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Deadly wages

International | Are Nicaragua's sugar cane workers, who pick sugar that makes its way to the United States, being poisoned by their employer?

Issue: "Marx isn't dead," July 19, 2003

SEFERINO CARBONERO Canales slips off his sandals before climbing a towering tree. High in the canopy of the Nicaraguan jungle Mr. Canales shakes loose a long, four-pound green iguana that plunges to the jungle floor. Unlike the black iguana, it will not bite. Manuel Castro waits below, catches the iguana, bites its gnarled hide loose from behind one claw of each foot, and uses the bared, white tendons to tie front and back feet together. Tonight they and their friends from the impoverished village of Bethel will have iguana stew for supper.

Friends say Mr. Canales loves the iguana chase, but in reality it's a hunt born of necessity. He is a dead man climbing.

Mr. Canales, Mr. Castro, and over 1,500 others lost their jobs at a nearby sugar plantation when their employers discovered that the men suffered from a fatal kidney disease. The men all say their illness is the result of pesticide poisoning, but the powerful conglomerate that runs the operation, Nicaragua Sugar Estates Ltd., has refused to acknowledge the hazard or to care for the men and their families. Without full-time employment, the men lose access to Nicaragua's limited social safety net. Worse, most know they will die of the ailment eventually and leave their families further impoverished. Local officials say perhaps 380 men have already died of the poisoning.

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"We are poor. Emotionally we feel bad. But our relation with God is good," Enrique Acevedo told WORLD. In addition to Mr. Acevedo, Mr. Castro, and Mr. Canales, 35 men just from tiny Bethel (pronounced "ba TELL") show signs of what health experts call Terminal Chronic Renal Insufficiency. Semiannual checkups required by Ingenio San Antonio, the Nicaragua Sugar Estates plantation where they work, revealed elevated levels of creatine in their blood, indicating irreversible kidney failure. The men say Ingenio San Antonio fired them before creatine reached a level that would require the employer to certify them for state compensation.

Health experts have conducted few studies of Nicaragua's sugar cane workers, but those available indicate that the men have been subjected to inhalation and ingestion of cadmium, a common pesticide ingredient. Similar chemical preparations are used in the United States but their application is heavily regulated. At Ingenio San Antonio, workers say, aerial sprayers frequently treated the fields while workers were in them.

The first cases of pesticide-induced kidney failure appeared 15 years ago, but the numbers spiked recently with an increase in pesticide variety and volume. Of the sick men who were let go, some are asked back to work as contract laborers. That means they don't qualify for pension plans or medical care.

Helps International, a U.S. mission group that operates a project called Vision Nicaragua, stepped in to relieve Bethel families where the state and their employer dropped off. Helps is providing $1,500 a month in medicine to 130 families in the town. The group is also retraining workers through microenterprise ventures in Bethel, giving long-term medical care, and providing housing aid, according to Vision Nicaragua director Val Mydske.

Since the aid began, renal-failure-related deaths have dropped-only three deaths reported in Bethel compared to much higher numbers in other nearby towns. Last August a company doctor provided Mrs. Mydske 700 names of dismissed workers, suggesting that she confirm the numbers with illnesses and promising financial aid for treatment at a government health clinic for confirmed cases. Mrs. Mydske told WORLD the company never followed through on its pledge.

Bethel's families also receive church support. Most Bethel residents belong to Nicaragua's Assemblies of God. The denomination founded their village in a former rice field after Hurricane Mitch devastated their San Antonio company housing in 1998. So far, legal assistance from the denomination has been unsuccessful at winning a settlement-or attention-for their plight.

Carlos Pellas, who owns Nicaragua Sugar Estates Ltd., is known as Nicaragua's richest man and perhaps its most powerful. He owns the country's rum industry, breweries, Ford dealerships, and an electric company, and he has banking interests. Ingenio San Antonio, just one part of the empire, ships its raw sugar up to U.S. brokers and distributors on the West Coast.

Some of Bethel's ailing men have made trips to Managua, the capital, seeking political redress for Mr. Pellas's neglect. But Mr. Pellas has refused to comply with legislation to compensate sick workers. Last month he also defied a subpoena to appear before a National Assembly committee to discuss poisoning on his sugar estates.

Nicaragua Sugar Estates did provide WORLD an official printed statement titled, "The Truth about Chronic Renal Insufficiency." It says the disease is "multicausal" and claims that lab tests demonstrate that there are no chemicals used at Ingenio San Antonio that "can be considered dangerous to human health." It also calls attempts to manipulate public opinion against the company unpatriotic. A company spokesman declined to speak with WORLD on the record.

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