The sugar cane workers’ tragedy and struggle

Testimonies by ex-workers and widows

 “The human dump on the West country”


Time, as a conception and determinant of the pace of life, has a very particular form in Nicaragua. We frequently hear about "the Nica time", which justifies any delay. I arrived in Chichigalpa, in the western part of the country, to meet former sugar cane workers who suffer the effects of tons of agrotoxic substances used in the sugar cane fields in that area. Over the past five years, there have been 1383 deaths due to Chronic Renal Failure (CRF) and thousands of former workers are seriously ill and unemployed. Nobody offers them a job and they have to strive to survive.



Upon arrival, I see a rather large, impatient group, they are all eager to talk, shake hands, look into your eyes, pat your shoulder. They have been expecting me for half an hour, despite I was punctual; I realize that the "Nica time" did not rule on this occasion, because their wish and urgent need to talk about their painful experiences and their struggle are more powerful than the traditions and character of a nation. Later on, Pedro Rivas Varela, who is one the affected workers, would say “global awareness of our situation is very important, and we need international support for our struggle.”


Chichigalpa is a small town, but highly known in Nicaragua as it is linked to sugar cane and rum production. It was here in 1898 that business man Alfredo Francisco Pellas founded the Ingenio San Antonio, one of the largest sugar cane plantations in Central America, and the companies Nicaragua Sugar State and Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua S.A., what set up a tradition for one of the most powerful families in the region.


Tens of thousands of workers have given the most precious years of their lives, ‘killing themselves’ in the huge sugar cane fields which make up the Ingenio San Antonio and the surrounding areas (approximately 55 thousand blocks). Many of these workers ended up severely ill with CRF, they were sacked and left totally unprotected, others died without a mere pension that their widows now demand.


Our meeting takes place at the home of Carmen Ríos, a widow and the President of “Domingo Téllez” Nicaraguan Association of People Affected by CRF, one of the sugar cane workers' organizations formed in recent times.


People drop in, look around, inside the house, and slowly come in and get a place to sit; they are ready to talk and tell the story of their lives. Stories which go beyond a dramatic situation, because each story conveys their resistance and struggle.


Rufino Benito Somarriba is 53, and he worked at the San Antonio sugar cane fields from 1975 to 1984. He is sitting in front of me, almost lying on a chair, looking at me and he talks in a soft voice.


 “I worked as a temporary laborer, spraying herbicide for several years and they never hired as a permanent worker. I used to carry the spraying pump on my back. Poison would leak all over my body.


I had to work from 9 in the morning till 3-4 in the afternoon, with no breaks. I had to make long distances over the fields, cross rivers and paddles which were contaminated and I didn’t know.


I used to sweat a lot and water did not last long, so I had to drink from the river or from the water used for spraying.


I never thought water would be contaminated and the fluid wetting my body would take me to my present condition. Maybe it was because we are not educated, but they took advantage and didn’t say a word about it. They never gave us protective equipment, only a useless facemask.


I also worked doing spade spraying, which meant I had to get into the artificial lakes where black, extremely contaminated waters flow as they are a by-product of the sugar industrial process, and I had to release the dam to water the fields. A hard and dirty job, because the water was foul-smelling, I would get totally soaked and had an intense itch all over my body. We used to call it ‘mierdosa’. Once I came out and realized I was bleeding from my penis.


In 2002 I learned I was ill. My blood pressure shot up and my whole body was aching, but specially the nape of my neck. I was not working on the sugar cane fields then, I had been transferred to the liquor-making plants.


 I had medical tests made with very bad results, my creatinine was 5.2.  Now I have 16, but at times my values were 24.”


Creatinine is a test to determine kidney functions and its normal value is below 1. The affected people say that after many CRF cases were discovered, the company San Antonio decided to screen more than 5 thousand people living or working in sugar cane fields or nearby, and forced workers to have a test done in the clinic of the company fields. If someone’s creatinine was above 1.2, he was immediately sacked or denied temporary work, and he was advised to turn to the Social Security (INSS) to get a pension.


