Death and despots in Central America – interview with Jason Glaser, co-founder of La Isla Foundation

24 October 2014

The world is addicted to sugar. Food and beverage companies hide much of the sugars consumed today in processed foods and drinks. In March 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised halving the amount of sugar people consume daily. Dr Robert Lustig, Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), has even gone so far as to call for laws to restrict sugar as if it were alcohol or tobacco. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described non-communicable diseases aggravated by our sugar addiction – such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer – as a bigger threat to the entire world than infectious diseases.

However, our addiction to sugar is also the source of secret suffering elsewhere. Fairfood has been exposing the terrible toll of practices in the Central American sugarcane industry on workers and communities since 2013, focusing in particular on sugarcane production in its Nicaragua hotspot. It has uncovered human rights abuses, such as poverty wages and dangerous working conditions.

Most disturbing has been the emergence of the devastating epidemic Chronic Kidney Disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT). In June 2014, Fairfood highlighted this epidemic as part of its ‘Treat Them Sweet’ campaign. A lot of the research for this campaign published in a report was conducted in collaboration with La Isla Foundation (LIF), a public health and policy NGO addressing CKDnT. This relatively unknown disease is associated with heavy labour in hot temperatures and chronic dehydration, as well as exposure to pesticides, and is prevalent among agricultural workers, such as sugarcane workers.

Jason Glaser co-founded LIF in 2008, after visiting Central America to film his documentary Banana Land and learning of the CKDnT epidemic in Nicaragua that is killing thousands of sugarcane workers every year. In this interview, Fairfood’s Richard Glass talks to Glaser about his work battling CKDnT, the corporate and government abuses destroying lives and communities, and the need for global citizens to stand up and be counted.

Can you explain how your collaboration with Fairfood came about and how Fairfood has contributed?

My relationship with Fairfood started really organically. My friend was a volunteer and he introduced me. LIF was just a baby organisation then, and I had bigger plans than just basic research and advocacy. One of my real hopes was to conduct a robust human rights study, and to hold the two big sugarcane producers in the region accountable.

Fairfood provided the funding and gave guidance on what should be included in that study. I think the most important thing they did was disseminating that study and then having it verified by a totally independent third party. So, Fairfood really provided the foundation for LIF’s human rights department. Without Fairfood, I don’t think we would have that department in the position it is now.

Fairfood also had the courage to stand up to one of the major Nicaraguan sugar producers who were sending unpleasant emails. These companies know how powerful they are, and their attitude is: ‘We’re going to try to scare these people who’ve done nothing wrong and are trying to tell the truth.’

News 4

You were filming a documentary when you learnt of the CKDnT epidemic among sugarcane workers, and a friend’s death there inspired you to set up LIF. Could you elaborate on this story?

I was doing a documentary on bananas, and we started documenting CKDnT. I shelved the banana film and started LIF. It’s pretty bad when you are faced with the horrors that have happened in the banana industry, like paramilitaries, and you find something even more troubling. We didn’t really know anything about the cause then, but it was pretty obvious that this disease was occupational.

One of the things that motivated me was the determination of the Nicaraguan community, specifically La Isla de las Viudas (The Isle of Widows), to get their story out. They had no power and no voice in the world. I thought we could be a vehicle for that. The greatest thing about La Isla de las Viudas is that despite having nothing they are the most welcoming people on earth.

I built a relationship with this guy called Virgilio who had CKDnT. All of his brothers were either dying or dead. His father was dead. All the men in his family were just gone and he was really angry. I recognised some of that, as I’m a pretty feisty, angry person. He was like a mirror and it was really hard to watch him die.

The recent bestseller ‘Capital in the 21st century’ by the French economist Thomas Piketty highlights the massive inequality caused by the dominant capitalist system, which is “rigged so a handful are able to reap benefits at the cost of everyone else”. To what extent do we need to change this system to protect the most vulnerable, such as sugarcane workers in Nicaragua?

You and I have a lot more in common with the sugarcane workers in Nicaragua than we do with the guys who own these large companies. If you are not at the table, you are on the menu. You’re just a number. You’re just a consumer. You need to stop being a consumer and become a citizen, because citizens united are the only thing companies fear. Companies fear that and governments fear that.

It has to change. Europe, the UK and the Republicans in the US are making the world that we live in more and more like the third world. What makes something third world is largely class division, which is exactly what this French economist is saying, and he’s so right.

