A class picture at Poas Volcano in Costa Rica, 1997.
Bananas are as common in the grocery store today as a loaf of bread. They are inexpensive and several different varieties can be found. The banana originated in Malaysia and was originally about the size of an index finger. It wasn’t until 1402 that Portuguese sailors populated the Canary Islands with the first banana plantations, and by 1516 the banana had made it to the Caribbean Islands. From the Caribbean Islands it then migrated throughout Central and South America, (Banana.com). The banana has become very popular, but as great as it may be, the methods in which it is grown can have severe effects on the environment.
Bananas are very important to many cultures as a source of employment and income for those cultures. The banana has both good and bad sides and they both must be taken into account when trying to evaluate the sustainability of it as a crop. The purpose of this paper is to explore only the negative effects that banana plantations have on the environment. These effects will be shown by exploring deforestation, pesticide use, pesticide runoff, soil erosion, and pesticide deposition in soils of mountain forests.
Bananas are grown in tropical environments because it takes hot humid weather to sustain the banana throughout its growth cycle. The main problem with cultivating them in these climates is that room has to be made in the dense rainforest to start a banana plantation. This is the first step in creating a banana plantation, clear some land. According to national geographic “Brazil and Indonesia, which contain the world’s two largest surviving regions of rain forest, are being stripped at an alarming rate by logging, fires, and land-clearing for agriculture and cattle-grazing.” This is very important because the rainforests are very important parts of the world’s ecosystem. They provide a home to many different species of plants and animals and absorb carbon dioxide which is a major greenhouse gas. When the rain forests are destroyed the carbon sinks, wildlife habitat, ground cover, and natural cooling effect are destroyed with them. In fact this is so important that National Geographic reports that “seventy percent of the Earth’s land animals and plants reside in forests.” They also state that “Rain forests help generate rainfall in drought-prone countries elsewhere.” This is a major benefit of rain forests because as more and more of the Earth is turning to desert the rain forests are being relied upon more and more for the rain they produce. By destroying the rain forest to create banana plantations we are destroying some of the natural processes on Earth that help us survive.
Another major effect of banana plantations on the environment is pesticide runoff. Pesticides are used to control the insects that destroy the banana crop. Without these pesticides a successful crop would probably not be possible. They are a necessary evil; the major problem is that they aren’t contained to the plantation. When it rains some of it is washed away into streams and rivers. This can have a negative effect on the biodiversity of the waterways. Numerous studies have been done on the effects of runoff and more continue to be performed. One such study has found some rather alarming results. The highest levels of pesticides and nematicides were found in watershed during application periods, although the most alarming finding was that chronic levels of these chemicals are being found at times long after application periods, (Castillo 2006). This is very important because if pesticides are going to be used year after year then they are going to keep building and building in the waterways which will have a very negative effect on the biodiversity of that area. Many species will start to die off if the toxicity levels keep rising. This can lead to destruction of other species because there will be no food for them. The banana plantation owners may also be working against themselves because if the very animals they are killing in the water eat the insects they are trying to kill then they in effect are working against themselves. The four most common chemicals that were found in the water were: imazalil, thiabendazole, chlorpyrifos and propiconazole. These chemicals were found in the highest levels in the effluent from the banana processing plants (Castillo 2006). This is important too because not only are the plantations putting these chemicals into the water but the processing plants are doing the same at an even higher rate. This claim is also substantiated by another study that found the most runoff comes from packing plants and these pesticides pose a threat to endangered species throughout these waterways, (Ruepert, 2000).
Banana plantations also have a negative effect on the soil. The obvious effect is the erosion caused by the deforestation of the rain forest. Without the intense cover of the native trees and plants, soil is allowed to wash away with the rain. This is allowing sediment to be transported to the oceans and deposited in the coral reefs that populate the shore lines. This can be very detrimental to the coral reefs because the sediments many times contain chemicals that were sprayed on the bananas in the first place.
Another major effect on the soil that banana plantations have is nutrient depletion. Rain forests keep a natural equilibrium of nutrients in the soil. They are self sustaining because of the great diversity they have. When banana production is the sole use of the land, only certain nutrients are needed and these are depleted. They are not returned naturally like the rain forest does. Studies have shown that when land is converted many nutrients are reduced or lost. One such study found that of twelve samples of land in Northeastern Costa Rica converted from rain forest to banana plantations that the amount of carbon in the soil was reduced by 37% and magnesium was reduced by 16.5%, (Powers, 2004). This is a huge amount. The biggest problem with this is that this is the reduction at the very beginning of the land conversion. This does not take into account the years and years of cultivation afterward. This cultivation can only further deplete the amount of nutrients in the soil and chances are these nutrients will never be regained.
The soil directly under the plantations is not the only soil affected by banana plantations. The soil downwind can be affected too. This is very important because plantations that are upwind from national forests or even villages of people can have a very bad consequence on those areas without having any direct contact with them. The wind carries pesticides from the plantations across property lines and into other areas that do not need the chemicals spread upon them. Studies have found that areas downwind from banana plantations have experienced elevated levels of chemicals in the soils. This is especially important in the montane forests of Costa Rica. The study has found that these forests, which are downwind of the Caribbean lowlands, are experiencing elevated levels of chemicals in their soils due to atmospheric transport and wet deposition at high altitudes, (Daly 2007). The thought of this is amazing because these chemicals are being sucked up by the atmosphere, carried to higher altitudes and dropped in mountain forests. This is something that could have a very negative impact on the forests as a whole because if it is happening in Costa Rica, chances are it is happening in rain forests worldwide.
Bananas are here to stay as a tropical crop. Plantations do not need to be shut down and reclaimed into natural rain forest. That is not something that is even plausible. Too many people depend on the plantations for their livelihood. Banana plantations are something that needs to be better regulated and more conservation needs to be done when creating new plantations. More research is also needed when creating chemicals to spray on the banana crop. It is important that we take into account the other organisms of the rain forest because these chemicals are making their way off the plantations and into the environment. We can continue to enjoy bananas but we need to remember what is being done to the Earth to provide us with that banana. It is very important that we respect the life that the Earth supports because it is a fragile ecosystem that we can so easily destroy.
Castillo, L. E., Martinez, E., Ruepert, C., Savage, C., Gilek, M., & Pinnock, M. (2006). Water quality and macroinvertebrate community response following pesticide applications in a banana plantation, Limon, Costa Rica. Total Environment: 367, 1, 418-432.
Daly, G., Lei, Y. D., Teixeria, C., Castillo, L. E., & Wania, F. (2007). Accumulation of Current-Use Pesticides in Neotropical Montane Forests. Environmental Science and Technology. 41, 4, 1118-1123.
(2007). Deforestation and Desertification. Retrieved May 01, 2007, from National Geographic Web site: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/eye/deforestation/effect.html
Powers, Jennifer (2004).Changes in Soil Carbon and Nitrogen after Contrasting Land-use Transitions in Northeastern Costa Rica. Ecosystems. 7, 3, 134-146.
Ruepert, C., Castillo, L. E., & Solis, E. (2000). PESTICIDE RESIDUES IN THE AQUATIC ENVIRONMENT OF BANANA PLANTATION AREAS IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC ZONE OF COSTA RICA. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. 19, 1942-1950.
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