The realities of life in the sugarcane producing communities of Nicaragua

18 February 2014

How my visit to Chichigalpa forever changed me

Nicaragua stole a piece of my heart from my very first visit a few years ago. Back then I was doing an internship at UNDP which gave me the opportunity to go beyond the typical tourist attractions. Those experiences changed my life. As the author Javier Reverte says: “there is no big trip if what happens along the way does not transform you”.  Without a doubt, my trip to Nicaragua transformed me.

This January I realized my dream of returning to Nicaragua and the people of this country surprised me once more. A couple of weeks ago I visited the communities of La Candelaria and El Chorizo in Chichigalpa. Both communities rely on sugarcane production and harvesting for their livelihoods. After working with Fairfood International on its sugarcane project for almost a year, I considered myself well informed on the current situation in the sector. Still, sharing a day with the people of those communities left me with unforgettable memories, strong feelings and a bittersweet outlook.

Family stories

In Chichigalpa, disease and death are heavily present. They are part of daily conversations and loom over every family. A rising epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown origin (CKDu) is increasingly affecting sugarcane workers throughout Central America. Chinandega, where Chichigalpa is located, is one of the most heavily affected regions.

I was guided through the communities by Carmen, the president of a local organisation called ANAIRC that aims to help those affected by the disease. It has also touched her personally: her father, husband and brother have died of CKDu. She said to me “we used to be happy, now everything is death and pain”. She walked me through streets covered in mud and lined with basic homes made of tin and timber. Here and there we stopped to visit families and individuals she knew. Everyone had a story to share and all the families I visited had a family member affected by the disease. Some were as young as 20 years old. Some have suffered from CKDu as long as 10 years. “In is very hot in the fields, the working hours are long and require heavy physical effort” a 50 year old man told me.

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He, at least, was luckier than another 39 year old man I visited. Lying in his hammock, he was suffering intensely. He could barely speak and had to make an incredible effort to explain me how bad he was feeling and how necessary it is for the world to see this community’s pain. I heard the heartbreaking news that he had died 2 days after my visit.

Media attention and need for urgent action

Shortly after my visit, Chichigalpa was in national and international newspapers.  A peaceful demonstration of former sugarcane workers affected by CKDu, who were claiming their rights for better health assistance to fight the lethal disease, ended with tragic consequences. Following forceful police intervention, one man died and one teenager was severely injured and hospitalized. Since then, workers continue to plead for attention and solutions to the epidemic with very little progress.

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A few recent events, however, give us reason to hope. Although the causes of the disease remain unknown, there is scientific consensus that repeated episodes of heat stress and dehydration during heavy work in hot climates contribute to and exarcebate the disease. The World Health Organization finally declared CKDu a serious public health problem and has requested that effected country governments dedicate efforts and resources to investigating and addressing the underlying environmental and occupational conditions which are believed to be factors in the development of the disease.

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The situation is grave and urgent action is needed by all the parties involved. Fairfood concentrates its efforts on speaking to and influencing companies which produce and source sugar to address this serious issue. Consumers have an indispensable role to play in supporting Fairfood’s work by letting companies know that they don’t want to buy products produced in a way which endanger the lives of workers. Together we can change the industry and change the lives of those working in it.

For more information on how you can get involved and help the people of Chinandega, like us on Facebook and follow-us on Twitter.

This was a guest post by Lisa Juanola, a Project Assistant with Fairfood International who is currently living in Nicaragua. Lisa has worked on Fairfood’s sugarcane project, focused on improving labor conditions in the sugarcane industry.

Photos: Paolo Proserpio