Home > News > The sweet medicine of Agroecology for the bitter chemical sprayed monoculture

By: Fabian Pacheco Rodríguez, Master in Environmental Agrobiology and Ecological farmer, and Mauricio Alvarez Mora, Geographer and Master of Latin American Studies – Extract from Navdanya International Report The Future of Food – Farming with Nature, Cultivating the Future – November 2019 

History repeats itself because of the stubborn mindset of those who promote chemical sprayed monocultures.  In different environments in the tropical countries of Latin America, we could see the warnings of the arrival of a new fungus called: “Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (TR4)”.  This fungus causes the so-called “Panama Disease”, and it is so aggressive that nowadays it has the capacity to destroy large banana plantations causing huge economic damage to the agro-export sector.

In Costa Rica, a first strain of Fusarium was detected in the 1950s. The Panama Disease bears its name because it was detected for the first time in that country. In those times a banana variety called Gros Michel was used, that was very susceptible to the Panama Disease. The Gros Michel variety is by far one of the sweetest and exquisite bananas, but it has unfortunately disappeared from transnational food chains because of its susceptibility to the disease, which makes it not viable for monocultures.  It is no coincidence that it is instead possible to produce this banana variety under agroecological conditions. An example of this is the Association of Small Farmers of Talamanca (Asociación de Pequeños Productores de Talamanca – APPTA) from the South Caribbean region of Costa Rica, where they produce the exquisite variety of Gros Michel.  APPTA is made up of some 600 families of which 80% are indigenous[1].

Costa Rica has 3,298.78 hectares registered under organic banana cultivation, compared to 50,000 hectares of banana monoculture, mostly concentrated in the hands of transnational corporations and large local companies[2].

The agro-industrial “development” model that is applied to the production of agricultural commodities for the international markets has left a deep scourge of environmental impact : the destruction of tropical forests to expand agricultural fronts, the contamination of water aquifers by different “cocktails” of agrochemicals among others. These are affecting community access to clean water systems, as well as aquatic ecosystems in general where we see entire tides of fish and amphibians killed by acute intoxication. These and other phenomena have become common in the pineapple monocultures and banana plantations areas in Costa Rica.

The ecological consequences of the agro-industrial banana cultivation model have spread in the past 150 years, through the dispossession of the valleys and fertile lands that the indigenous inhabited, and who were displaced towards the highlands that have scarce agriculture suitability.  At the same time, intensive and polluting exploitation was established, that also implied great violations against workers, such as low wages, poor health services, union persecution, hiring of undocumented workers[3]. In environmental matters, the banana agro industry is responsible for infertility issues of thousands of workers, who suffered – in the late sixties – from the effects of the spraying of products such as Nemagon and DBCP (Dibromochloropropane)[4].

To challenge the tropical biodiversity with green deserts of monocultures and not to understand the lessons of the past, such as that of the Panama Disease (whose history is about to repeat itself with the return of Fusarium TR4) is one more step in the wrong direction. Monoculture, in our biodiverse regions, is only viable through the use of intensive biocidal substances. To understand how modern industrial agronomic practices ignore the enormous potential of indigenous wisdom and how it is possible to live and produce food on the planet without destroying it, we can look at how such different and antagonistic agricultural ecosystems are carried out in the same region of Costa Rica.

In comparison with the agrochemical-addicted banana plantations that have replaced the sweet variety of Gros Michel with the Cavendish variety – in order to keep the monoculture model going and avoid the Panama Disease – today there are hundreds of indigenous families producing the Gros Michel organic banana without the need of one single drop of agro toxic or synthetic fertilizers.  Their production of organic bananas and other foods within the forest is a clear challenge to what Vandana Shiva defines as the “monocultures of the mind”[5]. This ecological and family production is facilitated since bananas are planted inside the forest, under trees that are used for wood, fruit and medicine. When the arboreal component is respected, a fresher microclimate is obtained which prevents the sigatoka fungi spores (Mycosphaerella fijiensis) from aggressively germinating. It should also be noted that these producers use a larger planting distance between banana plants, so despite their great susceptibility to the Panama Disease, this does not result in economic damage to the family farmers. The aforementioned distance of planting in agro-ecological systems allows for the establishment of a true forest of food, wood, medicine, etc. which allows communities of Talamanca to live in a true food paradise and marks a limit to the expansion of pesticide sprayed monocultures.

Unlike the organic banana production model, the corporate approach, which is aimed at producing more kilos of banana per area creates multiple problems. It completely removes the trees and this generates greater density of banana plants per area, as well as a microclimate that favours the germination and dispersion of the sigatoka fungus spores. As a consequence of removing all the trees, in order to maximize banana production, it becomes necessary to spray hundreds of hectares with fungicide once a week. The most frequently used is the well-known Mancozeb, which happens to be the most imported agrochemical in Costa Rica.

The Infants and Environmental Health Program (Programa Infantes y Salud Ambiental – ISA) of the National University carried out an investigation 6 years ago with school children from 6 to 9 years old in the canton of Talamanca. It found significant concentrations of toxic substances like Mancozeb in their urine.  It has been established that children with greater exposure to these substances have more learning problems and are more restless[6]. Another study included pregnant women from Matina, where agrochemical spraying practices by the banana corporations are similar to those of Talamanca. Thus, a high content of manganese (one of the components of Mancozeb) was found in the hair of these women, which suggests that foetuses could also be exposed to the toxic chemical, since it is easily absorbed by the placenta[7].

