Fruit of the Poison Tree

In a Dallas court, Costa Rican banana workers claim a banned pesticide left them sterile

After living with this case for more than a decade, Misko's attitude is an interesting amalgam of realism and righteousness. "I wonder if [Dole owner David Murdock] even knows about this case," he says. "I imagine we're just a line item on the budget for him--litigation costs."

Of the $50 million-plus settlement with the other defendants, Misko says he and his firm collected several million in fees. For the trial, Misko is not asking for a specific amount, but he does venture an opinion. "I think for the kind of damages that we see here, a million dollars a head is fair," he says, noting that American plaintiffs in DBCP cases won even more. If his decade-plus effort in Borja isn't entirely altruistic, it has been tenacious, and as part of any settlement, he says, he'll try to extract a pledge that Dole will abide by U.S. environmental laws wherever it operates.

This mix of crusader and capitalist also applies to Misko's Costa Rican counterparts. Costa Rican lawyer Susana Chaves, Misko's principal local collaborator, got involved in the case through her uncle Roberto Chaves, a doctor who was among the first researchers to begin documenting the devastating effects of DBCP in Costa Rica. She began working on the first case fresh out of law school in the 1980s, with little thought, she says, of financial gain. Nevertheless, the 1992 settlement agreement made her and her uncle comfortably wealthy.

The Dallas trial will be the first time the claims of Costa 
Rican banana workers--several of whom are pictured 
above--will be heard by an American jury. Many of the 
370 plaintiffs gathered last month, below, for a meeting 
with their lawyers.
Charles E. Ames
The Dallas trial will be the first time the claims of Costa Rican banana workers--several of whom are pictured above--will be heard by an American jury. Many of the 370 plaintiffs gathered last month, below, for a meeting with their lawyers.
Oldemar Salas, 40, one of the bellwether plaintiffs, says he has been working on banana plantations since he was 13. He continues to harvest bananas for Del Monte.
Charles E. Ames
Oldemar Salas, 40, one of the bellwether plaintiffs, says he has been working on banana plantations since he was 13. He continues to harvest bananas for Del Monte.

Chaves has the proud bearing and no-nonsense attitude of a woman who has risen high in a male-dominated society. She thought she was finished with DBCP litigation after the settlement. "I came in the next day and thought, 'OK, I can go on and do these other things,'" she says. But she couldn't escape so easily. Her role in the suit was well-known, and other afectados began to seek her out in the days following the settlement, some of them referred by Sosa. She would arrive at her office in San Jose to find a line of waiting banana workers that stretched around the block. She was soon working with Misko on the next round of cases. "I never knew that this would be my life," she says with a laugh. "But it's a full-time job."

Part of that job is acting as a travel agent for her American colleagues when they travel to Costa Rica. In the run-up to the trial, Misko made the trip to meet with his clients and some of the expert witnesses who will testify in Dallas.

At the five-star Real Intercontinental Hotel outside San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, Roberto Chaves joins his niece and Misko for breakfast. Over fresh-cut fruit and made-to-order omelettes, the doctor, with a rumbling voice and bushy gray mustache, reminisces about the early stages of the DBCP cases. He recalls fondly the days he spent crisscrossing the country by train and boat to visit banana workers and talk them into submitting sperm samples for his research.

From the opulence of the hotel, the party heads out of the central valley and into banana country. The heavy commercial traffic on the serpentine mountain highway testifies to the prosperity of Costa Rica that separates it from its neighbors, while the spine-compressing potholes in the road serve as a reminder of all they share in common. The trip to Guapiles, the gritty, ramshackle hub for the surrounding farming towns, takes about an hour and a half. The town of Rio Frio and its outlying villages where most of the plaintiffs live is another 20 minutes, with vast fields of banana plants stretching away on both sides of the road.

In Guapiles, the visitors are met by Carlos Sosa. He will act as a guide for the day, a necessary task in a zone where house numbers are nonexistent and roads are often flooded or blocked by landslides. Over the years, Sosa has come to dedicate much of his time to the cause, steering fellow bananeros to Susana Chaves and working for her as a driver and liaison of sorts.

The first stop is the home of bellwether plaintiff Oldemar Salas Monge in the tiny village of La Rita. Salas lives with his wife, Dinia, and his 9-year-old daughter, Allison, the girl he calls "my miracle," in a three-room house owned by his current employer, Del Monte. The plywood-walled, tin-roofed worker houses in this complex are arranged in orderly rows, accessible by concrete paths like temporary classrooms outside an overcrowded American high school.

From the banana industry's earliest days in Costa Rica, companies have offered their workers free housing--barracks for the single men, small duplexes or houses like Salas' for the families. It can hardly be called a perk, however: Workers' wages, competitive in the '70s, have declined to the present levels of $1 to $2 an hour for a laborer, making free housing a virtual necessity.

Salas is among the youngest of the plaintiffs at 40 and still works in the banana fields. He welcomes Misko and his companions into his home with an affable grin and patiently recounts the details of his work history that he has gone over many times before.

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