Another example of this is Nicaragua. For all the rhetoric of the Sandinista revolution, I would say my least favourite statesman in the world is Daniel Ortega. He has helped his police gun down people trying to get access to social security who are dying of a preventable disease. He has done nothing for his people. That is unforgivable and there is nothing worse than hypocrisy.

News 2

Many documentaries such as ‘Food Inc.’ and ‘The Corporation’ have detailed how corporations are often more powerful than governments, especially in the food system where a handful of companies, such as Unilever, control the entire supply chain. Do governments need to take back control?

Yes. Look at the gilded age of the US, when Roosevelt and Wilson broke that up. It worked. It was a good thing. There is incredible wealth up top, except now it’s global, and the rest of us are trapped in debt. It’s time for governments to have more power, because the idea that these people are going to self-police is crazy, and I don’t know how anybody bought into it. You also need a big stick if someone steps out of line, like when they poison water or the food supply through using a pesticide that everybody knows is harmful.

I also think land needs to be reformed, because it’s ridiculous that you have one family or company owning a vast majority of the land in a country like Nicaragua. That’s not going to end well.

In your report ‘Sickly Sweet’, you talk a lot about the minimum wage for Nicaraguan workers being far below a living wage. Is it the responsibility of companies to ensure living wages throughout their entire chain or governments? And are you confident of this actually happening in our lifetime?

I have no faith in companies being responsible. They’re like extremely wealthy, extremely entitled 16-year-old boys with no rules. Do I think companies are going to ensure a living wage throughout their supply chain or via third party certification? No. You can vote or shoot a government out of power, but you can’t really do much about a multinational. Our governments need to represent us and help ensure companies that do business within their borders take responsibility. That has got to be part of trade deals and regulations.

News 3

Your website reports that Nicaragua has now classified CKDnT as an occupational illness. However, nothing seems to be happening. Why?

Well, you know the problem is that science is slow, way too slow. CKDnT is a huge issue. There have also been cases in other Central American countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and southern Mexico.

I mean this disease is a disease that has probably been with us for a long time, but it is only now that light has been shed on it. The average age of death for a sugarcane worker in 2014 is 46.

So why hasn’t more been done? Because these governments are in the pocket of the sugarcane producers. Because Coca-Cola and Bacardi are not going to change their supply chain unless they absolutely have to.

This should be an emergency. This disease would bankrupt every single one of these countries, if they were to admit liability and treat these people, and it is their right to be treated. They are being cut off from their social security system, by both their government and these companies. They don’t want to acknowledge it, because they don’t want to have to call on the World Bank or the IMF.

It’s all down to money.

Workers worldwide deal with the same issues: terrible working conditions, and poverty wages. Why should consumers, who are bombarded with these stories as well as austerity measures in their own country, focus on Nicaraguan workers?

LIF is way bigger than Nicaragua. I don’t even work in Nicaragua anymore. I work in places like El Salvador or Mexico and I am trying to conduct research in Guatemala. The disease really extends up and down Central America and down into South America. You’re going to be seeing that in the next few months, because a lot of work is coming out. There’s this report in Brazil, where we saw kidney damage of the exact same nature.

People are literally being worked and, in all likelihood, poisoned to death, as there probably is an environmental component. These workers are exhausted, dehydrated and brutalised. This disease isn’t isolated geographically. There are reports of similar problems in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

This is probably why poor sugar and rice workers, historically the worst jobs, have died so young for generations. Now, we have a name for it. We’ve identified, what is killing them. To me this disease is the biggest reflection of modern brutalisation. People are dying young.

If you want a flagship cause, you probably want one that has an answer and a strategy for solving it. We have a strategy. We’ve had success in El Salvador, the public system taking this on, much to their detriment financially. We’ve had success in Mexico and El Salvador where sugarcane mills have said ‘enough is enough, we need to do something about this’.

Getting it solved means getting the healthcare system to treat those who are sick and preventing the disease from affecting new workers. You should not die when you go to work.


So what can consumers do?

They can support the research, volunteer or do internships. There are positions with us, with the health ministry in El Salvador, and all the universities we work with.

The other thing they can do is question how much they need sugar. I don’t eat a lot of sugar anymore. Consumers really need to question why they consume so much of this stuff, which is so bad for us, and is absolutely deadly for the people producing it.

Support Fairfood, support LIF and support the universities doing this work. People are a little bit lazy. They don’t want to put their money where their mouth is. So, put your money where your mouth is.

It’s absolutely intolerable that this kind of stuff is still happening in the 21st century. What these workers are going through is damn near forced labour and slavery. There is nothing justifiable in how they are treated.