In Costa Rica, a fed-up rancher takes on a produce giant
by Marilyn Berlin Snell
Pablo Beita, a Costa Rican rancher from Volcán, knows the river he was born near because he used to swim in its clear and enlivening current with pigs. As the eldest son of Marcelino and Caridad Beita, the boy was charged with watching the familys animalswhich included oxen as well as the buoyant swine. The challenge with the pigs was that they tended to become disoriented in the rapids and swirling eddies, so it was hard to get them across to where the rainforest gave way to fenced pasture. Pablo often had to jump in and drag the animals to safety by their velvety ears.
Much has changed in this southern valley of Costa Rica since then: There is now a sturdy concrete bridge, accommodating cars as well as livestock, across the Río Volcán; Beita is a dairy and cattle rancher with 500 head on 2,400 acresa man known by most as "Don" Pablo, a term of respect; and there is a lot less water. "The river now seems like an old man who has lost his force," says the rancher, who has aged alongside it for 74 years.
The Beita family has lived near this river since 1890. In fact, Don Pablos grandfather named it, and the town of Volcán, after the village in Panama he left in search of a better life. Beitas named the nearby Sonador River as well, because it was so noisy; the turbulent Cacao was named for its color.
With a sixth-grade education and little travel beyond Costa Rica, Don Pablos understanding of the world is formed from within it, and so his explanations and metaphors are simple, and make no claims beyond what is lived. During the two weeks I stayed with him and his wife Doña Maryat the invitation of their daughter-in-law, my friend Madeline KiserI heard him speak of the river as the towns blood; of the air that once swept cool and sweet out of the mountains as the contents of Volcáns lungs.
Some of the land at the higher elevations is owned by Don Pablo. One day while riding horses with him in the hills, I ask how the area has changed since he was young. "There used to be a lot of parrots," he says. "Id come up here with a flashlight and shoot them out of the trees at night. My mother made great parrot soup." He pauses for effect, then adds, "I didnt grow up thinking about the environment the way I do now."
We ride through forests dripping with bromeliads, and pastures where grass blades as wide as fingers grow. We pass single file on a swinging bridge and I see a large morphos butterfly up the tree-shrouded stream, the turquoise circles on its fluttering wings flashing like neon. After five hours on horseback we return to Volcán. I am ready for physical therapy but Don Pablo is ready to talk. (He has been up since 4 a.m., rising as usual to the call of the rooster in the backyarda heinous creature that, according to family members, has always been out of sync with the natural fact of dawn.) On his office wall hangs a relief map of Costa Rica. The tip of its highest mountain, in the Amistad Biosphere Reserve just to the north of us, has been rubbed smooth by years of touching. It is evening and a tropical rain shower slaps so hard against the broad-leafed philodendrons out the open window that its sometimes hard to hear as Madeline translates from Spanish. "I loved that river," Don Pablo begins, "but the company has ruined it."
"The company" is the Pineapple Development Corporation, or Pindeco for short. The largest pineapple producer in Costa Rica, Pindeco has been operating in the southern part of the country since 1978. Though it promotes itself as a Costa Rican enterprise, Pindeco sells 100 percent of its fruit to the U.S.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce Company and refers to itself in court documents as "Del Montes Agricultural Development Corporation."
When I decided to visit Volcán, I wrote to Pindecos general manager, Rodrigo Jiménez, and asked for an appointment. My request was promptly forwarded to the legal department at Del Montes headquarters in Coral Gables, Florida, and then on to an officer of communications, who informed me that Del Montes president had reviewed my letter and denied my request. The next day I received a fax from Mr. Jiménez saying that he would be out of the country during my visit. Once in Costa Rica, I asked to speak with other Pindeco officials or at least see the environmental presentation the company has given to journalists. On all counts, the answer was no.
In increments, Pindeco has bought nearly 20,000 acres in the valley around Volcán. The company is now the regions largest employer and landowner, and has built schools, bridges, and health clinics in several towns. Its Del Monte Gold pineapple has been bred to flourish in this climate and to produce sweet, aesthetically pleasing fruit. Last year, Pindeco exported $85 million worth of Golds60 percent to the United States and 40 percent to Europe. It is the best-selling pineapple in the world.
But as Pindecos fortunes have grown, so have environmental problems in the region. At first there were the small changes, noticed because people have lived in Volcán for generations, or sometimes because the margin between sustenance and hunger is tenuousa fact that fosters vigilance. Don Pablos good friend and neighbor, Eladio Castro, for instance, began to notice that his sole dairy cow had stopped drinking from the stream that runs along his 20-acre farm. Castro concluded that it was because of a chemical smell. Don Pablos son Oscar first began to notice the thinning number of fat brown abejones de mayo bugs and then the disappearance of the frogs that ate them. He noticed the quieting evenings.
There were more obvious changes as well: plagues of flies, drawn at the end of each agricultural cycle to the thousands of rotting pineapple plants; then the massive burnings by the company, after farmers complained that the flies were driving their cattle mad. There was increased sedimentation in the riverserosion caused when plants were ripped out, the soil tilled, and the crop replanted every two years. There was the plowing under of springs, the pushing of boulders from cleared fields into streams, and deforestation that left the earth looking raw, red, skinned alive. There was less water and river life: otters, turtles, and fish.
Don Pablo observed and worried but was not moved to act until the day in 1998 he saw a man drive a huge bulldozer into the Río Volcán, destroying the local swimming hole and diverting water away from one of the channels that feed his son Alfonsos small dairy operation and sugarcane field. "The incident was like someone pulling on my sleeve," says Don Pablo, who had noticed several days before that large trees had been taken out next to the rivera violation of Costa Rican environmental law. "Id been asleep but that bulldozer forced me to wake up." He stopped the driver midstream, took his name and the company he worked for, and went with his son to the local office of the ministry of environment to file a formal complaint.
Instead of acting on the complaint, the ministry called Pindeco, and the next day three company officialsincluding the pastor of Alfonsos church, who is also Pindecos head of researchshowed up at Alfonsos door. According to Don Pablo, the officials were upset that the men hadnt come directly to Pindeco, adding that if the company were causing problems it would find a solutionbut that management didnt like it when people went to the government and complained.
And Don Pablo didnt like it when the government deferred to the parties causing the problems. "You believe in the government and then it doesnt do anything," he says. "Whats worse is that you then see how close it is with the company, and you nearly lose heart."
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