Jason Glaser runs La Isla Foundation, founded in 2008 by a Nicaraguan ex-sugarcane worker, an American documentary filmmaker, and a Nicaraguan legal investigator. The group addresses an epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (CKDnT) affecting agricultural communities across Central America, particularly in Western Nicaragua. This disease, first recorded about 30 years ago, has steadily increased in both prevalence and mortality rates.The epicenter of both the epidemic and sugar production is Chichigalpa, Nicaragua. There, sugarcane workers are dying at an alarming rate from CKDnT. In the past decade, CKDnT caused the deaths 75% of deaths of men aged 35-55 in Chichigalpa.

A new report documents the high occurrence of kidney disease among sugarcane workers. The report also concludes that inaction by both the Nicaraguan government and the largest cane company in Nicaragua set the stage for a peaceful protest turned riot.

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The disease is characterized by a gradual decrease of kidney function, eventually resulting in renal failure. Due to limited medical and financial resources in Nicaragua, CKDnT is a terminal illness. Death from chronic kidney failure is often slow and extremely painful. Impoverished families are left to pick up the pieces, often sending their young sons out into the sugar cane fields.

During the course of the Foundation’s work, some Nicaraguan government officials and sugar cane industry supporters implied Glaser was a drug trafficker as well as a CIA operative. Also, La Isla Foundation has received numerous threats. Glaser says that while the treatment of the Foundation and its employees has been as he calls it, “reprehensible”, members of the affected community have also been victims of severe reprisals.

On March 18, 2013, protestors and bystanders attempting to call attention to the epidemic, including children as young as 6 years old were trampled, beaten, and targeted for arrest. Ten sugar cane workers were fired for participating in academic research investigating the cause of the disease. Others have been fired for speaking to the media, or attempting to independently unionize, according to Glaser.

Update: The company rehired the 10 workers from the causality study. Glaser and others give credit to this story. Glaser gives his account of a tragic example:

In February of this year I lost a friend, Lino Mayorga to complications with his CKDnT treatment. His son, Jimmy, is already sick at 24, having worked the sugarcane fields like his father. Lino was a pillar of his community: the founder of his neighborhood, a little league coach, and a liaison between the community and the mayor’s office in Chichigalpa. I often wondered what he could have accomplished and given the world had he been born in a different time and place. Despite having given over thirty years of his life to the cane fields, working 8-12 hour days, seven days a week he died in absolute pain and poverty.

Lino had also been a Sandinista guerilla commando. As a young man, he risked his life fighting the brutality of the Somoza dictatorship so his country could chart a more equitable future. On the night he died, 34 years later, with the Sandinistas again in power, his long time partner, Maria, told me the following, “Somoza’s National Guard was horrific, they would pull our neighbors from their homes, beat them, shoot them like dogs in the street. We got smart though, we learned to hide and then we learned to fight back so we could have a better life. But this disease, this company (the Pellas Group), the inaction of our government, these things are all worse than the National Guard, worse than Somoza. If this company did not hold food stipends over our heads, did not hold these jobs that are killing us over our heads this entire city would stand up for itself. However, as it stands now, we are nothing but slaves.’ I was stunned by those words.