Environmental Justice Case Study: Costa Rican Banana Plantation Workers Suffer from Exposure to Toxic Pesticide

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Above map provided by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The Problem

Nearly 20,000 of the banana plantation workers in Central America (7,000 of whom reside in Costa Rica's Banana Coast) are currently suing Shell Oil and Dow Chemicals for personal damages related to their exposure to Dibromo-chloropropane (DBCP), a pesticide discovered by Shell and Dow in the 1940's. DBCP was isolated as the cause of sterility in 100 Costa Rican workers in the previous case, Domingo Castro Alfaro vs. Dow Chemical Company and Shell Oil. The Costa Rican workers have mobilised banana plantation workers from their home country, as well as Panama, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, in a class action suit against the U.S. multinational corporations. They have introduced a lawsuit against the manufacturers of DBCP, the chemical which has caused irreparable damage to worker's reproductive health.

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The struggle for Costa Rican banana plantation worker's rights to a healthy and safe environment dates back to the early 1900's, when U.S. fruit companies began establishing large -scale banana plantations along the Atlantic Coast of Costa Rica. Until 1946, the minority populations of West Indian and Caribbean origin, living primarily along the Atlantic Coast, were denied citizneship nad land ownership, and were ineligle for equal protection under Costa Rican law. This region, known as the Banana Coast, became accessible to foreign investors who, unlike the native Ticas, were able to purchase land and provide the capital to finance a banana export market.

The Banana Coast is located on the border of Costa Rica and Panama. This area extends south of the Bribri Coast to the Sixaola River. The region contains the majority of the 200 banana plantations along the Atlantic border of Costa Rica. Workers live in small villages and settlements along the central and lower Atlantic coast.

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Key Actors


The workers involved in this struggle are primarily low-income laborers, mobilizing at the grassroots level, throughout banana settlements in the lower Atlantic region Costa Rica. They have organized in labor unions, such as SITRAP, an independent trade union that has consistently denounced the human and environmental impacts of uncontrolled banana expansion, and pariticpated in citizens' groups throughout the region. Their struggle began in 1977, whne DBCP was outlawed in the United States for causing sterility among 60 California workers in an Occidental plant that manufactured the pesticide. Without access to the information that DBCP had been labeled as a cause of sterility and suspected carcinogen, Costa Rican workers continued working in banana fields laden with DBCP, without any additional protection or knowledge ot DBCP's harmful effects.

Carmen Bustos

Carmen Bustos, one of the community activists in the National Women's Front for Toxin Affected Women in Costa Rica, is concentrating on bringing workers together to document each new case of sterility and sickness potentially related to DBCP. National Women's Front has contacted doctors throughout Costa Rica to carry out studies on the exposed populations, identifying the symptoms and illnesses associated with workers who were exposed to DBCP. Carmen and her fellow workers at a banana packaging plant in Costa Rica continually suffered from headaches, loss of vision and nausea. Carmen had worked in the banana industry since adolescence, packing fruit from dawn til dusk. After leaving the plant, she had seven miscarriages.

Health Practicioners

Doctors and nurses throughout the Atlantic Coast have reported pesticide-related illnesses to the Costa Rica Department of Environmental Control.

Jose Bell Montero

Jose Bell Montero, a banana worker in a plantation near Limon, has mobilized several workers employed in banana fields during the 1970's (DBCP was not banned in Costa Rica until 1979) to expose the U.S. chemical companies and Standard Fruit for gross negligence in handling the toxic pesticide, DBCP. They have joined 16,000 workers in a class action suit against the U.S. companies, looking instructively to an ealier suit filed by sterile banana workers in the Texas Supreme Court (Domingo Castro Alfaro vs. Dow Chemical Company and Shell Oil).

Citizen Groups

Other citizen groups have formed throughout the country, in response to the growing alarm of infertility and other public health threats associated with DBCP. The resistance of several small communities has spurred a massive outcry for protection against DBCP throughout Central America. After the pesticide was banned in Costa Rica, increased shipments went to Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Panama. In Ecuador, a farmworker's collective joined forces with Ticas in a class action suit.

Guillermo Touma

Guillermo Touma, an Ecuadorean who organizes farmworkers in Central America, also blames the companies for negligence and complacency in regard to protecting the health of banana workers. His role has been seeking legal recourse against the producers of DBCP.

Dow Chemical Company and Shell Oil

Dow Chemical Company and Shell Oil are co-discoverers of DBCP. In a previous lawsuit they paid over $70 million in personal damages to U.S. workers exposed to the toxic pesticide. The EPA banned the sale of DBCP in the United States and added it to the list of 400 products denied EPA approval due to health and safety concerns.

Under U.S. federal law, chemical manufacturers are permitted to export pesticides banned, restricted or refused registration at home because of dangerous levels of toxicity. After the U.S. ban, the remaining stock of DBCP was shipped to Central and South American countries. A joint lawsuit against Dow and Shell Oil was filed by a group of farm workers in Central America in 1990; it is still pending in the Texas Supreme Court.

