Communities in the Northern Pacific lowlands of Nicaragua are hoping to attract national and international attention to their struggle against kidney disease among workers at the Ingenio San Antonio sugar cane company that owns and cultivates large stretches of land in the area. Workers are demanding medical care and compensation for the loss of their family members.
Death by Sugar
In Chichigalpa, Chinandega, a company town in the hottest part of Nicaragua – former full-time cane workers have set up a permanent presence with tents and banners outside the entrance of the mill to draw attention to the prevalence of kidney disease among former workers, and to protest the Ingenio San Antonio sugar cane company’s refusal to acknowledge its responsibility. They’re there because they’ve been diagnosed with Chronic Renal Insufficiency (CRI), or because they’ve been widowed by it.
Once workers are diagnosed by company doctors with CRI, they are fired from their jobs. Once they’re fired from their jobs, they no longer have access to the company clinic. They join together to demand justice as they watch their companions die. Juan Salgado, a member of the leadership of the organization ASOCHIVIDA, Association of Chichigalpeños for Life, reports that he and his partners are burying former workers at the rate of about one a week.
The leadership of ASOCHIVIDA attributes high rates of CRI among cane workers to exposure to chemical fertilizers that the Ingenio San Antonio requires them to apply to the cane — the chemicals leak from their containers onto workers’ clothing, seeping into their skin. Former workers testify that they’ve been made to burn the original containers’ of the chemicals, and the company has not released information of exactly what chemicals workers are handling.
The sugar produced by the Ingenio San Antonio is sold for export, but also used to make the famous and award-winning national rum of Nicaragua, Flor de Caña. It has also recently begun investing in ethanol production.
Laws and Loans
The Ingenio San Antonio is part of Nicaragua Sugar Estates, Ltd. (NSEL), which in October 2006 received a $USD55 million loan from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the arm of the World Bank that gives private sector loans. Long before the loan was approved, former workers from Chichigalpa were protesting the destructive environmental and labor practices of the company. However, as NSEL is part of Nicaragua’s Pellas consortium, the most powerful economic entity in Nicaragua, workers’ protests were ignored by government agencies and local media.
Former workers and community members say that the Ingenio San Antonio is violating not only the IFC’s own regulations around labor conditions, pollution prevention, and community health, but national Nicaraguan laws as well, and that it was doing so long before the loan was approved.
Threats and Table Crumbs
Members of ASOCHIVIDA are demanding access to specialized medical care, and compensation for their widows and children. They are also demanding that the company do a better job of protecting on-the-job workers from exposure to chemicals.
The company has responded to these demands by threatening current workers, forbidding them to talk to foreign journalists and requiring them to sign a statement saying that they disagree with the complaints and demands of former workers and surrounding community members.
Far away from the mill itself, communities surrounded by sugar cane fields depend on the cane as a source of temporary labor, and are also feeling the negative effects of the industry. In the department of León, residents report environmental damage as a result of agro-chemical use. The frequent and controlled burning of the sugar cane makes harvesting by hand easier, but residents say that the smoke is also damaging to their respiratory health.
The company has responded to these complaints by stepping up a small-scale philanthropy program in the poor affected communities, which includes building classrooms and giving out free backpacks to all the kids. To some, the company’s weak response to the this dire issue is just adding insult to injury. Sonia Matute is a head teacher at a primary school in a poor indigenous Sutiava community in the department of León, and she is suffering from respiratory problems exacerbated by cane ash in the air. When asked about Ingenio San Antonio’s philanthropic efforts, she said "they’re buying us."
One Available Recourse
These communities have joined together to file a complaint with the Compliance Advisory Ombudsman (CAO), the internal auditing office of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), to demand that the IFC and World Bank pressure Nicaragua Sugar Estates, Ltd. (NSEL) to abide by the environmental and labor regulations on the books in Nicaragua, and to respect the IFC’s own stated regulations.
People wishing to act in solidarity with these families can write to Lars Thunell, Executive Vice President and CEO of the IFC, at International Finance Corporation, 2121 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20433 USA, and ask that the IFC heed the concerns and demands of communities affected by the Ingenio San Antonio.
Sydney Frey lives and works in León, Nicaragua, and can be reached at sydney.frey(at)gmail.com