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Putting Faces on the Mysterious Disease Killing Nicaraguan Sugar Cane Workers

Photo by Ed Kashi, used with permission.

Photo by Ed Kashi. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

An epidemic of fatal Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) is killing sugar cane workers at alarming rates in Nicaragua, and photojournalist Ed Kashi has set out to document their stories to “draw attention and resources that could help save lives.”

Kashi explains in his Indie Voices funding campaign:

We’re infatuated with sugar. But where does our beloved sweetener come from? and who tended the crops? More importantly, how does sugar affect them?

In Nicaragua, which exports 40% of its sugar to America, the average life span of men who harvest sugar cane is 49 years. At the root of these early deaths is an epidemic of fatal Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu). In the town Chichigalpa, often called the “Island of Widows,” 1-in-3 men, mostly cane workers, are in end-stage renal failure. This fatal disease is not only a public health crisis, but also a social injustice. The cause of this epidemic is unknown, which is why we are launching this documentary project.

Photo by Ed Kashi. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Photo by Ed Kashi. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The New York Times recently featured Kashi's photographs in their blog LENS. In a post about the project, David Gonzalez writes:

What he encountered when he arrived in Nicaragua was troubling: There were daily funerals and increasing evidence that younger workers were falling ill. A former Sandinista commander who had spent the last 20 years in the cane fields died a month after Mr. Kashi photographed him. Mr. Kashi also learned how the kidney condition was killing workers in parts of India and Sri Lanka, where large-scale mechanization had yet to be introduced.

Gonzalez concludes by quoting Kashi about his goal for this project:

“How do we use visual storytelling to not only tell the tough stories but also offer some amount of light?” he said. “That’s why in my practice my goal now is to humanize and maintain the dignity of my subjects and open people’s eyes so they will at least learn, and maybe also take action.”

Photo by Ed Kashi. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Photo by Ed Kashi. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Kashi wants to return to Nicaragua to capture more videos and photographs in order to “generate education, support, and community awareness.”

Ultimately this material could be utilized in local information and outreach programs to address problems confronting the workers and their families, to stimulate conversation within Nicaragua, to facilitate the development of community-lead solutions, and to expand the network of people willing to take a stand.

Worldwide print and digital media outlets would draw on the work to raise awareness of this growing health issue in an industry whose product is consumed by nearly everyone on earth: sugar. Furthermore, I will make my work (images and film) available to La Isla Foundation, and any other advocates working to raise awareness of the issue, support affected families and eliminate this growing work place hazard.

You can see more of Kashi's photographs and contribute to his campaign for the documentary project “The Island of Widows” on Indie Voices. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

To learn more about this disease, visit this video post where we feature the work of another photojournalist, Esteban Félix from the Associated Press, who received the Gabriel García Marquez Prize for Journalism [es] for documenting this disease affecting Central American sugar cane workers.
  • HansSuter

    In almost a year and half nothing much has been achieved since this rather detailed report http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/14/kidney-disease-killing-sugar-cane-workers-central-america

    • Jason Glaser

      LIF and our research group have confirmed one of the principal drivers of the disease. write me if you’re interested in see the research to date. Further, there is current coordination with some more progressive companies but it is sensitive work and we have to tread lightly as they view this as a liability, which I don’t love, but we can get them to change their practices by showing the science. It’s tricky and longterm work. As far as governments doing what they need? I totally agree, very disappointing. I’ve been in the field for 6 years working on this and what these families go through is gruelling. It deserves to be a priority.

      • elahiem saxe-gothe

        progressive? as in, working with corrupt government?

  • Jason Glaser

    Slivia, Great article! it would be good to direct people to http://www.laislafoundation.org as well in your post as we can send people all the peer reviewed and published studies on the epidemic. We are also working directly with Ed on the project so no conflict there, we’re quite openly coordinating. Thanks so much for covering this, I just want to make sure people know where to get the reliable facts as there is a lot of special interest PR out there smearing the evidence. We’ll be happy to send them all the peer reviewed and published research to date from our group.

