Sugarcane conditions kill: The deadly epidemic confectioners and soft drink makers ‘can’t walk away from’

By Oliver Nieburg

- Last updated on GMT

'It requires as much energy as running a half marathon everyday for six days a week' - Sugarcane cutters of Central America face deadly epidemic, says Solidaridad. Photo credit: Ed Kashi
'It requires as much energy as running a half marathon everyday for six days a week' - Sugarcane cutters of Central America face deadly epidemic, says Solidaridad. Photo credit: Ed Kashi

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Perilous working conditions for sugarcane growers in Central America have claimed around 20,000 lives in the past decade and supply chain advisor Solidaridad says the food and drink industry can no longer ignore the epidemic.

Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional causes (CKDnT) killed at least 20,000 in Central America in the last ten years. An international scientific consortium says the dead have largely been lowly-paid sugarcane cutters who were exposed to hot temperatures and hard manual labor.

Time to take a position?

Sven Sielhorst, international programme coordinator of sugarcane at Solidaridad, told ConfectioneryNews that major players like Mondelēz, Mars, Hershey, Nestlé, Pepsico and Coca Cola were big users of sugarcane from Nicaragua, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador and should dedicate resources and demand more from their suppliers to improve working conditions.

 “It’s time for them to start taking a position on it. I find it a bit disappointing that none of the big CPG companies have so far,” ​he said.

The food and beverage industry uses up to 90% Central American sugarcane with other users coming from the energy and bioplastics sectors, Solidaridad estimates.

“I don’t see a lot of proactive behavior,”​ said Sielhorst. “It’s not something they can walk away from.”

Eighty-year old coffin maker Napoleon Velasquez says he has been busy as kidney disease among the sugarcane workers claims a life almost daily. Photo Credit: Ed Kashi

Enact supplier guidelines, says Solidaridad

According to sugarcane specialist, many companies argue they only account for a small percentage of the sugarcane supply, but he said even a small percentage makes them a big player because the market is so fragmented – unlike in cocoa where there are clear market leaders.

fatal disease
Kidney disease has become fatal in the last decade as temperatures rise and manual workers compete with machines. Photo Credit: Ed Kashi

He argued the food and drink industry needed to acknowledged the disease was due to labor conditions, dedicate resources and implement more exacting guidelines for suppliers.

Solidaridad and La Isla Foundation initiated research that was conducted by an international scientific consortium. It found climate change and mono-cropping had made kidney disease a graver problem.

“It turned from being a disease that affected people’s lives but didn’t kill them to being a fatal disease,” ​said Sielhorst.

The Solidaridad coordinator said a 1-1.5°C rise in temperature over the last decade combined with increased competition from mechanical systems at larger plantations had exacerbated deaths from kidney disease.

‘One of the toughest jobs in the world’

He said workers woke at 4.30am to laboriously cut at sugarcane with knives in 30°C heat for six days a week, seldom taking water breaks for fear of reduced productivity.

“It requires as much energy as running a half marathon everyday for six days a week. It’s one of the toughest jobs in the world,”​ Sielhorst said. “People are paid at a piecemeal rate,”​ he added.

The 200,000-300,000 sugarcane cutters in Central America earn an average of $8-10 a day and work six-day weeks, leading to a income of $200-$250 a month, according to Solidaridad. The harvest is once a year between October and March.

sugarcane worker ed kashi
Nicaraguan Walter Arsenio Rivera, 29, is a cane worker who suffers from CKDu. Photo taken on Jan. 9, 2013 by Ed Kashi

Sugarcane is grown in around 90 countries in the world and Central America only accounts for around 9% of global production. Chronic kidney disease is also present in other growing areas but Sielhorst said dedicated cane cutters had made the problem more severe in Central America.

Guatamala is the biggest producer in the region and the number four exporter in the world.

Confectioners fighting two fronts

cocoa bag_istock

The cocoa and chocolate industry is also faced with labor issues from the West African cocoa sector where many farmers earn under $1 a day and around 2 million children work in hazardous conditions. “It’s unfortunate there’s so many issues in the supply chains, but it’s not a reason to concentrate on just one,” said Solidaridad’s Sven Sielhorst, adding the sugarcane sector may be easier to tackle than the unorganized cocoa sector.

Disease contained in a decade with support

sugarcane project
La Isla Foundation, Solidaridad and other partners have developed a water, rest and shade program that includes new cutting techniques to alleviate the problem. It resulted in 40% better productivity and safer working consitions, they say. Photo Credit: Ed Kashi

Sielhorst said that the food and drink manufacturers could prevent people dying en masse from chronic kidney disease much more quickly than they think.

“It’s realistic that within a decade, the problem is under control,”​ he said, adding that Solidaridad was still in the early phases of creating awareness.

Research partners in the consortium from institutes like the US Army Environmental Research Institute, the US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration and universities will publish findings in several scientific journal articles later this year.

[Photos from this article are attributed to American photographer Ed Kashi, who will open photo exhibition ‘Sugarcane, Fuel for Change’ that will be on view at De Melkweg in Amsterdam from 29 August till 4 October.]

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1 comment

Stop Generalizing !!!

Posted by Juan Francisco Mollinedo,

In your Headline you say Central America and the region is 7 countries. Is like saying that All Arabs are terrorists. Stop doing that !!!

Other countries in THAT region are making huge efforts to have the best practices possible, like Guatemala.

Shame on you.

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