Pura Vida. Carlos Arguedas Mora: Costa Rican Trade Unionist and Environmental Activist

Carlos Arguedas Mora. Woodcut: Jan Nimmo ©

Carlos Arguedas Mora. Woodcut: Jan Nimmo ©

I often think of Carlos, remembering him warmly, but especially on Hogmanay, the anniversary of his death.

Carlos Arguedas Mora was one of the first banana workers I met. I was working as a voluntary interpreter for Carlos at a series of awareness raising meetings in Glasgow. He and his trade union, SITRAP, were campaigning against fruit giant, Del Monte. Carlos stayed at our house. From the very onset I was impressed and inspired by Carlos’s commitment to his cause, and his dogged determination in spite of all the obstacles he faced. He was put in prison 22 times for trade union activities and land occupations and even up until the year he died he was squaring up to the big pineapple and banana companies who are trashing Eastern Costa Rica’s fragile environment. This industry exploits people, be they workers or simply families who have the bad luck to live next to the plantations. I’ve met many inspirational Latin American activists. So why was Carlos so special? He had fire in his belly and he saw trade unionism and the environment that surrounded him as being inextricably linked – and both worth fighting for.

Carlos stated “if an agrochemical running through my body was doing me damage then I knew it was also doing the same damage to my country, to the air, the rivers and the land…”

Carlos Arguedas Mora being filmed at his garden,  El Pochote, for Pura Vida: Video Still: Jan Nimmo ©

Carlos Arguedas Mora being filmed at his garden, El Pochote, for Pura Vida: Video Still: Jan Nimmo ©

Carlos started work on the Dole plantations in Valle de Estrella in the 70’s. Shortly afterwards he, like thousands of other banana workers all over Central America, came into contact with Nemagón (DBCP), a pesticide made by Dow Chemicals in the USA. Carlos was made sterile by the chemical. Now known to be a highly carcinogenic product, it has caused numerous health issues for both men and women and in many cases has proven fatal. Carlos, through his trade union activities, was involved in the struggle to have Nemagón banned in Costa Rica (1979, three years after it was banned in the US). He won a little compensation (if you can be compensated for being made sterile?) which he invested in a pulpería (a wee corner shop). This gave him a wage and meant he could dedicate his time for free to his trade union activities at SITRAP in Siquirres. As the TU officer for occupational health and the environment he was able to marry both his passions, speaking to workers and community members and internationally denouncing the fish kills at Matina and Pacuare caused by chemical spills which came from the airport at Bataan, the base for aerially spraying banana plantations.

Aerial spraying taking place of the Esfuerzo banana plantation - from the documentary Pura Vida: Video Still: Paul Barham ©

Aerial spraying taking place of the Esfuerzo banana plantation – from the documentary Pura Vida: Video Still: Paul Barham ©

On the occasions that I went to Costa Rica I stayed with Carlos and I had the pleasure of working with him on my second documentary, Pura Vida. It couldn’t have been made without him. Carlos from around that time was heavily involved in the campaign to stop the unregulated expansion of pineapple production in Costa Rica’s Atlantic Zone so he was 110% committed to help making the film and did everything he possibly could to score off things on my long wish list of things to film.

Although the documentary looked at the grim social and environmental impact of the agrochemicals being used to grow bananas and pineapples, Carlos made the work truly joyous and interesting with his generosity of nature and his spontaneity, which meant we never lost an opportunity – we’d stop to film the pineapple booms or crop spraying planes overhead, gate crash primary schools to film the kids, we’d go by launch down the Río Pacuare or have gratuitous visits to places where I could film kinkajous and sloths because he knew I was an animal lover.

Carlos Arguedas Mora being filmed for Pura Vida at the Primary School in Cultivez, : Video Still: Jan Nimmo ©

Carlos Arguedas Mora being filmed for Pura Vida at the Primary School in Cultivez, : Video Still: Jan Nimmo ©

Carlos was campaigning against the expansion of intensive pineapple production right up until till he became ill.

I feel so, so privileged to have known Carlos. I’ll keep safe lots of memories of Carlos; his office at SITRAP full of banana paraphernalia from his various campaign journeys, the house at El Pochote, riding on horseback to the Reventazón River in the pouring rain, on my husband, Paul’s, birthday, and the three of us sitting eating oranges on the banks, all soaking wet…..

Carlos; generous, warm, irreplaceable and principled luchador and, best of all, friend.

Carlos Arguedas Mora (1948-2010)

Carlos Arguedas Mora being filmed on a pineapple plantation for Pura Vida: Video Still: Jan Nimmo ©

Carlos Arguedas Mora being filmed on a pineapple plantation for Pura Vida: Video Still: Jan Nimmo ©

Jan Nimmo ©  

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