• January 29, 2015

Instants: The Real Cost of Sugar

In our series Instants, the Proof staff brings you a snapshot of recent dispatches from the @natgeo Instagram feed. Follow us to experience more from National Geographic on Instagram.

What first began as an assignment for photographer Ed Kashi for La Isla Foundation morphed into a personal project and mission to raise awareness about a fatal, and likely preventable, disease in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Affecting over 20,000 mostly male lives in Central America, chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu) is considered an epidemic and spreads among sugarcane workers who endure long hours in hot fields. It’s likely the result of dehydration, heat, and fatigue and has turned into a blame game between the governments and the community—a game that takes a very measurable toll on the workers and their families.

“As I documented another wake and funeral for a cane worker too young to die (35), I looked into the tear-filled eyes of his 15-year-old daughter and then at all the young girls and women and thought about the impact on a community where most of the men get sick and die,” Kashi said after his most recent visit.

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This image was taken adjacent to the San Antonio Sugar Mill cane fields and is where cane worker families live in destitute conditions in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua.

Kashi released a short documentary on the disease, its causes, and the impact it has both on the workers and their loved ones. On his most recent return visit to Nicaragua, Kashi found that not much had changed. “People are still dying nearly every day. We are not aware of improved worker conditions, and instead of adequate water they are receiving sugar-infused liquid hydration packets, which are very detrimental,” he said.

A new water tank is part of an initiative by La Isla and Solidaridad to bring clean water to 500 residents in the cane-growing communities of Chichigalpa, Nicaragua.

During Kashi’s visit to El Salvador, conditions at one private sugar mill were markedly better due to an investment which supplied increased water access, shade and mandatory breaks.

“I am personally frustrated, perplexed, and distraught by what I have witnessed,” he said. “My passion and commitment to being a part of positive change while continuing the drumbeat of awareness has only grown as I watch another child left fatherless and another family confronting an illness that can be avoided.”

Here we share some Instagram photos from Nicaragua and El Salvador from Kashi’s most recent visit and watch his film, Undercane, on National Geographic News.

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Reflections during a funeral procession in Nicaragua

A photo posted by National Geographic (@natgeo) on

This photo is a diptych. At 5 a.m., cane workers muster to be taken out to the cane fields. The day after we filmed this, the company changed location deeper into the company property so media couldn’t film.

A young boy rides his bike past the cane fields and the San Cristobal volcano in the La Isla community of Chichigalpa, Nicaragua.

Don Julio Lopez, a 35-year-old former sugarcane worker with chronic kidney disease, died today. He leaves behind a 12-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. Seventy percent of male sugarcane workers in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua are infected by chronic kidney disease and it’s terminal, meaning they are all dying early from this epidemic. The average age of death for sugarcane workers in this region is 48. Among the causes is the increased heat from climate change.

Follow Ed Kashi on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 12 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Julie
    February 10, 2015

    So, so sad and some people who are more fortunate have no idea that such working conditions still exist for us humans.

  2. Terese Churchill
    February 4, 2015

    Another group of agricultural workers – rice I think – in Sri Lanka are also plagued with an unknown kidney disease. I don’t have the science at hand but some researchers are thinking that glycoside based herbicides and other pesticides are leaching into water systems somehow mobilizing heavy metals like cadmium, and making those metals biologically available. Cadmium is a know kidney toxin. Just saying, might that be a factor here?

  3. Mercedes
    February 2, 2015

    I am very close to many of the families in this comminity and cringe everytime I hear of another young man being employed by the Ingenio. We were here several years before La Isla foundation began their work. We were very frustrated and had our hands tied because the people were so fearful for their families and work. I appreciate all La Isla foundation has accomplished however a bit frustrated that they appear to have arrived at a conclusion that seems sooo obsurd-dehydration. I ask that you Please list all the studies/research and their sources. There are many studies but not many are valid especially when this involves goverment, wealth and power. lets consider the commonalities of the plantations in this country and in El Salvador. Such as owners, agropesticides and and agropesticide suppliers, and environmental sources. We are led to believe that the Nicaraguan people are so ignorant, as compared to all the other countries that grow sugar, that they dont have the common sense to hydrate themselves. I am sure they worked and practiced very similar to their fathers and grandfathers. What is different are the “chemical” and huge machinery that churns up the cane as these young men and women walk behind ingesting the fine particles of pesticde infused dust. Yes It is time to take this to a governement level. The implications of this epidemic are outragious in its effect not only on family but an already impoverish economy. There is already one entire community La Isla of nothing but widows.

  4. Shukla Acharjee
    January 31, 2015

    Someone just talk to the farm owner that his small initiative to change the time schedule of the workers could save their lives.

  5. Joyce
    January 31, 2015

    So sad abused tenants because of lack of water, abused workers there’s human rights. So so sad..

  6. Don Van
    January 31, 2015

    I am concerned Ed. I am closer to the situation than you realize. Your intro is a family I am closely involved with and stepped up to help provide the widow with some work so the family did not starve, and the son in the video, I stepped up to help him finish school. I have also studied the disease for over 5 years. It is dreadful and heart tugging, but there is so much more to the story than you documented.

  7. Patty Smith
    January 30, 2015

    I had no idea! This is horrible, inhumane, and so easily fixed if the growers would just treat these people as humans with rights!

  8. mukda
    January 30, 2015

    This is the s*** and greedy world that we live in. SO sad.

  9. javier mejia
    January 30, 2015

    vivo en el Salvador, y es cierto de que mucha gente esta muriendo de insufiencia renal cronica, y hay un lugar en san luis talpa que es hasta increible la mortandad de personas con esta enfermedad, pero se debe a los quimicos usados para las plagas, esto a desbastado a mantos acuiferos quebradas rios y fuentes de agua que ocupan los pobladores y no en gran parte por los trabajos en los cañaverales sino en la contaminación de quimicos ocupados y que muy poco se hace por evitarlos.

  10. Eve Broadis
    January 30, 2015

    under the Fair Trade WFTO system this would not happen. I am the only female sugar importer trying to change the way workers are treated but I cannot compete with Tate & Lyke! It’s a male dominated industry – that is one of the problems! We work with a great mill in Malawi who follow Fair Trade principles and it is so sad that the manufacturing industry will not support us to do more – by ploughing all profit back into griwing Fair Trade systems.

  11. For the Joy of Living
    January 29, 2015

    My thesis looks to enlighten the masses of the complexity in our ideas of self-cultivating health and well-being, and how our choices to pursue health causes harm to our fellow mates across the globe. This is a heart-breaking, but prime example of how we need to carefully, but as thoroughly as we can, discern where our food is coming from and who we are affecting. My own conscience is troubled by what I have read, and I pray for the lives I never see, but affect every day.

  12. Nicola
    January 29, 2015

    Leptospirosis also known as field fever may be something worth looking at as a possible cause for this and if caught early enouh, is treatable

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