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Socioeconomic Characteristics

The distribution of wealth in Costa Rica is greatly skewed. According to the Costa Rican Department of Statistics, 1993, the wealthiest 1% of families recieved 10% of the national income, while the poorest 50%receive 20% of the national income. Over 1/5 of the population has been labeled as marginado, at a poverty level that places them among the fringes of society, unable to contribute to a productive economy.

Labor Trends

The majority of Costa Rica's labor force is represented in the primary sectors of industry, agriculture, and service. While Costa Rica's economy soars above most of the Central American countries, the fraction of the labor force earning relatively high wages is concentrated among a very small percentage of professional workers. The average per capita income in Costa Rica is equivalent to approximately $2,500. As indicated in the graph below, the average daily earnings for laborers in the Agricultural sector, approximately $15.00, is even lower.

Most of the workers involved in the current lawsuit against U.S. producers and maufacturers of DBCP earn, on average, $12.50 per day (The Economist, 1991). The economic burden of legal fees has exacerbated their struggle for justice. These workers represent a significant portion of the agricultural labor force on banana plantations concentrated in the Atlantic Coast region. The banana plantations owned by the Dole Fruit Corporation provides jobs for over one thousand workers. Banana crops are among the principal agricultural exports in Costa Rica; in 1993 alone, the U.S. and European countries imported 1, 633 tons of bananas (Ministerio de Economica, 1994). Due to the high demand for bananas abroad, a large population of skilled laborers are needed in the front lines of production. The highest concentration of the West Indian/Caribbean population live in Costa Rica's Atlantic region, and the majority of them are employed in banana plantations.

The Agricultural Labor Force in 1993
% of Costa Rican workers employed in agiculture number of workers in agricultural industries average daily earnings in agricultural industries number of agricultural laborers/field workers number of workers involved in production and related work in the agricultural industry
working male population 20.6 236,083 $15 217,516 10,727
working female population 1.8 20,733 not available 14,597 4,038

Source: UN World Development Report, 1994.

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The struggle for banana workers' right to compensation for personal damages associated with exposure to DBCP occurs on both a local and global scale. For the plantation workers who have jointly filed the lawsuit, their immediate health and safety concerns are linked to their home and workplace. Guillermo Touma and Carmen Bustos want a safe haven from toxins in their community. Simultaneously, they are waging a war against the commericial flow of hazardous materials from the U.S. and other developed countries to developing countries.

The Courts

Under Costa Rican law, the Department of Environmental Control (DCA) is responsible for implementing and enforcing environmental policy. Although Costa Rica has comprehensive environmental legislation, compliance requirements have been met on an ad hoc basis, enforced through accomodation rather than confrontation.

Protection Under Costa Rican Law

Costa Rican workers are protected under the Declaration of Human Rights in the following related categories: the right of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the rights of acceptable working conditions. The workers' initial strategy was to seek justice in the Costa Rican courts. They discovered that the Declaration of Human Rights does not mention protecting workers from toxins or hazardous waste. The enforcement mechanisms for pesticides and other toxins that enter the workplace fall under the regulatory control of the DCA; this federal department does not insure minimum conditions of safety and sanitation in the workplace.

For Ticos seeking justice in their home country, the fight for just compensation and acceptable working conditions proved futile. Due to the aforementioned bottlenecks to worker protection and environmental regulations in Costa Rica, workers have decided to look to the United States Justice System to seek recourse against the U.S. producers and distributors of DBCP.

Texas Supreme Court Law Suit

Banana workers found stronger protection under the Texas Supreme Court law because of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code that allows plaintiffs of a foreign country sue residents of Texas in the Texas court system. The doctrine of forum non conveniens can preclude plaintiffs of foreign countries from suing in the United States courts if it is inconvenient for the defendant. Since the companies in question were U.S. companies with home offices in the U.S., and were operating the banana plantations on their private soil in Costa Rica, forum non conveniens was waived by the Texas courts. Since the multinational corporations, Shell, Dow, and Dole, all had corporate offices in Texas and not in Costa Rica, the workers were permitted to try the case under Texas jurisdiction.

Resource Mobilization

The workers joined together in communities across Central America. They looked for a legal defense fund to try their case and raised money to cover initial expenses. The workers collected information to determine the likelihood that their case would be brought to trial under Costa Rican tort law. They foudn that less than 4% of Costa Rican cases dismissed in the United States, under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, ever reached a trial in their home country. The problems of suing a U.S. multinational were compounded by the expenses of acquiring the documents produced by Shell and Dow. Since U.S. companies are not forced to testify in Costa Rica, the only access workers might have to have relevant case materials would require travelling to the U.S. The workers found that the cost of transferring witnesses and documents from Costa Rica to the U.S. is more expendient and less expensive than transferring a lawsuit back to the workers' home countries.

With this information at hand, the workers brought their civil suit to Texas. They came armed with testimonies, medical examinations, statistical studies, and former trials against Dow and Shell, in which California workers and Ticos were awarded just compensation for personal injury.

