Environmental populism in Central America: the politics of the pineapple expansion and its discontents in Costa Rica

17 March 2018

How does the growth of Costa Rica's pineapple production chime with its commitment to protect nature?

Since the mid-1990s the Costa Rican government has developed a very complex legal framework, institutional infrastructure and discourse around the idea of “sustainable development.” According to this idea, the Costa Rican development model tries to combine economic growth with the protection of nature. However, in the same period of time the area of cultivation of pineapples has increased over 1000%, leaving an increasing number of environmental (pesticide use, water pollution, deforestation), labor (working conditions, poisoning) and land conflicts in its wake.

The Costa Rican government has had a very active role in this expansion, for example negotiating trade agreements and securing financial and technical support. Regarding the increasing opposition to the pineapple industry’s expansion, the government’s strategy has been twofold: discursively, towards the “public opinion,” it extols its importance in terms of economic growth and employment creation, at the same time that it repeats its commitment to the protection of nature and the enforcement of the environmental protection laws.

In practice, the institutions in charge of enforcing these laws receive minimal resources, the court rulings tend to favor the companies, and the police represses the communities and workers whenever their protests “step outside” the legal system. Loosely following Erik Swyngedouw discussion on climate change, I argue in this paper that this political strategy is a form of (authoritarian) “environmental populism.” That, on the one hand, depoliticizes the discussion on the pineapple industry and renders invisible the processes of dispossession that made the expansion of the crop possible in the first place. And, on the other hand, justifies an increasing level of intervention and control of the rural communities, as part of the national development strategy.

This paper was presented at the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) 2018 Conference: "Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World"