On Saturday, January 18th, Juan de Dios Cortes-a former sugarcane worker affected with Chronic Kidney Disease-was shot by Nicaraguan police while protesting for labor rights outside the building of Nicaragua Sugar company. Local media showed little of the workers’ rights demonstrations that had been building the last few weeks in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, but with the death of Cortes and the arrest of over 30 protesters, Nicaraguans are becoming more aware (and alarmed) of the situation.
This company is owned by Nicaragua’s most powerful business, the Pellas Group. They produce the country’s infamous Flor de Caña rum, and own many other business enterprises across the country. Sugarcane workers have been in a constant struggle with the Pellas Group and Nicaragua Sugar for better health and severance benefits in response to the epidemic levels of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown cause (CKDu). La Isla Foundation conducted a study on the disease in the city where the sugarcane processing factory is located, and found that In Chichigalpa in the last ten years, 46% of male deaths were caused by Chronic Kidney Disease. They are in the midst of several studies examining possible causes of CKDu, but they’re current view is that the cause is from a mix of exhaustion, dehydration, and exposure to toxins. And unfortunately for the men who work in the sugarcane industry, those conditions are a reality in the workplace.
Yesterday afternoon, Kelsey and I were able to meet with a few members of a group of ex-sugarcane workers who have been living and protesting outside of the Cathedral in Managua since 2009. Juan Antonio Martinez- a former sugarcane worker from Chichigalpa-started working in the sugarcane fields as a 16 year old boy, and now suffers from CKDu. He told us that sugarcane companies started using toxic chemicals on their crops in 1960, and that since then the health hazard has been continuing to affect workers and their families through the contaminated water. A group of ex-workers created a commission in 1996 in order to fight for better healthcare and working conditions, and have since been asking for Pellas Group to commit to starting a dialogue with them. Some ex-workers receive a monthly food stipend from Pellas group in exchange for their silence, as journalists and news outlets have been coming from all over the world to talk to them. For people like Juan Antonio, who freely and graciously shares his story with us, they detest the idea of receiving money from the company in order to hide the egregious workers’ rights violations. As far as government support, the protesters say that the Ortega administration has offered them healthcare, but nothing that will change the fates of current sugarcane workers. They attribute this to the growing sociopolitical relationship between the Ortegas and Group Pellas.
Another unfortunate truth is that this disease is not limited to Chichigalpa. Wherever there are sugarcane plantations, there are accusations of mistreatment of workers and the use of toxic chemicals. The thing that makes Central American sugarcane farms so different is the frighteningly high prevalence of CKDu among the workers. Based on the count of Juan Antonio and the commission working in Managua, 7,982 ex-workers have died from CKDu and over 15,000 are affected by the disease.
The protesters told Kelsey and I that us being there animated them, and that they were grateful of our willingness to learn more about their struggle. They told us that what we can do is spread the word, to tell all of our friends and families about their fight, and they hope to create policy that will protect the workers and the environment.
We have passed their camp several times, on the way to the mall or to a friend’s house, each time wondering what they were protesting. Now we know, and now the question on our minds is-what now? What can we do to support these people, waiting for justice? I do not have the answer. And sometimes I don’t think an answer is necessary. I believe that my innate need to ‘do something’ comes from my United States upbringing; if there’s a problem, I need to find the solution and ‘fix’ it. The truth is that the more I learn about this issue, the more complicated it becomes. The only thing that I have the capacity to do is listen. The only thing I can leave you with is an image; the banner outside their camp that translate as “The time passes, but the truth is still the same. We continue dying from Chronic Kidney Disease.” I left watching the group of elders sitting among their tents, exposed to the heat and rain, waiting for people to come by and listen to their stories.
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