Better working conditions can stop deadly epidemic among sugarcane cutters

28 August 2015

New scientific research has improved the understanding of the causes of a deadly epidemic among sugarcane cutters in Mexico and Central America and provided ways to prevent Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional causes (CKDnT). The epidemic of CKDnT took the lives of at least 20,000 people in Central America during the last decade. La Isla Foundation and Solidaridad, who initiated the research by an international scientific consortium, now call upon companies and governments to stop this epidemic, and to invest in improved working conditions for sugarcane cutters.

CKDnT is a fatal disease and prevention the only solution

The preliminary results of the studies show that CKDnT is caused by a combination of repeated dehydration, heat exposure and physical stress. Sugarcane cutters are exposed to extreme conditions on a daily basis. Many become seriously ill before they reach 40 years of age; some even die in their 20s. Kidney dialysis is not accessible to many patients, nor does it help to cure the disease. It just extends life for a short time. The final stage of kidney disease under these conditions is fatal. This means the only way to stop CKDnT is to prevent it.

Better working conditions help prevent kidney damage

La Isla Foundation, Solidaridad and a broad range of international partners have developed an improvement programme based on the Water, Rest & Shade Program of the US Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OHSA). The programme also includes the introduction of new cutting techniques and changes to the way sugarcane is harvested. The pilot programme at the El Ángel mill in El Salvador proved that new work protocols were not only better for the health of the cane cutters, but also resulted in 40% higher labour productivity. Juan Wright, director and owner of El Ángel, comments: “We are doing this because it is the right thing to do. We hope the findings will transform the industry into a better industry.”

Sugarcane hidden ingredient in many consumer products

Consumers eat and use more sugarcane products than they realize. Around the world, sugarcane derived products are important ingredients for food and beverages, shampoo, paint, medicines, plastics, and gasoline – to name just a few. Sugarcane is the world’s biggest agricultural crop by volume: 17.5 billion tonnes per year (loaded on trucks, it would create a traffic jam 150 times the length of the equator). Sustainable sugarcane production can make a valuable contribution towards developing a biobased global economy.

Time for governments & companies to engage and invest

With solutions to prevent CKDnT coming into focus, La Isla Foundation and Solidaridad call upon governments and companies to act. Jason Glaser, CEO of La Isla Foundation: “We can save the lives of thousands of sugarcane cutters in Central America, and most probably in many other regions of the world, if everyone involved in the industry and governments take responsibility and make sure working conditions in the fields improve.” Sven Sielhorst, global sugarcane programme manager for Solidaridad, adds: “Even easy solutions don’t implement themselves. We need strong partners to make sure that these improved work practices get broadly adopted in Central America and any other region where this disease occurs.”

Scientific publications later this year

The research partners in the consortium have analysed their data and are now preparing several publications in scientific journals for later this year. They work for institutes like the US Army Environmental Research Institute, the US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration, The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Karolinska Institutet and Lund University both from Sweden.

Photo exposition with Ed Kashi in Amsterdam

Organized by Solidaridad and La Isla Foundation, the American photographer Ed Kashi opens a photo exhibition titled "Sugarcane, Fuel for Change" today that will be on view at De Melkweg in Amsterdam from 29 August till 4 October. Kashi went to Central America to capture the living and working conditions of cane cutters, their hard labour, the constant heat, and how they become ill and die. His images also tell a story of hope and strength about the possibility of change. The exhibition is complete with a series of photographs of common consumer products made with sugarcane.

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  • Contact Information

    Sven Sielhorst

    Global Programme Manager, Sugarcane

    't Goylaan 15, 3525 AA Utrecht, The Netherlands