its focus to a three-year partnership between the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and Fresh Del Monte, which aims to develop a project for sustainable watershed management. “This project, and others like it, are presented as a global model so corporations can ensure they will continue to have water to make their products,” says Kiser.

With the issue of corporate-controlled water management looming, Beita tells Food Tank that the community’s wants to “attract attention” to the issue. He says this will be a “long and complex process because [Fresh Del Monte] has been around for decades and has penetrated almost every aspect of life in the area.”

To raise awareness of environmental issues and share ideas for strengthening food and water security, Longo Maï hosts academics and university students to collaborate on conservation and community development projects.

“Longo Maï has acted as a psychological, spiritual space for difficult conversations about water and the environment to take place,” Kiser says. “Longo Maï is a space for more than just cultivating food, but also changing one’s way of thinking.”

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Photo courtesy of Refugio Longo Maï/Escuela de la Tierra

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