Building Coalitions

The class action suit is still pending in the Texas Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Costa Rican workers with other groups to continue their struggle at home. Workers are utilzing the knowledge and expertise of non-profit organizations and legal advisory centers. They have compiled more statistical information on banana in Latin America and in workers exposed to DBCP and are currently building alliances with non-profit organizations in Latin America and in the U.S. The Ambio Foundation and Accesso are two organizations in Costa Rica who are presently confronting these types of environmental injustices.

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Evaluation of the Strategies


One of the primary strengths of the Costa Rican workers' approach to achieving their goal of ridding themselves of hazardous home and work environments was suing in U.S. Court. It was apparent that Costa Ricans are not protected against DBCP and other hazardous chemicals under Costa Rican law, but they may be under U.S. law if the three companies are found responsible. The U.S. has already banned the chemical, and the courts have already ruled in favor of plaintiffs alleging personal injury as a result of exposure to DBCP.

Another major strength of the Costa Rican workers' strategy was building coalitions among workers and citizens' groups. These coalitions served to strengthen solidarity against the U.S. companies and prepare the Costa Rican workers' court case in the U.S. Persons were needed to collect information and medical data on affected workers, as well as collect data on the hazards to human reproductive health of using DBCP.


Due to sparse use of the media to create awareness of the court case, there was little communication among Central American workers across national boundaries. Further, there was a lack of support for the Costa Rican workers' cause from legal defense funds and international non-profit organizations. This, combined with a lack of support at home, has undermined the effectiveness of the workers' strategy to make Dow, Dole, and Shell accountable for the decline in their reproductive health.

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Throughout their struggle for justice in the Costa Rican and U.S. legal systems, Costa Rican workers have raised the visibility of the issue of hazardous pesticides exported to developing countries. Their fight has brought worldwide attention to the poor labor standards and lack of safe working conditions on U.S. banana plantations located in Central America. The solution, however, will not present itself until a ruling is made on the pending class action suit. In the meantime, there is little that the workers can do. They continue their grassroots mobilization to organize and educate fellow workers. In terms of seeking legal recourse, they are caught at a standstill. The workers involved in this struggle lack the financial backing of legal firms necessary to continue their civil suit over a long period.

The Costa Rican banana plantation workers have launched an unprecedented case against U.S. producers and companies that have used DBCP, exposing their acts to gross negligence. The pressure workers and citizens' groups have placed on U.S. multinationals could protect the lives of future workers. A successful outcome of this case would pose stricter liability on U.S. companies who continue to export toxic chemicals to developing countries.

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The inertia of the Texas legal case should not impede workers from continuing their struggle at home. They should lobby the Department of Environmental Control, and utilize the testimonies and data they have collected to apply pressure on the DCA. The Ministry of Labor and the DCA are the primary sources of regulatory control, and are responsible for implementing and enforcing environmental requirements in Costa Rica. Further, the workers should begin promoting a toxic prevention strategy. If the court case is successful, the regional force behind the case impact the decision-making process of the Ministry of Labor and the DCA. Their retroactive court battle could be enhanced by a proactive initiative to target toxic prevention in Costa Rica. Finally, the workers should promote proactive legislation at the National and State Level. The large consortium of workers who have joined forces in this court battle could effectively channel their demands into preventative measures to be taken up at the national and state level.

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Glossary and Key Contacts

DBCP: Dibromo-chloropropane

DCA: Department of Environmental Control, Costa Rica

Domingo Castro Alfaro vs. Dow Chemical and Shell Oil: This court case was introduced in the Texas Supreme Court in December of 1990. The plaintiffs included 800 Costa Rican plantation workers who became sterile after working in U.S. owned banana plantations. In an out of court settlement, each worker was granted compensation from Dow and Shell between $1,000 and $10,000 dollars, depending upon the degree of exposure to DBCP.

forum non conveniens: dismissal of a court case based on inconvenience of defendant; applies trials in foreign countries.

Ticos: natural-born citizens of Costa Rica.

Key contacts

Trisha Miller: author of this document.

Accesso: a non-profit organization active in the fields of human rights/civil liberties, sustainable development, and women's programs.

Ambio Fundacion: a legal environmental advisory center, focusing on environmental law and policy research.


Bibler, Gregory A. and Nightingale, Paul C. Environmental Law in Latin America, International Environmental Reporter. CR, BNA, Inc., October 11, 1989.

Brown, Karen. "The Human Guinea Pigs of Rio Frio." The Progressive. April 1991. pp. 28-30.

Dow Chemical Company and Shell Oil Company. Petitioners v. Domingo Castro Alfaro, Supreme Court of Texas. March 28, 1990. 786 S.W.2d. 674; 1990 Tex.LEXIS 44, 1.

Schemo, Diana Jean. "Foreign Workers Bring Pesticide Suits." International Herald Tribune: Dec. 7, 1995.

"The Price of Bananas." The Economist, March 12, 1994, p. 48.

United Nations World Report, 1994.

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