Fruit of the Poison Tree

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

In some ways, it makes sense that Dole is the lone holdout. Of all the defendants, Dole is the only private company, controlled by 81-year-old billionaire David Murdock. Murdock took Dole private in 2003, buying up the outstanding stock of the world's largest produce company for $1.4 billion. With no stock price to worry about, Murdock can ignore any bad publicity surrounding the suit. And with net sales in 2003 of $4.7 billion and control of one-quarter of the world banana market, Dole certainly has the resources to pay any case costs, regardless of the outcome.

But the allegations against Dole clash with the image the reclusive Murdock is cultivating as a wellness guru. He took Dole private in part so he could lavish money on his pet project, the California Health and Longevity Institute. According to company literature, the $1.5 million spa and hotel complex near Malibu will feature "an over 700,000 square-foot complex to comprise medical facilities with physicians on-site providing state-of-the-art diagnostic services; a 267-room five-star hotel to be operated by a first class hotel and resort company; a full-service spa and fitness center; a conference center and an ultra-modern TV production facility..."

The contrast between the superspa and the Dole company town of Rio Frio couldn't be greater. Rio Frio features one paved street, a hangar-like "Mas X Menos" grocery store, a video rental store, a handful of cafes serving chicken, rice and beans, and an inordinate amount of bicycle traffic, cars being well beyond the means of most banana workers.

Banana republic: The Dole sunburst logo is ubiquitous in 
Costa Rica, from an ad at Juan Santamaria International 
Airport vowing to "produce in harmony with the 
environment" to the trailers waiting at a processing plant 
for their cargo of bananas. The pesticide DBCP was 
pumped into the soil with handheld injectors, at bottom.
Charles E. Ames
Banana republic: The Dole sunburst logo is ubiquitous in Costa Rica, from an ad at Juan Santamaria International Airport vowing to "produce in harmony with the environment" to the trailers waiting at a processing plant for their cargo of bananas. The pesticide DBCP was pumped into the soil with handheld injectors, at bottom.
Fred Misko, top, lead lawyer for the banana workers, 
and Terry Murphy, below, chief counsel for Dole, both 
claim to be confident of victory in the trial that starts 
next week in Dallas' 116th District Court.
Mark Graham
Fred Misko, top, lead lawyer for the banana workers, and Terry Murphy, below, chief counsel for Dole, both claim to be confident of victory in the trial that starts next week in Dallas' 116th District Court.

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Following the road out of town where it reverts to cratered mud, a traveler comes to a windowless concrete block building hunkered among the banana plants with the word "Nightclub" spelled out in huge, fading letters on the side. It is here that the overwhelmingly young, male and single banana workforce finds paid female companionship.

No manicured spa can match Rio Frio for sheer greenery, however. Beyond the town's dusty commercial strip, the houses appear in danger of being swallowed by a riotous growth of palm trees, flowering vines, fruit trees and tall tropical grasses. Splashes of neon blooms only underscore the dominance of green. It is no wonder that this fertile land, with abundant rain and mild temperatures year-round, has been coveted by foreign growers since the Spanish colonial era.

In the battles between companies and workers for the wealth of the land, Dole and its subsidiary Standard Fruit are not as notorious as Chiquita's United Fruit for ruthlessness, but "La Standard" has had its share of controversy. In 2002, thugs working for a Dole subsidiary in Honduras were implicated in the murder of three banana workers claiming homestead rights to unused parcels of the company's. In April 2004, 80 families in Rio Frio that had occupied unused Standard land were forcibly evicted.

Wages of banana workers have actually declined in the last decade, partly because of the price pressures brought by the entry of--who else?--Wal-Mart into the U.S. grocery business. Incredibly, though Costa Rican banana workers make about 500 colonesan hour, or just more than $1, they face the prospect of seeing their jobs outsourced to countries where labor is even cheaper, such as Brazil and Ecuador.


How much of that kind of background the jury considers in its deliberations will be a key factor in the outcome. If the jurors concentrate solely on the details of each case, Dole may be able to exploit individual gaps and inconsistencies and emerge with a favorable verdict. On the other hand, the plaintiffs' team will try to contrast the steps Dole took to protect itself with the steps it didn't take to protect its employees. If they are successful, the banana giant may come off looking like an unrepentant villain.

"I've always thought that if we can get this to a trial, the jury is going to hate them," Misko says.

It has worked that way for Carlos Sosa. "To have a cheap product in the States, we have paid for it here," Sosa says. "Those sons of bitches, they don't even understand the problem--this is not a financial problem; this is a human problem."

Borjahas already had important legal repercussions for the future of forum non conveniens. The Costa Rican courts' refusal to try the case may spell the beginning of the end for the doctrine as a corporate legal dodge. Environmental lawyers are watching closely as well, looking for clues as to how to pursue other cases against multinational firms in U.S. courts.

Courts in other countries have rendered verdicts against Dole and its usual slate of co-defendants, most significantly a 2002 judgment in Nicaragua for $489.4 million. In that case, as in others, the companies have refused to pay on the grounds that the Nicaraguan laws have been rigged against them. In essence, the only realistic hope employees in developing countries have of making a judgment stick against a U.S. company is in American courts.

For the Rio Frio banana workers, though, the trial in Dallas has even greater significance.

"For a few miserable colones, [Dole] took us for complete idiots," Sosa says. "They threw us away like garbage." As he warms to his subject, the intensity in his voice begins to build, offering a glimpse of the frustration of a proud man humiliated. "The fact that we've gone to the courts of the United States, we the Latino Indians, gives us a lot of pride. It's very important. It's transcendent."

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