Before the 19th century, sugarcane was a luxury product for the rich, harvested by poor slaves working in the tropical fields in Central America. Even though you do not hear so much now about sugarcane and slavery in its traditional sense, the differences between the people on the consuming and the producing end are stark. In terms of consumption, sugar is often mentioned in relation to diseases such as addiction and obesity. With regard to production, sugarcane is increasingly linked to an epidemic that is affecting poor workers: Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional causes (CKDnT).
The disease has so far been established in most sugarcane producing countries in Central America and new cases are constantly emerging. It is characterised by an increasing failure of kidney functions, ultimately resulting in the death of the patient if left untreated. The progression of the disease can be slowed down with medicine and dialysis. Currently, only a transplant can save a patient suffering from CKDnT. However, few sugarcane workers can afford dialysis or medicine, let alone a transplant.
Three of the most likely causes of CKDnT are dehydration, heat stress and exposure to agrochemicals. The sugarcane industry in Central America is beset by poor working conditions, such as long working days and heavy physical work with little access to water and shade, which most likely contribute to the onset of the disease.
In general, sugarcane workers find themselves in a vulnerable situation and also receive insufficient wages for excessive hours worked.
In the last decade, the emergence of Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional Causes (CKDnT) has killed thousands of people throughout Central America.
The prevalence of Chronic Kidney Disease has risen considerably in the past years. While it was the 19th leading cause of death in Central America in 1990, it was deemed to be the 7th leading cause of death in 2010. Chronic Kidney Disease is among the top 10 causes of death in all sugarcane producing regions (except for Honduras, as here it is not monitored), and is even the second leading cause of death in El Salvador. We can assume that many of these casualties are in fact associated with this rare form of Chronic Kidney Disease: CKDnT.
For more details about the fatal Chronic Kidney Disease epidemic affecting Central American workers click here
Despite the urgent issues, industry players remain deaf. Sugar and other sugar products like molasses, alcohol or sucrose are found in many of the everyday products that fill our supermarkets and are sold by big industry players. However, these industry players are not implementing policies and practices strict enough to prevent and remedy the grave issues affecting the workers. Ensuring safe and healthy working conditions is our main priority.
Fairfood believes that this situation has to stop and is engaging with sugarcane producers (so-called ingenios), major companies sourcing sugarcane products and other sugarcane-based value added products – like rum –, as well as government officials in Europe and Central America to determine how to best address the above-mentioned issues and implement solutions. We also collaborate with other NGOs (La Isla Foundation) research institutions (SALTRA and ICAES) and health organisations (PAHO) in order to identify best practices to create positive change in the industry.