 Those who were not ‘engaged’ were offered short term contracts with neither protection nor labor rights. As they could not take action against the company, they could be exploited a little longer...


Pedro Joaquín Rivas Varela gets involved in the discussion and talks about his own situation. “I am 42 and started working on the sugar cane field with a creatinine of 0.4, now I have 2.3


 I remember it was very hard work. I started at 6 in the morning and did at least 2 hectares of sugar cane every day. We had to work barefoot and didn’t even have time to eat. We had a lunch-bag with us and ate while we were working, we couldn't stop otherwise the time was not enough to finish our day's work.


We could not either organize a union or make a protest, because we were temporary workers and could be immediately kicked out.


At 10 a.m. the water pipe was connected and from there we drank water. The water from the fields. All these diseases are linked to the sugar cane field water, polluted by the large amount of pesticides used.


Results are devastating. According to our numbers, 1383 fellow workers have died and over the past years there has been a monthly average of 46 deaths. Only last week we buried eight workers.

Airplanes flew over between six and seven in the morning, because there was not much wind and overnight dewdrop made pesticide penetration easier.


 All that happened while we were working, and they would sprinkle the poison and didn’t care that we were there. Also the people living in the houses nearby were affected.


At the present time they are still spraying a poison called 'maturator’ which helps the sugar cane grow faster. They spray it several times before the season and it is extremely harmful.


 Sometimes workers would faint and they were taken to the hospital to be given i.v. fluids but they immediately returned to the fields and carried on working. In 1998, when the company became aware that there were approximately 3 thousand people affected, they expelled the families living in the sugar cane fields or nearby and started a practice of compulsory clinical testing for those who turned up seasonal work.


 In 2000 the company acknowledged that the water was contaminated. What is more worrying is that the Ministry of Health perfectly knew about the situation and in Nicaragua we have law No. 274 in force which regulates the use of synthetic agrotoxic substances, herbicides and pesticides, but they didn't enforce it. Nothing was done.


The government itself has called us “human scrap”, but this is the result of years of exploitation and contamination, where nobody pronounced a word.


Results are devastating. According to our numbers, 1383 fellow workers have died and over the past years there is a monthly average of 46 deaths. Last week only we buried eight workers.


We are struggling to have a lifetime pension for occupational health hazards and to have article 1 of law 456 amended, where Chronic Renal Failure should be recognized as an industrial disease for all sugar agroindustry workers.


But there is more, because we want the owners of the San Antonio sugar cane fields to give us compensation for damages caused to us and to those who died."


They talk one after the other, and the cases are all very similar.


Bismark Velásquez explains that CRF is a disease that depletes your body energy and if you continue working, the situation worsens. His brother and his father died and now he has kidney 'stones' and a 1.6 creatinine, having worked for 15 years. He is now unemployed, and does not know how to solve his family’s needs.


Gonzalo López worked for 35 years as an electronic technician at the Ingenio San Antonio. He never had contact with sugar cane cutting or herbicide spraying, but everyday he drank the water in his office. He has been retired for two years. The company sacked him when they realized he was ill.


He started off with a 2.3 creatinine and in a few years it shot up to 7. He can barely walk and has spent his retirement payment in health costs since national insurance does not cover anything, and one injection is 68 US dollars. “The company doesn’t care about the worker – he says – they didn’t help me at all and just sent me home.”


For José Luis Suárez, who saw us lying in a bed in his patio, the situation is even more dramatic.


“I am 59 and worked for 38 years for the company, I was a jack of all trades. The company owners have brought death to this place and its people. I have been in bed for three months and cannot get up. My creatinine is 14 and I feel like the heroes and martyrs who suffered this disease to the end.


When I turned up for the season in 1999, I had a blood test and the results showed that I was ill with CRF. Then they rejected me and threw me in the street just to die. They gave me a monthly pension of 1,500 córdobas (85 US dollars) which doesn’t last a week.


 Life is a priceless and holy thing and we, as former workers, need that this becomes known worldwide, because spraying all those pesticides and contaminating our water to such extent was a criminal action.


