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Poisonous pineapples?

Residents near Costa Rica's pineapple farms say the crop is dangerous, but the government and industry officials disagree.

SIQUIRRES, Costa Rica — Every other day, a truck travels down the dusty road flanked by palm trees outside Hilma Duartes' home in the heart of pineapple country here, carrying cisterns of clean drinking water.

In the past, Duartes — like 82 percent of all Costa Ricans — drank clean water from the sink. But now, she said that "we only use the tap for cleaning the house and washing clothes.” The change, she said, is the result of water pollution that emerged with the booming pineapple business in her community of Milano more than five years ago.

“Now if you leave it in a container, the next day there’s a milky residue,” she said of the water from the kitchen sink in her modest house.

Although sweet and delicious, pineapples are causing a great deal of bitterness in Duartes' community, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope in the province of Limon.

The total amount of land used for pineapple production here and in other parts of the country has grown from 12,500 hectares to as much as 50,000 hectares (more than 120,000 acres) in less than a decade. The surge has made Costa Rica the world’s largest pineapple exporter, according to the Agricultural Ministry.

But the title has come at a high cost, according to those residing near the crop.

Studies have detected low levels of contamination in the water near pineapple farms, and local residents fear that the farms continue to shed harmful agrochemicals into the rivers and groundwater, causing outbreaks of health problems ranging from basic skin rashes to asthma and miscarriages.

The health fears persist in spite of a green light from the health authorities to drink the water. “The level of water contamination (in Siquirres) is very minimal,” Health Minister Maria Luisa Avila told GlobalPost. “The residents continue drinking from the cisterns because they don’t want to change over to tap water, but I insist, there is no health risk,” she said.

Agricultural officials and pineapple sector leaders claim there are rabble rousers at work, who are exaggerating the health problems and stoking local fears.

“In that area there are very radical groups of environmentalists and syndicalists who are left over from the banana conflicts of many years ago,” said Sergio Porras, leader of the Agricultural Ministry’s pineapple division, referring to union struggles of the 1930s and 40s. Syndicalism is a movement that promotes shifting production power to workers' unions.

Gerardina Lopez, a leading member of the Syndicalist Association of the Caribbean, pointed to a more recent conflict in the region from 1969 to 1979, during which banana corporations such as the United Fruit Company were responsible for heavy contamination, "which was harmful for workers and their families," she said.