Just last month, 70 former sugarcane workers and many widows of those who have died marched from their home in Chichigalpa (about 78 miles) to Managua in the hope of putting pressure on the Nicaraguan government to support their cause. The workers at the plantation cutting sugarcane are experiencing epidemic rates of Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional causes (CKDnT), and have not received sufficient medical and/or legal compensation from their employers. They marched to the National Assembly building with the hopes of being heard by the politicians inside, to share their stories and grievances. The owners of the sugarcane company, the Pellas Group, have thus far denied the existence of the relationship between CKDnT and the workplace environment. They have been confronted with several accusations of workers’ rights violations; however have somehow avoided taking accountability for these crimes.
The cane cutters are demanding that the National Assembly prioritize and discuss a bill written to force the sugar company to take responsibility for their actions, and if passed, the proposal would reform the labor code and empower state health and labor institutions to ensure greater pension rights for CKDnT-affected ex-workers. It would also increase the liability of the sugar industry for costs related to the above. (Envio 2014). The government has done little to recognize this as a human rights issue or to respond in any proactive way, and some say this is because the Ortega administration has close personal and financial ties to the Pellas Group, who would not want to lose money in admitting fault or responsibility.
A little over a month ago, I was able to meet up with the marchers’ as they made their way into Managua. I met them about a forty minute’s drive from Managua, after they were done marching for the day and in the home of someone who had offered up the space for the group to cook and set up camp for the evening. I spoke with Castulo Perrufino, a leader of the ex-sugarcane workers group, and he shared his thoughts on the march. He started working with sugarcane in 1960, and has kidney disease. At 74 years old, he believed it was of vital importance to do this march to raise awareness and fight for working conditions to be changed. “I am doing this for the men out in the fields in this moment, the men who don’t have a choice but to work in a place that will eventually kill them just so they can feed their family. My generation is growing older and sicker, and I don’t know how much time I have left. But we will not rest until our community is safe, until they have the right to work and live without this avoidable disease.” (Perrufino, 2014).
After I left them, I went home to spend time with my family for the holiday, expecting to be able to keep up with the march through searching local news sources. On my visit and after my return to Nicaragua, I was shocked to see no news coverage of the marchers once they arrived at the National Assembly. I spoke to Tom Laffay, media producer and communications manager at La Isla Foundation, to find out what happened once they arrived in the Capitol. No news crews showed up, and the workers waited many hours outside until finally, two government officials came outside. Victor Hugo Tinoco and Tanto Alberto Lacayo, members of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) and supporters of the sugarcane workers’ fight, came out to express their respect for the marchers’ and their commitment to work on passing the aforementioned bill. But then that was it. The workers’ stayed and camped outside the National Assembly for 2 days, and then reluctantly bussed home. A little disappointed but not deterred, the workers’ plan to continue putting pressure on local authorities to declare the region an emergency zone.
A new source of hope exists in Apopa, El Salvador, where a sugarcane company, the local government, and international research organizations have come together to conduct a 3 year study in conjunction with the sugarcane cutters there. They are collaborating with OSHA to try out the “Water. Rest. Shade.” recommendations by having workers take mandatory breaks under a shaded area and have provided them with Camelbaks, a backpack loaded with cool water to have while they work. “This is the first time in history that a sugarcane company has agreed to collaborate in a study that will hopefully be a model for how working conditions can improve workers’ health while also improving productivity and profit.” (Laffay, 2015). It seems like a win-win for all parties involved, and the hope is that other sugarcane companies in the region, namely here in Nicaragua, will see the benefits and adapt these recommendations to improve the quality of life for their employees.
The epidemic is the leading cause of death in working-age males in sugarcane communities in Nicaragua, and in Chichigalpa from 2002-2012, 75% of deaths of men aged 35-55 were caused by CKDnT. (La Isla Foundation 2012). The disease shows no signs of slowing down, and the media and government’s lack of acknowledgement of this issue is frightening. Informed or not, it is almost impossible not to consume something made from the sugar that comes from the San Antonio sugar mill in Chichigalpa. It is therefore our responsibility to be informed and to acknowledge the tragedy that is continuing to take the lives of sugarcane cutters. Please take the time to learn more about this issue, and you can go here http://vimeo.com/111266028 to learn more about the breakthrough study being done in El Salvador.
The ex-sugarcane workers titled their march ‘The Pilgrimage for Life and Justice’, a name that fits their plight and calls all of us to act in order to stop this egregious attack on their livelihood and human dignity.
Que siguen luchando!
Chronic Renal Insufficiency. (2014, December 1). Retrieved January 9, 2015, from http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/4954
The Epidemic. (2012, January 1). Retrieved December 10, 2014, from https://laislafoundation.org/epidemic/
Laffay, T. (2015). CKDnT-Affected Ex-Workers March to Managua. Leon: La Isla Foundation.
Perrufino, Castulo, personal communication, December 4th, 2015.