There is good news and bad news. The good news is that the banana industry, Costa Rica's leading export crop, is on track to be carbon neutral in only 3 or 4 years. (Coffee is second largest export crop.) The bad news is that bananas are grown in large plantations, often foreign owned. Many of the workers are Nicaraguans. Some estimates are that as many as 1 million Nicaraguans live in Costa Rica, a country with a population of only 4 million.
The banana industry has a fascinating and profound historical role in the country. Costa Rica was the original "banana republic." In the 1870's, it used the same technique to build a railroad as the USA did in the American West -- give away land as incentive and payment for a company to build a railroad. Costa Rica gave 320,000 hectares (470,000 acres) to U.S. interests to build the "jungle railway" to connect Costa Rica's central valleys with the Caribbean coast.
5,000 workers died building the railway though mountainous jungle. Originally, Chinese and Italian laborers were brought in to lay the 150 km (93 miles) or railroad track, but they succumbed to malaria at a high rate. Jamaican laborers of African descent were then used, with much more success.
At the end of the railroad on the Caribbean coast, many of the Jamaican laborers had to wait to collect their pay, and they ended up settling in the area. The railroad was the reason that Costa Rica has a minority population of Jamaican/African origin, largely on the Caribbean coast, many of whom still speak English as their primary language.
With the railroad, banana exports jumped form 100,000 stems in 1883 to 1 million in 1890, and 11 million in 1913. Because of labor unions and plant diseases in the Caribbean lowlands, in the 1930's the banana industry left the Caribbean side of the country and relocated to the central and southern Pacific side. Today, the banana industry is back on the Caribbean side.
We do not have banana plantations in the northwest Pacific region of Guanacaste because, unlike other areas of Costa Rica, we have a long dry season with very little rain from November until May. The sunny dry weather is great for tourism, but not for bananas. Trees actually drop their leaves to conserve moisture.
The banana industry has had a profound impact on the economy and culture, affecting issues such as land ownership and race. The small African minority was restricted to the Caribbean coast until 1948, when there was a democratic movement and they were given full citizenship. Today, sadly, 2.8% of landowners own 47% of the country's farmland, usually banana plantations or, in Guanacaste, cattle ranches. More than half of Costa Rican farmers own less than 10 hectares, or 14.7 acres, adding up to only 5% of the farmland. Many of those farms are too small to support a family, even when growing coffee.
The other day Kate left a comment asking about pesticide use in banana fields, and that is an issue. They are trying to use natural methods to reduce the use of pesticides, but some of the pests if not controlled would be very harmful to the banana workers as they work in the plantations. Unfortunately, it is not good for the environment, throughout the world, to have large tracks of land devoted to a single purpose, whether it be growing the same crop or cattle ranching. Diversity is better, and that is a major focus of Costa Rica's efforts to plant 7 million trees per year -- to reintroduce a variety of trees into cattle and plantation areas.