Summer 2010. Having spent a few months during college hitchhiking through the mountains of Nicaragua, taking in the breathtaking vistas from the back of a milk truck plucking along the rocky roads and listening to a man tell me stories of Contra battles that left the walls of his house still pocked with bullet holes, I knew I was coming back when I finished school.
October 2011. The rain was still coming down every afternoon in the lowlands but it would be over soon, and I didn’t quite know yet that that would bring on the epic annual march of thousands of men, young and old, into the sugarcane fields. I also didn’t know yet that in some areas, 70% of them would get Chronic Kidney Disease due to the heat stress and dehydration that come with swinging a machete for long hours under the Central America sun. After working with a journalist on a short documentary video on the issue I was newly confronted with, I decided my efforts could be maximized by collaborating with La Isla Foundation, as it had the network and the experience of working in the area; I had the camera and the thirst to hear people’s stories, to find out what was happening in this region where one 20 year old had said to me without expression, “We were made to die of this. Look around you man, all there is is cane.”
February 2013. I had just flown back to Nicaragua after spending three months at home and the holidays with my family. I had left Nicaragua in time to speak to my dad hours before he passed away, finally succumbing to the cancer he had been battling for 3 years. He always supported my work, and he never complained. Now I’m at a funeral, by request of the family, filming the wake and the procession and the burial and the crying mother and the stone faced cousin who knows he’s next. Days later I’m with my friend, who just lost his dad to CKDu. We’re both 24, his dad fought for his people in the revolution and died “like a dog” from working the sugarcane fields. He didn’t complain either.
First week of March. Jason Glaser, founder of LIF and Ed Kashi, a seasoned photojournalist whose stories I had seen in National Geographic, and I are walking through a new neighborhood populated by sugarcane workers. I ask Ed, “I know you’ve been all over, to war zones, to places where people can be detained and killed for no reason, but this is bad right?” “It’s structural violence” he replies smoothly as we walk down a modest dirt path surrounded by corrugated tin shacks, nicely arranged gardens and emaciated horses. “But this could be anywhere” he says. “The colors, the plants, the animals, they’re the same. We could be in Africa or Asia, the only difference is the people and the language they speak.” That stayed with me. I’ll stay here.
We’ve decided to make a film, a feature length documentary exploring the links between the CKDu epidemic decimating Central American sugarcane workers and the scourge of diet-related diseases- diabetes, obesity and kidney disease- affecting millions of North Americans by exploring their common denominator: sugar. We’ll use the film to affect policy change and to launch an educational campaign. We have the experience, the skill, the stories and the determination. Can you support us?
(To see more images relating to the CKDu epidemic in Nicaragua, check out @LAISLAFOUNDATION @TLAFFAY @EDKASHI on instagram)
– Tom Laffay