What Our Sugar & Ethanol Habits Are Doing to Central American Workers

sugarcane workers photo
CC BY 1.0. Cícero R. C. Omena

Cícero R. C. Omena/CC BY 1.0

There's an epidemic of kidney failure in Central America afflicting men who work the sugarcane fields that supply the U.S. with sugar, to feed both our sweet tooth and demand for ethanol.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) takes an important and in-depth look at how chronic kidney disease (CKD) is affecting manual laborers in six countries along Central America’s Pacific coast.

The Deadly Problem
The ICIJ analysis of World Health Organization data shows that kidney failure killed more than 2,800 men in Central America every year between 2005 and 2009. More men are now dying in Nicaragua and El Salvador from CKD than from HIV/AIDS, diabetes and leukemia combined.

Researchers are still studying what's driving the explosive rates of this disease, but signs are pointing to the conditions that these workers face on a daily basis. From ICIJ:

Some scientists suspect that exposure to an unknown toxin, potentially on the job, may trigger onset of the disease. Researchers agree that dehydration and heat stress from strenuous labor are likely contributing factors — and they may even be causing the illness. Laborers, typically paid not by the hour or day but based on the amount they harvest, often work to the point of severe dehydration or collapse, potentially harming their kidneys with each shift.

The story goes into more detail about the working conditions—average temperatures of 96 degrees, for example, which in the U.S. would mean workers are required by OSHA to rest for 45 minutes for every 15 minutes of work.

Read the story in full for a closer look at individuals who have been affected by the kidney disease.

U.S. Involvement
ICIJ also explains the role that the U.S., which it says imported more than 330,000 metric tons of sugar from Central America this year alone—that's 23 percent of raw sugar imports—and the World Bank have played in developing the region's sugarcane industry:

Beyond the kitchen table, the U.S. government has heavily promoted the sugar industry — in the areas affected by the epidemic — as a source of biofuel from ethanol. The U.S. funded conferences to promote biofuels in both Nicaragua and El Salvador as late as 2008, according to embassy cables released by WikiLeaks. Its ambassadors met repeatedly with the leaders of both nations’ sugar industries, and fretted that failure to develop ethanol production would drive these nations toward dependence on oil imports from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela...
[In 2008, then-Ambassador Paul Trivelli] wrote that the State Department had designated Nicaragua as a “high-priority country” for biofuels. The embassy in El Salvador, Nicaragua’s northern neighbor, also forcefully promoted ethanol: ambassadors met with sugar industry leaders, shared concerns with the State Department about the political effects of oil imports from Venezuela, and sponsored a conference to promote biofuels.
The World Bank, meanwhile, has provided more than $100 million in loans to promote biofuel production at two heavily affected plantations, which it approved without formal consideration of kidney disease. After workers complained, the Bank granted $1 million to sponsor the ongoing Boston University study.

All of this support for the sugarcane industry has only boosted the number of workers sent into the fields; and once a company finds out a worker is sick, it will often prohibit him from further employment—in theory to prevent exacerbating his poor health, but ICIJ reports, "dismissal also cuts off workers from care at company hospitals, and often from company pensions."

And efforts that have been undertaken to address the problem have faced roadblocks. Again from ICIJ:

At a United Nations summit of health ministers this February in Mexico City, El Salvador Health Minister Maria Isabel Rodriguez declared that chronic kidney disease was “wasting away our populations” across Central America. She called on fellow health ministers to include CKD among the top chronic illnesses in the Americas, a step that could attract U.N. funding for studies.
Rodriguez’s proposal ran into strong opposition from the summit’s most powerful participant: the United States.