By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
For almost four days, Jorge Castro marched all the way from his home up in Pavones de San Carlos, in the far north of Alajuela, to Casa Presidencial just to deliver a message: he is sick and tired of pineapples and he demands further control on its plantations.
Castro started his journey Monday and arrived in San José on Thursday afternoon, where has was welcomed by a heavy downpour of rain on a May afternoon.
Along with his wife Mariana Paniagua, a dog named Muñeca, Cielito the horse and a black cow fittingly called La Negra, he decided that making this march was the best way to let people know that not everybody is happy with the pineapple industry. In his case, it is affecting his cattle and thus, his living.
By the time he had reached the Alfredo Gonzaléz Flores bridge, colloquially called la platina, along the General Cañas highway, he decided not to take any calls. He considered that walking on the highway was dangerous enough and there was no need for extra distractions.
“Unfortunately, we have pineapple plantations very close to our home and that’s the reason our cows have been sick for about a year, even with the help of veterinarians,” said Mariana Paniagua, his wife who also worked as his spokesperson during the trip.
When she says pineapples hurt the cows, she is referring to the Tábano fly phenomenon. This kind of fly population increases due to the pineapple production waste and tends to attack livestock up to 10 kilometers away from a plantation.
The bug bites the cows and bulls and sucks their blood. That leads to infections, fatigues, anemia and other health problems for the animals. Since 2011, farmers associations have been complaining about this and have asked sanitation and animal health service authorities to take the proper measures.
“I also fear about the water because experts keep saying it will be polluted,” she said.
Before this personal mission, the couple packed some food, blankets and sheets in case of an emergency. However, having a place to rest with their animals and food has not been an issue due to peoples generosity, she explained.
“Along the way many people has been supporting us and we are very grateful for that,” Ms. Paniagua said. “We have stayed in hotels or houses and sometimes inside the truck to rest for a while.”
The pineapple industry has been facing increasing opposition from environmentalist groups. Many ecological organizations demand more control on the permits granted as they see its expansion as damaging to the soil, potentially polluting water and hurting workers rights.
From the industry’s perspectives, many of those accusations are untrue and based on fear and biased studies.
Abel Cháves, president of the Cámara Nacional de Productores y Exportadores de Piña, has said many times that pineapples are safe to grow, the industry respects labor laws and that it provides jobs in places where unemployment is rampant.
“Let me ask you something: if you have a child, would you give him milk from a pineapple? If, instead of eating rice and beans, you ate pineapple everyday, wouldn’t you get sick?” asked Ms. Paniagua.
“We are not against the jobs or the industry as a whole, we just want more control. We want the expansion to stop and the government to regulate,” she added.
About 4 p.m. he arrived to Casa Presidencial and was able to pick up the phone. He confirmed he got wet and at some point he was just missing some soap.
“I’m here because the president invited me,” he said. “Yes, he invited me the day of his inauguration when he said, ‘If I am ever mistaken, correct me.’ Well, here to tell him that he might be wrong with the pineapple industry,” he said.
Castro said he just expected to meet some friends who work at Casa Presidencial. “The house of all of us,” he said.
For a second, he had to stop the conversation as a background voice announced the president wanted to talk to him.
Another voice asked him to wait for a quick medical check up before the unscheduled meeting.
“I have to go and thank you,” he said.