In addition, a 2005-2008 study on sloths (Bradypus variegatus y Choloepus hoffmanni) on a farm located in Pueblo Nuevo de Guácimo, surrounded by intensive cultivation of banana, pineapple and paddock, found traces of pesticides in hair, arm washing and oral cleansing of the sloths analyzed. Among the substances found: ametrine, chlorpyrifos, chlorothalonil, diazinon, difenoconazole, deet, ethoprophos and thiabendazole. All of these are used in banana and pineapple plantations. According to the study, this contamination is produced “probably by the ingested food contaminated and by direct contact with pesticides”[8].

The Regional Institute for Toxic Substance Studies of the National University (Instituto Regional de Estudios en Sustancias Tóxicas de la Universidad Nacional  – IRET-UNA) has found that the fungicide chlorotalonil in 95% of samples of dust collected from schools and residential houses in  communities of the Costa Rican Caribbean near pineapple and banana plantations[9].

Photo 1. Organic agroforestry system with plants of Gros Michel banana, cocoa, pejibaye, etc.

What is clearly evident to our oldest inhabitants, gets destroyed by the corporate academy of the monoculture of the mind: the greater the diversity, the greater the sustainability, not only ecological, but also economic for those who live from agro-ecosystems. The logic of the “mental deserts” is to dismantle the agro ecosystems and condemn farmers to become dependent on external inputs; particularly those who pay attention to the advice of the industry to produce agricultural commodities.

In order to exemplify the above, let us continue to look at the case of banana plantations and understand the differences in agricultural management practices: those that favour social and environmental benefits, and those that result in the opposite.

Fertility and soil of two very different systems

In the agroforestry systems that produce bananas in indigenous territories, a constant cycle of nutrients can be observed, thanks to the decomposition of leaves and branches left on the ground. This contribution of the arboreal component allows for an almost total independence from external inputs. Monocultures of pazco bananas, instead, must get all nutrients in the form of synthetic fertilizers in order to maintain production. On the other hand, the non-use of herbicides and nematocides, among other substances, allows the presence of a vegetable cover that besides providing organic matter to the soil, favors the life of multiple macro and microscopic organisms – or, better said, the life in the soil.  This is essential to maintain the nutrients cycles, as well as to keep certain organisms in balance.  which could become true plagues in absence of a diversified ecosystem.  Phytopathogenic nematodes are favoured in those soils which are depleted of organic matter for many different reasons, beginning with the fact that the only thing left to eat are the roots of the banana crops because of the lack of competition in the soil ecosystem with other organisms that oppose them. As a consequence, monoculture engineers resort to coarse applications of agrochemicals with outstanding “collateral” impacts, e.g.: contamination of ecosystems, water, fauna and people. In contrast to this logic of devastation of biodiversity, it turns out that in soils full of organic matter and other plants (called “weeds” by the engineers) nematodes do not represent a major problem.

In conclusion, it must be said that the new threats of plagues and diseases that devastate monocultures should not surprise us, as it is a biological phenomenon to be expected in any agricultural system that imposes genetic uniformity where biodiversity would be the norm. The example of organic production of the sweet organic banana Gros Michel – susceptible to the Panama Disease – within the edible forests, should become the example to follow. Agroecology is the sweet medicine against the diseases that the chemical sprayed monocultures entail.

Photo 2: Photo of chemical sprayed banana monoculture plantation.


References

[1] APPTA (2019). Producimos respetando la madre tierra. Availble at: http://www.appta.org/index.php/es/

[2] SEPSA. 2019. Boletín Estadístico # 29. Availble at: http://www.mag.go.cr/bibliotecavirtual/BEA-0029.PDF

[3] Palmer, P. (1986) “Wa’apin man”: La historia de la costa talamanqueña de Costa Rica, según sus protagonistas. Costa Rica: Instituto del Libro

[4] Solano, S.M., 2013. Reflexiones para el análisis comparativo de movimientos sociales: el caso de extrabajadoras y extrabajadores bananeros afectados por el nemagón en Costa Rica y Nicaragua. Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos, pp.211-232.

[5] Shiva, V. (1993). Monocultures of the mind: Perspectives on biodiversity and biotechnology. Palgrave Macmillan.

[6]  van Wendel de Joode, B.V.W. Mora, A.M., Lindh, C.H., Hernández-Bonilla, D., Córdoba, L., Wesseling, C., Hoppin, J.A. and Mergler, D. (2016). Pesticide exposure and neurodevelopment in children aged 6–9 years from Talamanca, Costa Rica. Cortex, 85, pp.137-150

[7] Mora, A., Córdoba, L., Cano, J., Hernandez-Bonilla, D., Pardo, L., Schnaas, L., Smith, D. Menezes-Filho, J., Eskenazi, B., van Wendel de Joode B. (2018). Prenatal Mancozeb Exposure, Excess Manganese, and Neurodevelopment at 1 Year of Age in the Infants’ Environmental Health (ISA). Environmental Health, 29.

[8] Pinnock, M. (2010). Evaluación de la exposición a plaguicidas en una población de perezosos (Bradypus variegatus y Choloepus hoffmanni: Xenarthra) en un paisaje agrícola y un centro de rescate del Caribe de Costa Rica. Tesis para optar por el grado de Magíster Scientiae en Manejo de Recursos Naturales con Mención en Gestión de la Biodiversidad. UNED: Costa Rica.

[9] Sáenz, M; Sánchez, J. 2008. Informe Final “Diagnóstico: tendencias laborales, socioeconómicas y ambientales del monocultivo del banano y la piña, en los últimos cinco años en el Caribe costarricense.” Foro Emaús.


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