A Cycle of Death: Inside Nicaragua’s Sugar Cane Fields

La Isla is a small community located on the outskirts of Chichigalpa, Nicaragua in the Central America lowlands. Its sole economy is the sugar cane industry which relies on young men desperate to provide for their families ensuring an endless supply of labor.

Produced by Tierra Unida Films by Tom Laffay and Inka Haukka

Written by Jason Glaser

The video above focuses on the community of La Isla de Viudas (The Isle of Widows) outside of Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, but it is a powerful introduction to a much larger global issue. Sadly, the stories shared are in no way isolated or limited to this area. Throughout the sugarcane industry in Central America child labor is rampant, widows from this disease far too common and young workers will likely not escape their fate, many will perish as their fathers have.

None of the usual causes of CKD have been linked to this new form of the disease and no adequate treatment exists for those affected making it a death sentence. Worldwide cases of CKD often correspond with hypertension and diabetes; however, research concludes that no correlation between these traditional causes has been made in this context.

Getting sick often means losing your job as companies attempt to distance themselves from responsibility by testing and then firing sick workers. With the need for labor still present workers enlist with subcontractors.  When they are finally too sick to work their sons illegally work in their place. Despite the legal age being 18 for this type of work, in Nicaragua boys as young as sixteen are now coming down with the disease, their hope for a better life dashed.

This cycle of death ends futures and stymies any hope for meaningful development in the region.

Policy Impacts:

This situation is fueled by foreign policy decisions in Europe and Washington D.C. that are playing themselves out thousands of miles away while affecting people who lack a voice.  

Europe has set incredibly ambitious goals to incorporate biofuels into their energy system over the next 10 years and view sugar cane produced ethanol as one of the most environmentally secure options.  While embracing ‘green’ fuels the associated costs of labor abuse, this emerging epidemic, and the food vs. fuel dynamic seem to be secondary considerations.  

The US State Department for its part views the production of biofuels in Central America as a way to stifle the influence of Hugo Chavez’s oil rich Venezuela.  Historically, the State Department has sought only the counsel of the leading producers of sugar in the region while pursuing this policy.  Recently this has changed and representatives from the US Embassy in Nicaragua have reached out to La Isla Foundation in order to begin a dialog.  This is a developing relationship and I hope a positive one.

Finally, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) gave two loans totaling more than 100 million dollars to the two largest Nicaraguan sugar producers- Ingenio Monte Rosa and Nicaraguan Sugar Estates Limited who owns Ingenio San Antoio. The loans were given so they could modernize operations and produce ethanol for export to the EU via Rotterdam.  Workers concerns at Ingenio San Antonio were only taken into account by the IFC after the loan was given. An impotent complaint process administered by the Compliance Advisor Ombudsmen has solved little and left families distrustful of outside intervention.  

What is Being Done

Boston University was brought in under the CAO process to help establish the cause of the epidemic.  They received their funding from the IFC, Nicaraguan Sugar Estates Limited and the Association of Nicaraguan Sugar Producers. After two years of work the Boston team, I believe correctly, decided that the CAO process is not the ideal venue in which to continue researching the cause of the disease.   

Predictably, the public relations department at Nicarguan Sugar Estates Limited has used the inconclusive findings to distance themselves from responsibility while failing to acknowledge their other offenses.  Despite promises of being committed to finding the cause of the disease, the company has seen it fit to misrepresent data and to outright lie about their work practices.  

From the beginning, La Isla Foundation was skeptical about the CAO process as it readily favors those who have power.  The party who has allegedly committed an offense can walk away from talks at any time and there are no tools with which to hold that party accountable.  A loan cannot be taken back, payment for the loan cannot be demanded and any agreements are not enforceable. There is no evidence that a future loan would be denied.

Recognizing these shortfalls, La Isla Foundation immediately set about to create a broader and locally lead coalition.  It includes leading Mesoamerican, US and European organizations.  

Parties include: La Isla Foundation, local epidemiological experts from respected local health institutions SALTRA and CISTA, Mt. Sinai, Colorado University, Stony Brook University, Karolinksa University, the National Institute of Medical Sciences in Mexico and increasingly the health ministries of Central American countries.  This international cooperation is working to secure funding in order to test a promising hypothesis that could establish the mechanism causing the disease.   This coalition has produced the most insightful research published to date.

I’m pleased to report that the Boston team has also engaged us in the spirit of cooperation as they move forward in their research efforts.

It’s important that all groups dedicated to finding the cause of the epidemic coordinate instead of compete. Especially in light of the fact that this epidemic may well be global.  Most recently our network is now reaching out to researchers in Egypt and Sri Lanka who are reporting a similar epidemic of chronic kidney disease among workers in their countries.

It is hoped this broad based coalition can both find the cause of the disease and build capacity among local institutions that will need to monitor and facilitate treatment for those impacted by it.  

Concurrently, La Isla Foundation is working with students from University of Pittsburgh’s Law School and University of London Birkbeck. Important research is being undertaken to leverage policy change regarding the importation of biofuels into the EU, sugar into the US and work practices on the ground in Mesoamerica.  This is important as labor issues, intimidation, displacement, and irresponsible environmental practices including the burning of sugar cane fields near populated areas and reckless agrochemical use plagues these communities.

In the community of La Isla we are also working to create greater autonomy and empowerment for those affected through educational programs and basic infrastructure projects.  

This situation is grave but we can be part of the solution with support from concerned individuals and institutions that believe in building regional capacity while strengthening cooperation with independent northern institutions.  For studies, information and comments please contact me directly: Jason Glaser, laislafoundation@gmail.com  

Learn more at www.laislafoundation.org

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Jason Glaser is the president of La Isla Foundation and can be contacted at laislafoundation(at)gmail.com. Tom Laffay is the director of Tierra Unida Films based in Leon, Nicaragua and can be contacted attierraunidafilms(at)gmail.com.