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Bitter sweet in Nicaragua
Island of widows

By: Charlot Lugtigheid

Rosa Esperanza is a widow living in the community of La Isla, Chichigalpa district, Nicaragua. “My grandfather, parents and brothers all died from Chronic Kidney Failure (CKD). At this moment my three sons suffer from the same symptoms.” Her three sons work at Ingenio San Antonio, a large Agricultural complex producing not only sugar but ethanol and electricity as well. Ingenio San Antonio is responsible for 46% of the total sugar production in Nicaragua and offers the biggest source of employment in the North-western part of the country. But the complex not only supplies jobs for labourers and their families but illnesses and death as well.


Chronic Kidney Disease epidemic

Rosa and her family are not the only ones experiencing health problems due to sugar cane production. La Isla is also called ‘Island of widows’ because of the high rate of deceased sugar cane labourers due to chronic kidney disease. In the western world CKD is often linked to obesities, diabetes or high blood pressure. Surprisingly at La Isla and the rest of Central America CKD is also found with people not diagnosed with diabetes or high blood pressure. Here it seems to be the result of working in the cane production. The effects of the disease are distressing. Sacorro Mendez-Flores from La Isla lost her husband and her son. Her son Jose Luis Silva didn’t appear to be ill. Five months ago she had to bury him. His kidneys were not able to purify his body. “Same thing happened to my husband. They died in the same way.”

Only in Chichigalpa, a city of 60.000 inhabitants, hundreds of people, mostly male labourers, have died from CKD during the last ten years. The American Centre for Public Integrity calls it an epidemic hitting the entire region of Central America which already has claimed over 16.000 victims. In the past twenty years in El Salvador and Nicaragua the number of men dying from CKD has been multiplied five times.

There are different opinions on the cause of CKD. Some say the illness is being created by the labourers themselves by chewing on sugar cane. Others blame the used chemicals. These chemicals enter the drinking water used by the labourers and the local community. Reality seems to be even more complex.


Lethal combination

A research team of the Boston University in the United States claims one of the causes being the pesticides to work the field. But exhausting labour, dehydration and environmental conditions are also of great influence. The long exposure to pesticides contaminates the water, the crops and herewith the food chain. This means kidneys of this population get infected at an early age. The moment the young men start working at the fields chewing cane and making long working days in high temperatures aggravate the damage to the kidneys, till death follows.

The large numbers of labourers suffering from CKD have big social, economical and humanitarian consequences for sugar cane communities and families involved. In the western world lifesaving treatment is available but for labourers on the cane fields being diagnosed with CKD usually means death.

This way the epidemic also hits the families of the labourers. Men working at the cane fields earn money to support their family. In case the father falls ill or dies, the eldest son becomes responsible and takes over the job at the cane field. And risks the same destiny.


Sugar consumption

Despite the growing knowledge on the sugar cane working fields the sugar industry rejects the suggestion of this being the cause of CKD. According to the employers the labourers drink too much alcohol and active vulcanoes are reason of the soil pollution. The sugar industry spokesman does admit this doesn’t explain the high amount of people dying of CKD. 

This is why the sugar industry and the universities of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the United States continue their research for causes.  This development is in total contrast with the recent investments done by the World Bank. These investments consist of  loans to cane fields with sick labourers of over 100 billion dollars just to promote the production of sugar and biogas.

Should research show a definitive connection between work at the cane fields and CKD then the two sons of 63-year old Juan, an ill cane labourer, will know what their future will look like. They work, like Maximilliano Lopez who already has been diagnosed with CKD, at the sugar cane fields. Working in the sugar industry is for most people the only possibility to earn a living in their own area. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Central America. Even after their diagnosis labourers return to the cane fields because this is the only available job. As Lopez bitterly states: “I started working to earn a living, but all I gain is death.”


Bron: www.noticias.nl/bittere-suiker-nicaragua