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Sugar Cane Workers and Chronic Kidney Failure
January 30, 2014 12:19 PM   Subscribe

In El Salvador and Nicaragua, Chronic Kidney Failure accounts for more deaths than HIV, diabetes, and leukemia combined. In affected communities, 69% of sugar cane workers are affected. "CKDu" is the second leading cause of death in El Salvador among men, and between 20 and 25 thousand men have died in the last 8 years of the disease. NYT Photos.
posted by thisisdrew (21 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is Sugarcane Solidaridad (the group in the second link) actually a front group for sugar? Because I find it suspect that while the other links suggest the possibility of a chemical or pollution-related cause (as evidenced by the fact that even adolescents in the area are showing early signs of kidney disease before they've begun work in the field), Sugarcane Solidaridad says:

However, our research to date suggests that if workers are hydrated, provided breaks in the shade, and avoid heavily sugared beverages while dehydrated, they will be protected from the disease!

In other words, it sounds like the subtext is, "It's not our fertilizer or pesticides killing you! You just need to drink more water!"

I hope that's not the case, but I'm suspicious.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:37 PM on January 30 [9 favorites]


However, our research to date suggests that if workers are hydrated, provided breaks in the shade, and avoid heavily sugared beverages while dehydrated, they will be protected from the disease!

In other words, it sounds like the subtext is, "It's not our fertilizer or pesticides killing you! You just need to drink more water!"


No one seems sure what is causing this appalling epidemic, but there are plenty of non-sugar-biz related scientists who are proposing the hydration theory. And you can bet your bottom dollar no one in the sugar-industry would be behind a campaign pushing to give workers "breaks in the shade" and regular hydration.
posted by yoink at 12:43 PM on January 30 [6 favorites]


TL;DR: preliminary evidence suggests that a combination of dehydration, exposure to high levels of industrial fertilizers and pesticides, and sucking on sugarcane to combat dehydration might be causing high levels of kidney disease.

My question:
Even if it turns out another factor is the main cause, how hard would it be to have a water cart out in the fields following along with guys? Couldn't hurt right? Does this circle back to problems with access to clean water?
posted by Wretch729 at 12:43 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


The CKDu link suggests that neither protection from toxins nor sufficient rehydration would be effective--simply working that hard and sweating that much is harmful.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:47 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Hmm, MrMoonPie I interpreted that link's infographic using "work conditions" to refer to the toxin exposure, not the physical exertion, but I can see how it could be read to mean that even discounting the toxin exposure you can't hydrate fast enough to cope with that level of physical exertion. Any nephrologists in the house to comment?
posted by Wretch729 at 12:57 PM on January 30


People are sucking on sugarcane because it allows them to stay standing when logically (nutritionally) they ought to be falling down, there are today literal wage-slaves (not like the "office worker" making $50 000 kind), and the big sugar cartels have situated themselves as the only suppliers of resources (foods) in many of the remote areas they have kept occupied since legalized slavery was the practice. Sadly much of the attention towards "dangers of sugar" focus on "obesity", and "sugar induced disease", rather than the disease that is the sugar production industry.

This special (Big Sugar, by Brian McKenna [clearer copy]) on the sugar cartels, which aired on CBC should be required viewing on the topic of why people might possibly be dying working for the sugar barons.
Going undercover, Big Sugar witnesses the appalling working conditions on plantations in the Dominican Republic, where Haitian cane cutters live like slaves. Workers who live on Central Romano, a Fanjul-owned plantation, go hungry while working 12-hour days to earn $2 (US). In a dramatic confrontation, Jose Pepe Fanjul is taken to task about his company's unethical labour practices in the Dominican Republic.
The earliest protests against the sugar planters were spearheaded in 1785 by Thomas Clarkson, a Cambridge University student who mobilized the Quakers to end slavery in the British Empire. Clarkson and his pioneering human rights activists invented lobbying techniques that are commonplace today: political posters, logos, petitions and boycotts.
If these companies can suck out more of the tiny pay than they already can from workers ('earning' back nearly 100% of the pay that workers get)... they will. Don't expect water carts (and as noted in that info-graphic, water carts would do little, as bodies of people in such extreme conditions could likely not even absorb the water).

