March 3rd, 2014 (VOXXI) The town of Chichigalpa in Nicaragua has a very unique nickname: the Island Of Widows (Isla De Viudas). This unfortunate name comes with a morbid backstory: 1-in-3 men, mostly sugar cane workers, suffer, and eventually die, from Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). What’s worse, the disease is absolutely curable yet nothing is being done to prevent these deaths.
Photojournalist Ed Kashi traveled to Chichigalpa last year at the behest of Jason Glaser of the La Isla Foundation, based in León, Nicaragua, to document the lives of some of these workers and their families. During a two-week period, he witnessed nearly one funeral each day.
“I was really captivated,” he said, “both on a human level and as a journalist about what was going on there.”
He is currently raising funds in order to cover the costs of post-production in cutting a number of media materials for “La Isla” and any other interested non-profits in order to assist these workers and their families.
Unfortunately, no one knows exactly why the country’s sugar cane workers, whose work is responsible for 40% of the USA’s sugar imports, are falling prey to a curable disease. The major problem is that the rate at which these workers are being infected has risen drastically.
“What’s really a concern now,” said Kashi, “is that the disease has accelerated whereas it took…20 or more years to contract, their sons or grandsons are now contracting it as quickly after a year or two.”
Young men in their 20s are contracting CKD and dying between the ages of 35 – 55. In the past, these workers wouldn’t contract CKD until near middle-age and still manage to live to their 60s and even 70s.
“There’s clearly some accelerant in the environment,” he continued. “I’m not a scientist but one of the things I really appreciate about what La Isla is doing is they’re working with epidemiologists and scientists to try to figure out what’s the cause to try to come up with a solution.”
There are a few factors of which Kashi and people at La Isla believe are causing these deaths. They include extreme dehydration, poor work practices in the sugar cane industry, the use of unknown toxins in sugar cane fields, and even possibly a shift in their diets to a more North American one.
Sadly, these cases aren’t limited to Nicaragua. There are documented cases of workers dying of CKD across Central America, Sri Lanka, and India. “I have to believe it’s connected to being in extremely hot climates,” said Kashi, “with the other things that I already mentioned.”
“For instance,” he continued, “I photographed sugar cane workers in South Africa but that problem doesn’t exist there because it’s a more temperate climate. It might not be as simple as that…probably the thing that nobody wants it to be, especially the company, [is] the pesticides, the chemicals that they use because that’s a much more complex and costly change.”