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Nicaragua's Sugarcane Harvesters are Dying From Chronic Kidney Disease, and Here's Why

First Posted: Feb 03, 2015 04:25 PM EST
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Photo : Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

The Central American nation Nicaragua, which is topped by Honduras and sits atop of Costa Rica, has six basic labor rights.

Those labor rights include: decent working conditions; freedom of association; collective bargaining; elimination of forced labor and obligatory overtime; elimination of discrimination; and elimination of child labor, according to a report originally published by ASEPROLA

That said, those six basic rights are routinely violated on the sugarcane fields of Nicaragua and El Salvador, where fatal but preventable disease run rampant due to field owners failing to grant basic human rights to the harvesters manning their fields. While harvesting, workers endure long hours in blistering heat, feel the effects of dehydration and debilitating fatigue, and eventually develop chronic kidney disease.

"Under Cane," a short documentary captured by photographer and filmmaker Ed Kashi for La Isla Foundation, showed the lives of numerous individuals touched by the disease that killed thousands. More than 20,000 individuals, mostly male, have died from chronic kidney disease after working on the fields. Said to be an epidemic, the disease is spreading rabidly among sugarcane harvesters.

"The conditions they work in are routinely poor to very bad. There is little regulation of their rest, shade or hydration.," Kashi said to Latin Post in an email. "There are some movements to improve these things, but from what I witnessed they are few and far in between. And definitely not sufficient enough to mitigate the causal factors in the workplace of this deadly disease. I am not clear on what safety regulations are on the books [in Nicaragua]."

Dehydration, heat and fatigue can likely be credited for chronic kidney disease claiming the lives of young men of Chichigalpa, Nicaragua. While the government and the community continue to play the blame game over the cause of the illness, researchers have made a point of saying that the men dying of chronic kidney disease don't have any of the other symptoms that are close associated with developing the disease, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. With more than 68 percent of the men suffering from chronic kidney disease, and the average death of men being 48 years old, it's important to further explore the root of the growing illness.

A researcher from the film stated that the diseases has not been linked to pesticide; instead, it is the chronic and redundant dehydration that manifest disease in these men. The researcher submitted mice to dehydration and excessive heat, and discovered similar disease and lesions in the mice. The owners often blame alcoholism for the harvester's poor heath, and that they provide one liter of water per hour, shade and breaks.

Jason Glaser of La Isla Foundation stated that the multifactorial disease (agrochemical, antibiotic, environmental and genetic) could be easily prevented by placing an emphasis on water consumption, rest and shade for sugarcane workers. He also mentioned that owners are guilty of subcontracting in order to mitigate liability, and present dishonest information to the media. 

In a previous interview with National Geographic, Kashi remarked that the cane-growing communities of El Salvador and Nicaragua are deeply impacted by the quantity of men who get sick and die. Individuals developed fatalistic views of the communities, where fatherlessness has become routine. Funerals for men between 21 and 65-years-old happen nearly every day, and men spend months on home dialysis before they succumb to death.

Nearly everyone on the planet enjoys sugar, but little thought is given to the human cost or the individuals laboring on the sugarcane field. Kashi has plans to use his short film about the sugarcane harvesters to fundraise for a feature-length documentary on the subject. 

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