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Frightening Rate of Kidney Failure Amongst Sugar Plantation Workers in Nicaragua

Updated on November 18, 2012
a sugar cane worker at ingenio san antonio
a sugar cane worker at ingenio san antonio | Source

The rate of kidney failure deaths amongst sugar plantation workers in Nicaragua has doubled in the years between 2000 and 2010 from 466 to 1047.

Not only Nicaragua is affected, neighboring El Salvador saw similar jumps, as did Costa Rica and Panama.

The only thing they have in common is being sugar plantation workers, and all being on the Pacific Coast.

One in 4 men in Nicaragua have kidney failure to varying degrees, which is a shockingly high rate.

Nicaragua is the poorest nation in the Americas, and their people cannot afford the life-saving treatment they would be offered elsewhere.

Instead, they treat themselves with home-made dialysis which is largely ineffectual, and ultimately leads them to their early deaths.

An unusually high cluster of these men, and it is mostly men who are affected, live around the Ingenio San Antonio sugar production mill, owned by Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited, a subsidiary of the giant Pellas Group, chaired by Carlos Pellas Chamorro.

One in three men at Ingenio San Antonio (ISA) suffer from kidney disease. The town of Chichigalpa in northwestern Nicaragua is known as the town of widows. So many men have died leaving behind widows, and fatherless children.

Every single family has been affected, losing some member or other to chronic kidney disease. Some men as young as 20 years old are succumbing to it.

The rate of kidney disease is 10 times that which is seen in the US.

Normally, kidney disease is caused by untreated hypertension, obesity, diabetesand a whole host of western ailments relating to modern day sedentary living.

None of which the Nicaraguan workers suffer from, yet they are dropping like flies.

An estimated 3,500 (mostly) men have died at Chichigalpa, which has a population of 42,000, over the past 10 years, and thousands more are sick.

An NSEL video

the workers arrive in their bus
the workers arrive in their bus | Source

Are the sugar plantations responsible?

The workers say yes, the sugar plantation owners say no.

Following a $55 million loan to the Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited (NSEL) by the private sector wing of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a group of former workers banded together to form a group known as ASOCHIVIDA.

ASOCHIVIDA complained to the World Bank’s Office of the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) in 2008, demanding answers and a change to working practises carried out by NSEL.

In response, the CAO ordered a scientific probe to the carried out into the workers, the sugar plantations and the environment to try and discover a cause for the plague of chronic kidney failures that were being noted.

A team from the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), led by Dr. Daniel Brooks, an associate professor of epidemiology, visited the area for a week, taking water samples, meeting with the employers, looking at the chemicals used, and speaking to the workers.

When their report was submitted, the sugar plantations were surprisingly exonerated and the chronic kidney disease suffered by the thousands of workers put down to dehydration through working long hours in blazing heat, while not drinking enough water to rehydrate themselves.

Despite the fact that never before has it been recorded that a constant cycle of sweating/rehydrating is a causative agent in chronic kidney disease.

Read their full report here.

the workers at Ingenio San Antonio demonstrate
the workers at Ingenio San Antonio demonstrate | Source

The NSEL are overjoyed, of course, as they now will not have to pay compensation to the thousands of families hit.

But still the deaths continue, with new diagnoses being made daily of kidney disease.

The NSEL employ medics who check the blood and urine sample of workers and potential workers.

A rise in creatinine levels is indicative of kidney disease.

Workers who show a rise are dismissed on the spot. The company say this to protect their health. The reality is that there is no other work, and without employment, the worker and his family will starve.

They are also immediately denied the health care offered to the workers by the company.

Many workers get round this ban, by sending other family members, perhaps their sons or brothers to take the test in their name, allowing them to work.

The NSEL employs thousands of workers. Each workers is issued with a work card. It is relatively easy for workers to swap cards around and hoodwink the company.

Also, many workers find re-employment with one of the many sub-contractors the NSEL uses to cut the sugar-cane. None of them bother with such things as health checks.

Workers in the sugar-cane fields are responsible for bringing their own water to work.

Working in horrific heat under the blazing sun, with no shade, requires the frequent replenishment of water to help make up for the body fluids lost through sweat.

Most workers bring 8 - 10 litre of their own water to work with them, daily. In the heat, they can easily lose 2 - 3 litres every hour through perspiration.

Working from 6am till midday ( the law was recently changed, no longer permitting them to work until sundown), their 10 litres is not enough. They are allowed no breaks during this time, except for 10 -15 minutes for lunch.

The company provides drinking water for the workers, in a tank kept aboard their work bus which takes them to the fields every morning, and home again at lunchtime.

The idea is that when they run out of their own water, they can uses the company's supply.

Unfortunately, the source of where the water actually comes from is a well-kept secret, and the water in the tank is not changed for weeks on end.

The workers say that they will not drink from this water, as those that do end up with stomach infections.

To help reduce dehrydation, the NSEL provide 250ml bags of an electrolyte solution which is handed out to the workers 3 times a day.

Many workers, if they are working far away from the point of distribution, miss out on their share. The bags are out left for them, under the sun, where they quickly go bad making them undrinkable.

There have been stories of workers being so thirsty, they have drank the putrid water from the irrigation canals.

the electrolyte solution handed out to the workers daily
the electrolyte solution handed out to the workers daily | Source
Segundo Zapata Palacios died two days after this photo was taken, at Chinandega, Nicaragua in January, 2012
Segundo Zapata Palacios died two days after this photo was taken, at Chinandega, Nicaragua in January, 2012 | Source

What chemicals are used at Ingenio San Antonio

The full list of agrichemicalsused are all in the BUSPH report. All of them are legal and used in the US as well as all over the world.

At least four of them can cause kidney disease if not used properly.

  • PARAQUAT - Paraquat dichloride
  • MSMA - Monosodium methanearsonate
  • DIAZINON - Diazinon
  • WARFARINA - Warfarin

The company in recent years has been moving away from chemical control of pests, and has developed a fungus for use in the sugar cane fields, which should further reduce the need for potentially dangerous agrichemicals.

It is interesting to note that according to reports from the Isla Foundation, a group set up to support the workers at Ingenio San Antonio, that prior to the week long visit from the Boston University group, and indeed any time the factory gets an official visit from whatever source, the workers are ordered to remove labels from the chemical containers most normally used.

When the fields are being sprayed with chemicals, it is done by hand with hand held sprayers.

The workers are given masks, with no cartridges in them, a point mentioned in the BUSPH report.

“Overall, it seems likely that exposure to agrichemicals has decreased over time and that PPE (personal protective equipment) is controlling exposure to agrichemicals to some extent, but the high frequency of agrichemical use, poor decontamination procedures, and the use of respirator cartridges not recommended for use with organic vapors likely result in exposures to agrichemicals that vary by job and chemical. (p 44)”

The spray frequently goes wider than its intended area, a point not missed by the local school teacher, whose school sites right next to the fields.

cutting down the sugar cane plants at Ingenio San Antonio
cutting down the sugar cane plants at Ingenio San Antonio | Source

Finding a solution

Whatever is causing the deaths of all those men in not only Nicaragua, but in neighbouring countries, (and recent report suggest there is an epidemic of kidney disease breaking out in parts of AUSTRALIA), we can only hope that the experts can get to the bottom of it, and stop new outbreaks.

At the same time, perhaps the giant Pellas Group, who own practically every industry in Nicaragua including the sugar plantations,could use some of their multi-million dollar profits towards easing the suffering of those affected, with more assistance given to their families, regardless of who or what is to blame.


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