Not only the workers were affected here, but the whole town, but as those people are rich and powerful, they have governmental and political support, and the media cover them up as well. On the sugar cane fields there are seven rivers used by the company in the sugar industrial process and they are all polluted.”


We accompanied José Luis to a sugar cane field to see the marshes of industrial waste. We stood at the sugar cane field entrance. I wanted to take a photo of the property limit notice but a security watchman forbade it. “You are not allowed. You have to get permission from the administration,” he said, and he would not accept any explanation that I was standing on public soil.  His gun was a reason good enough to bring the argument to an end.


We got to the Health Center where the INSS and the San Antonio company sponsor a small healthcare room for the people with CRF. We went in to see the doctor and knew first hand the care administered to the sick people.


 The room was full of people and surgery hours started at 12:30. One minute after the specified time we knocked at the door, once, twice, thrice... and finally we heard a lady doctor's hostile voice who shouted “I’m having lunch!” “What a sort of care", I wondered. Later on, the sugar cane workers informed me that the place is useless anyway, because they just ask you how the disease is getting on and they give you acetaminophen. Specific medication for the disease is never offered and the most common phrase heard in this place is “not available!”


 The ‘single women island’


I closed the interview with someone who completed the dramatic picture in Chichigalpa. When we were walking on the fields, they pointed to a place they call “Single women island.” No men left there, they all died of CRF.


The widows’ observable situation is as dramatic as that of the sick people.  They have applied for a pension, as provided for in the Social Security Law, but there is always an excuse or a false legal impediment against their demands.

Carmen Ríos is the President of the “Domingo Téllez” Association. She has a contagious laughter and her eyes bulge when she gets angry telling the widows' tragedy.


“The situation is very difficult for all of us, the widows. The INSS uses many strategies to turn pension applications down. Sometimes they say the man died before law 456 was passed (which regulates the legal matter), but when requisites are fulfilled, the pension is denied anyway.


 There are 232 widows without a pension and our association is struggling to get those pensions. Also we seek an amendment of law 456, to get CRF recognized as an occupational disease for all sectors of the sugar agroindustry and not only for those working on the fields.



We have evidence of fraud and corruption at the INSS and we are denouncing it. Something has to be made clear, people suffer from a disease and have died as a result of a disease, not from too much work. They have died from contact with pesticide contaminated water, and we strongly demand that genuine water analysis are carried out.

Death has become a normal fact among us, we are getting used to the news that someone else has died when we wake up in the morning. Eighteen or twenty-year-old youngsters and even 10-year-old children die. My husband died at the age of 46 after having worked on the fields for 24 years. He died dreaming with a pension that never turned into reality.


The wealth of company owners is at the cost of workers' death. We scream with pain so the world would hear us, would turn their eyes towards this place where people are dying every day. Death has become a normal fact among us, we are getting used to the news that someone else has died when we wake up in the morning. Eighteen or twenty-year-old youngsters and even 10-year-old children die. My husband died at the age of 46 after having worked on the fields for 24 years. He died dreaming with a pension that never turned into reality.


 Now apparently I haven’t got the right to a pension because my husband did not pay national insurance contributions for 750 weeks as required, but that is nonsense because he had a right to a pension for health hazards, regardless of the number of weeks worked. But the worst thing is that I realized years ago that this pension is already being paid and someone is cashing it. That is the kind of corruption we have here!


 There are hundreds of widows, single women with unprotected children and thousands of sick men without a job, who ambulate on the streets.


We are ready to struggle. If our parents and grandparents were not able to struggle, the government, the Social Security Office and the company owners should not think that we have no struggling capacity because we are peasants. There are trained people among us and we shall maintain our struggle right to the end.


I am 50 years old, a widow and struggle for my own rights, those of my daughters’ and my deceased husband’s. And we struggle even though we are the ‘human dump on the West country’...”

In Chichigalpa, Giorgio Trucchi

© Rel-UITA

february 7, 2006




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