'Working conditions' includes choosing between food to keep their children alive, and using sugarcane to "keep working", working conditions are a myriad of factors; the petrochemical products for industrial agriculture are one facet.
posted by infinite intimation at 1:12 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]


It is the sugar and the environmental pollution that is killing the workers
posted by Renoroc at 1:24 PM on January 30


The biggest change was in the past decade when people actually started to be payed in money, rather than with company town vouchers (which were usable for such things as "their own machetes", and "sharpening their machetes". There are horse-bound "guards" on most fields. The violence of the sugar industry is quite overt to this day. Wages are carefully calculated to leave people with nothing, after barely survivable amounts of nutritional intake.
A text report that talks about several of the same issues shown in moving images by the CBC, because watching takes a long time.

It is also the desperation created by the industry, the tiny wages, the created isolation of company towns, malnutrition, the violence against those who dare to talk of higher wages, it is a toxic environment in more ways than one.
posted by infinite intimation at 1:30 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


According to the La Isla Foundation, there's also a lot of this...syndrome, I guess you'd call it...in the vicinity of India. I wonder if tropical climate has anything to do with it, and even more, I wonder what kind of farm workers in particular are coming down with it in southeast Asia. I'm guessing it's not sugar, but it's got me curious.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:33 PM on January 30


The biggest change was in the past decade when people actually started to be payed in money, rather than with company town vouchers (which were usable for such things as "their own machetes", and "sharpening their machetes").

Oh, capitalism! I love you so much!
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:34 PM on January 30


Upon further cursory investigation via Google, apparently the other major hotbed of this disease is Sri Lankan paddy farmers, which seems to point away from sugar itself (farming it and drinking the raw cane juice) as the determining factor. Arsenic from pesticides combining with higher-than-normal mineral and fluoride content in drinking and cooking water (plus boiling crummy water in crummy aluminum pans) seems to be a popular theory, and research is ongoing. Higher than normal cadmium levels in the water is also a theory, but it looks like recent WHO analysis didn't find high cadmium levels in patients after all.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:44 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


I'd be more inclined to bank on severe exhaustion / dehydration. Given my look into extreme weight cutting in sports like MMA and wrestling, I've come to realise that the risks associated with dehydration — combined with extreme exhaustion — are rarely given the attention they deserve. Even when there are corpses involved.
posted by Dark Messiah at 1:55 PM on January 30


> It is the sugar and the environmental pollution that is killing the workers

Actually, we don't know what is killing the workers - unless you have some inside information that we don't?

It's very likely one or more of:
* pollution
* dehydration
* sugar consumption
but it's very hard to think of a solution until you know what the problem actually is.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:00 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


"Oh, capitalism! I love you so much!"

Don't take away their right to contract for meagre amounts of company scrip! You just hate job creators!
posted by klangklangston at 3:28 PM on January 30 [6 favorites]


The problem is working people to death, without any concern at all, except for running out of workers.

Solution:

No chemical toxins in that environment.

Reasonable hours and pay

Breaks, shade houses, clean hydration

Education to enable workers to understand they need jobs and rights
posted by Oyéah at 4:04 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Oh, capitalism! I love you so much!

Here's irony.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:45 PM on January 30


but it's very hard to think of a solution until you know what the problem actually is.

I am looking at it in this frame; it's very hard (near 100% impossible) to prove that "that" cigarette caused a cancer.
But not that Cigarettes Cause Cancer.

It is likewise difficult to prove "that" (one) part of exploitative, unregulated, unfettered capitalism, which has come to realize there are no consequences to seeing human beings as expendable resources to be used until they are unceremoniously disposed of *caused* Chronic Kidney Failure of unknown aetiology...