  • Pingback: Murder in the Mountains: Sugarcane Workers Continue to Fight for Workers’ Rights | Friends of Batahola Volunteers

  • natasha46

    AM HERE TO TESTIFY FOR THE GOOD DEEDS (DR. CAFI) DID FOR ME. I WAS A HIV PATIENT UNTIL I MET (DR .CAFI) WHO CURED MY DISEASE, I WAS BOTHERED, I DON’T WANT TO EAVE MY FAMILY BEHIND, I DON’T WANT TO DIE, THAT WAS MY THOUGHT DAY AND NIGHT, I WAS TOLD ABOUT HIM (DE. CAFI) BY A FRIEND OF MINE, HE GAVE ME HIM EMAIL ADDRESS, WHICH I DR.(CAFILOVETEMPLE@GMAIL.COM) I EMAIL HIM AND TOLD HIM MY PROBLEMATIC ,HE HELPED ME BY CASTING A DIRECT SPELL ON ME, HERE AM I TODAY FREE FROM THAT BONDAGE, THANK YOU DR. CAFI FOR OUR HELP

  • alabamasummer

    The journalist say there is a mystery disease? Is the melt down of 3 water cooled reactors at Fukushima a mystery? Is the fact these men have to physically work themselves to death a mystery. Why don’t you so called reporters find how these men injure there kidneys! Ask a GD kidney doctor what kind of forces the kidney experience as these men harvest the cane! These men are not robots but the work they do continually over stresses there body. These men literally are working themselves to death. Not because they are committing suicide. No they are working the job they can do. It is either work or dye and work and dye from the work. It is called a catch 22. There is no mystery, There is your ignorance of how hard work can be depending on what job that work is. The muscle and bone may be willing and able to take on the work, even the mind and the spirit . But the kidney and the blood is the weak link of this body called human. And there is no doubt the chemicals used in the fields are accelerating the death of these men’s kidneys, as the chemicals poison the blood. These men are like the dying bees, with all the worlds experts paid to protect the chemical companies, diverting the truth from exposing the corporate criminals. Just as AIDS is still ragging slaughtering more and more each year, there is a core corporate, military, industrial group of people guilty of the murder of each and every AIDS victim. Just as every murdered person from the Abombs over Japan and tested over USA and other places has actual people that murdered them. All unindicted, unidentified personally, many of them family’s now of old money, some of new fortunes garnered from this newest of industries stealth genocide of humanity, through abortion, radiation, GMO, famine, overwork, no health care, poverty, war, and issues like what these cane harvesters die from, are killed by. Perverted thing about these old money families, it not even there own family genetic is saved. These old money tax haven’s fall pray to mongrels of cockled families like Barry Soetoro, and many many others of all races. The illegal immigrant taking the place of the prodigy of this nations builders, even those of slaves. Yes a journalist even as they try there hand at harvesting cane, see the deaths of the cane workers, can not contemplate that a job can literally be capable of causing a man’s death simple by doing the job. So many men of labor have been worked to death, yet organ failure, is thought to be unrelated. Just as when the fall out from Fukushima kills by organ failure and cancer, the journalist fail to say it plainly. The work killed them, the radiation killed them, people simply wanting to live killed by the job or the poisons or both at same time. Watching a bunch of spoiled kids grown up to be Olympic athletes inoculate the public to the fact physical labor in the extreme does destroy the body faster then the body can repair it and often permanently because the body can not repair the damage done. The kidney has long been known as the weak link of the human organism, with infection, over work and poison capable of harming that organ beyond repair, and taking out part of it’s function till no function is left. I would suppose these cane workers have no access to dialysis a make shift reprieve from death for a person with dead or dying kidneys. Actually there is no mystery about kidney disease, there is only indifference to the fragility of that organ. It is similar to the indifference shown to men with less or undeveloped reproductive organs. Not wanting to tell the men they were in part castrated from the atomic fall out the DOD nuked there own nation with, so as to impress the world with our offensive power, never caring of the effect had on nuking the home land as if WWIII had already happened. We are pissed on by scientific elitist that are technically capable yet blind to there own power to harm us all simply by acting out on there technical ideas. Not a single Abomb or Hbomb is morally logically justified for fabrication, since the killing effect of just one detonation will cause the suffering and debilitation of all life that contacts it. Once constructed and detonated the effects are everlasting, ever devastating.

  • http://www.villadepaz-gazette.com/ dlmullan

    if chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides are used, i would suspect these toxins as the culprits to renal failure.

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