I am over 4,000 miles away from West Virginia in San Jose, Costa Rica. Though I'm in a different time zone, and surrounded by a different language and culture, in a matter of one fifteen-minute conversation I was reminded how we all live very similar lives.
Two days ago I was sitting at the Costa Rican National Registry attempting to establish dual-citizenship between here and the U.S. My father is Costa Rican, so that is something that is very important to me. While waiting in line I met a man named Rupert, who told me a story I just can't get out of my mind. In Costa Rica there is an area called Limon, where considerable produce is grown and exported. For many years it was taken up almost entirely by banana plantations, and still today is home mostly to bananas, pineapples, and the people who barely make a living tending to them.
Rupert was born in Limon, but his birth was never registered. His parents were Jamaican, brought over to work on the banana plantations in a time when the companies would seek cheap labor from Caribbean countries. As Rupert grew older, he followed in his parents' footsteps and took a job at the banana plantation, where he was exposed to a variety of pesticides and chemicals, unaware of their potential harm. As an older man, he now finds himself physically ill, unable to work, and in need of financial assistance. Though he was once happily married, his wife left him after learning he was sterile -- allegedly a result of the harsh chemical environment of the banana plantations. He has spent the last four years traveling back and forth between his home and Costa Rica's capital, trying to prove his citizenship and that his illness came from work in the plantations. On the day I met him, he had only the money required to get from Limon to the National Registry and back, and had not eaten during his time in San Jose.
While listening to Rupert’s story, I almost immediately thought back to West Virginia and the strange parallels that exist between these two places. Not only are the mountains of Costa Rica reminiscent of the rolling peaks back in WV, but the people in both places have been exposed to similarly harsh environmental conditions in order to make a living. Rupert's story reminds me of that of the West Virginia coal miner, left sick and unable to work after spending years underground, and without retribution.
Coal has been king in West Virginia for many years, just as the banana has been king in Costa Rica. Both industries, criticized for their poor working conditions, provide the only decent paying jobs in the areas they dominate. As a result, they breed generation after generation of coal miners and plantation workers who often trade their health in order to make a living. I’ve heard stories of both industries firing and/or blacklisting employees who fight for their rights.
It amazes me that there are so many cases like Rupert's in both Costa Rica and the United States, countries which pride themselves as watchdogs of human rights. That being said, the multi-nationals who run plantations and mines are often more powerful than local governments in the places they inhabit. I could probably write a book relating this whole issue of globalization, capitalism, and post-fordism, but for now I will stop here. I can only hope this article sparked your interest enough to do some research yourself.