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‘Pineapple republic’ loses green

When most people think of Costa Rica, they think of sunshine, beaches and widely appreciated coffee beans. But this “conservation model” of a country is in trouble.

Discussing corruption and the dangers it poses on the country’s natural habitat, Michael Miller, assistant professor of government and international affairs, spoke to an audience of about 25 students and a few professors Wednesday during a lecture called “Deforestation in Costa Rica: The Legal and Administrative Context.”

“Deforestation is a very complex phenomena; it involves economics, social, political, and cultural factors,” Miller said. “I’m trying to focus on the type of things I typically study: legal factors, administrative factors and political factors.”

Miller said Costa Rica has a reputation of a very democratic country, one that treats its environment very well. But lately, he said, Costa Ricans are becoming much more aware of the corruption, as three of their former presidents are being investigated for some sort of corruption.

Miller said he wanted to look into what role government corruption played in deforestation.

“In Costa Rica there’s actually a conservation ethic unlike you would find in the rest of developing world,” Miller said. “This is putting a lot of pressure to protect the environment. Costa Rica is often called the ‘Conservation Model’ among other developing nations. (They) have established an impressive set of parks and other protected areas, a lot like the U.S. system, where we have national parks and forests.”

But according to Miller, while forests within protected areas, which constitute about 28 percent of all forests in the country, have been well managed, forests elsewhere have been degrading substantially.

Miller focused on the Atlantic region of Costa Rica because it’s one of the most biodiversified and impoverished, as well as the least studied.

Miller conducted in-depth, anonymous interviews with about 20 people, some associated with the Colombian government. These led him to find the key factors of deforestation, the biggest being the madereros, or the loggers, who cut down trees from the land of the compesinos, or landholders. There are also transporters and regulators, who are often friends with the madereros and don’t report them.

“The general context for deforestation, to sum it up, (is) a history of reliance on bananas, exploitation and discrimination,” he said.

Miller also discovered that people clear out the lower level of vegetation in a forest. This is customary in Costa Rica and has provided a loophole to Costa Rica’s law that protects local forests. Since the compesinos’ lands are not forests, they can cut whatever they want.

“Taking advantage of this situation are the loggers, the transporters and the wood industry,” Miller said. “There are legal problems facilitating deforestation, lack of resources and corruption.”

As a crime, deforestation takes a backseat to violence and drug trafficking, Miller said. There are too few officials and too few vehicles to keep a check on deforestation, as well as a pile-up of alleged deforestation complaints that must be investigated but turn up untrue, he said.

When Miller was done examining deforestation, he noticed something unexpected. A new threat to people had emerged: the pineapple.

“Pineapple production has become a major problem for forests and people,” Miller said.

Miller showed a picture of lands once heavily wooded that have now been leveled for growing pineapples.

“Pineapples are now the second leading export, ahead of coffee,” Miller said. “Costa Rica used to be known for their bananas and their coffee. One interview told me that they are becoming a ‘pineapple republic’ instead of a ‘banana republic’ (which they used to be known as).”

Miller said the big U.S. transcontinental companies such as Del Monte, Dole and Chiquita are deforesting illegally and pushing compesinas off their land. The United States isn’t doing very much to solve this problem, but Miller thinks that it’s just a matter of time before the media starts to expose the corruption.

“The University media has been bold enough to run a TV program exposing the things that I’ve just talked about, but the problem is they don’t have a wide viewership,” Miller said. “I think it’s just a matter of time before the more liberal newspapers start to publicize it.”