It's very likely one or more of:
* pollution
* dehydration
* sugar consumption


It is a not unreasonable statement to say no-one dying of CKF-unknown aetiology, chose pollution to be dumped. No one thus dying is pouring out otherwise full bottles of Aqua-fina, no one is choosing to skip otherwise mandated shade-breaks and lunch so they can just get that extra square metre harvested. And these workers don't just have a bit of a 'sweet-tooth', people aren't just hooked on drinking sodas or something (and like others I do doubt it is simply 'the sugars', as the amount of sugar consumed is a drop in the bucket compared to the northern nations, according to that info-graphic, where is this in those states); the sugar *use* is like a cheap analogue to the over-worked truck-drivers gobbling of stim-pills, they aren't choosing to snack on such unhealthy things, they just know that if they don't do the work precisely as the bosses demand, they face threats ranging from 'mere' deportation, to violence on themselves, or more psychologically demoralizingly paralyzingly, their families.

I worry if we are so loyal to our biological sciences and medical arts that we need a medical authority to proclaim for us a "cause" before addressing the social, political and economic illnesses that are quite visible and evident as directly contributing factors, the diagnosis I'd suggest is that this is iatrogenic 'medically induced'. A pathway to health, and good life (or 'cure', for those who like cure culture terminology) are readily available, and easily implemented (the states, multi-national human-like-entities, and consumers buying their sugars are complicit). This tastes like medical negligence.

In a differential diagnosis we should dig at the various variables, and watch for changes in the health outcomes. Or we can continue to look helplessly at people streaming into the morgue, throw our hands up and say; "this is a mystery someone ought to solve".
posted by infinite intimation at 6:04 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


The problem is working people to death, without any concern at all, except for running out of workers.

The real problem is that they'll never run out of workers. The shanty towns and favelas of the world are full of the desperate who are willing to become neo-slaves because it is better than nothing.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 7:08 PM on January 30


"Education to enable workers to understand they need jobs and rights."
Unfortuneately the World Bank and IMF have a policy of labour deregulation.
These two organisations have baleout policies that ignore the economic needs of the
poorest eg. removing food subsidies, encourageing export of food when there are food shortages and labour market deregulation.
There is some good news Oxfam forced a backdown from Dole over ethical choice labels on bananas. Banana plantation workers had been subject to similar working conditions to the sugar workers includeing being made sterile by bactericide sprays.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 2:12 AM on January 31


In a recent FPP, there was a much debate about the value of organic versus conventional farming methods and that the product of each type of cultivation are probably equivalent.

My ending position was that I was glad to learn conventionally raised produce is probably as healthful as organically raised produce. However, I left unstated that there are add-on effects in the network (externalities) which mean that conventionally raised produce have other costs than unhealthful produce.

These externalities ramify in the land where such produce is cultivated, in the human communities involved in the production of industrial chemicals for use as pesticides and fertilizers, in the ecosystems from which such chemicals are extracted, etc. etc. and so forth.

So, in addition to being (only) as healthful as conventionally raised produce, organically raised produce is much less likely to have unaccounted external costs to their production than conventionally raised produce.

In certain MetaFilter discussions the defenders of corporate agribusiness position themselves as informed experts on the science of farming while those who hew to principles of environmental conservatism are viewed as anti-science/superstitious/emotionally-motivated know-nothings?
posted by mistersquid at 7:58 AM on January 31


Sorry, I got so caught up in my indignity in a somewhat-related framing of the effects of agriculture, I did not address the FPP at hand.

For my part, I would be overjoyed if there were strong market and governmental incentives to promote the production of food according to principles of environmental conservatism that discouraged the use of industrially-produced chemicals as fertilizers and pesticides and which promoted environmentally sustainable (more sustainable) methods of agriculture.

My thoughts and prayers go toward the afflicted and their loved ones in these El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan communities.
posted by mistersquid at 8:04 AM on January 31


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