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Nicaragua: Where sugar is not so sweet

Nicaragua: Where sugar is not so sweet

13 May 2013, 10:42
A woman harvests sugarcane at the Montelimar sugar mill on the outskirts of Managua.

We eat sugar every day, it sweetens our coffee in the mornings and it makes the perfect treat for children and adults alike. We all know that too much sugar is bad for our health but most of us are unaware of the heavy toll its production takes on the workers toiling in countries like Nicaragua to ensure people the world over can satisfy their sweet tooth. Therefore, Fairfood has chosen sugarcane as one of its priority food sectors to focus on in 2013. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to discover more about our project and why sugar isn’t always so sweet.

Sugar is produced from different commodities, one of them being sugarcane. Sugarcane grows best in tropical regions, such as Central America and while we may think of these countries as tropical paradises, they also host widespread poverty and inequality. A country full of contrasts, Nicaragua is located at the heart of the Central American region. With a long and tumultuous history, it is a land full of contrasts and diversity noticeable in its people, art and landscapes. Lakes, forests, volcanoes and lowlands configure a mosaic of ecosystems and offer a wide range of natural resources.

Despite its wealth of natural resources, Nicaragua remains poor. More than half of the population lives below the poverty line and unemployment rates remain high, especially among youth and women. As in the rest of Central America, most of the jobs can be found in the informal sector or in traditional low-productivity sectors such as agriculture. Those jobs are low paid and performed by workers with little education.

In an effort to boost the economy, local governments have focused on producing agricultural products for export. This has been the main driver for economic growth in Nicaragua, where tropical commodities such as coffee, sugar and tropical fruit end up on tables in the US and Europe. These delicious products are a result of the richness of Nicaragua’s soils and the labour of its farmers; labour that is not always well paid and that can even be dangerous for workers’ health.

Among these tropical commodities, sugarcane plays a very important role. Since its introduction to Nicaragua by the Spanish in the 1526, sugarcane production and export has increased steadily, to the point of becoming the top produced and exported commodity in the country. This year, the national committee for sugarcane production (CNPA in Spanish) predicts that the harvested quantity of cane will reach new records. This, added to the recent investments carried out in order to increase efficiency and crop diversification, links sugarcane to a scenario of economic stability and prosperity.

However, working on a sugarcane plantation is not easy.  On the large plantations where sugarcane is grown, rows of cane cover huge areas and during the harvest time or “zafra”, those fields need to be cut and the canes brought to the mill in order to get the desired white treasure: refined sugar. In most cases this work is done by hand and for very long hours under the tropical heat.

In rural areas, men don’t have many other employment options and have little choice but to succumb to the long working hours while receiving piece based salaries. The climatic conditions often lead to heat stroke and dehydration  and added to these risks, the dangerous exposure to chemicals without protective gear combine to form a lethal cocktail that puts their health at risk. One particular health threat among male labourers linked to sugarcane work in the region is Chronic Kidney Disease or CKD, which can be fatal.  Although there is increasing attention to the issue, the actual cause of the disease remains unknown while the number of deaths continues to rise. According to estimates by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists there were more than 800 deaths alone in 2009. Nicaragua is not the only country affected by this issue in the region; other sugarcane producing countries such as El Salvador and Costa Rica also have very high CKD rates among their workers.

The hotspot
At Fairfood, we believe that sugarcane workers deserve better and that these issues shouldn’t remain hidden. Our campaign is currently doing further research on the working conditions in the sugarcane industry in Central America with the aim of ensuring fairer and more sustainable production practices. There are exciting times to come in which we will travel to the region, meet with relevant partners on the ground and engage with key players in the industry in order to achieve the change we want to see in the region. Stay tuned for more updates and developments on the project. In the meantime, you can read about the rest of our projects on our website, Facebook and Twitter.

Image: Reuters

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