According to government figures, nearly 2,000 current and former employees of two sugar mills in the Chichigalpa region of northwestern Nicaragua suffer from chronic renal insufficiency (CRI), a fatal kidney disease. While the cause remains a mystery, a workers group puts the death toll at more than 560 employees of one of the mills alone over the past 30 years. Residents point to the chemicals used in sugar-cane fields at the San Antonio and Monte Rosa mills, which produce most of Nicaragua’s sugar exported to the US. The mills deny responsibity, and say workers who sued the companies presented no scientific evidence.
A visit last month by Miami’s El Nuevo Herald to Chichigalpa and neighboring villages like La Isla found “the air of a doomed region.” Former mill and cane-field workers, dismissed when they showed signs of kidney failure, now walk the streets aimlessly or sit on stools outside their homes. They cannot work, as they become exhausted within minutes. All they can do is take calcium tablets to compensate for the loss of that element as a result of kidney failure, and slow their deterioration. In the end, they can no longer stand, and they just lie in bed. Their bodies are swollen, their breathing labored. They sip Gatorade to keep hydrated, and wait for death.
The figure of 2,000 CRI victims comes from Dr. Edwin Reyes, a kidney specialist with the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health who has been watching the Chichigalpa situation for the last 10 years. When he began to count CRI cases in Chichigalpa in 2004, there were 800. The national government now runs a special CRI unit at the Julio Durán Zamora Health Center, a government clinic in the town of Chichigalpa. But Reyes conceded that neither the government nor the mills have carried out any studies on the causes of CRI. Asked why, he said, “I don’t understand why not.”
Three years ago, local residents pressured Nicaragua’s national legislature to pass a law defining CRI as an “occupational disease”—allowing its victims to collect government disability payments.
Many of the affected people worked for San Antonio, a 117-year-old mill that produces 80% of Nicaragua’s sugar exports to the US. It is owned by the Pellas family, the country’s richest. The family also owns BAC Credomatic Network, a financial network including the BAC Florida Bank of Coral Gables.
Alvaro Bermúdez, managing director of the San Antonio mill, said the company has done everything possible to investigate the causes of CRI. He said the mill offered to cooperate with the Nicaraguan government over the past decade to investigate the causes, but “nothing came out of it.”
“There is a real problem, there is a real epidemic, there is a disease that is very sad and very difficult, and there is a company that wants to help,” Bermúdez said. “But it turns out that…now people say the company may be at fault. Then we won’t solve this, because the company is not at fault.”
Juan Salgado, who worked for the mill for 31 years, now suffers from CRI and heads the Chichigalpa Pro-life Association, a group of former mill employees who have sued for indemnification. He said San Antonio began required testing of its workers in the late 1990s and dismisses any who show signs of kidney malfunction. “We worked for them our whole lives, and they threw us out on the street when they discovered we were sick—the way the Romans did with their slaves after they were no longer useful,” Salgado said.
At least 563 people who worked at San Antonio have died of kidney disease since 1978, according to María Eugenia Cantillano of the Global Nica Foundation, a group that defends workers’ rights throughout Nicaragua. Her records included dozens of death certificates listing the cause as “chronic renal insufficiency.”
Dr. Alejandro Marín, director of a hospital run by San Antonio for workers and relatives, told El Nuevo Herald that 200 current employees have abnormally high levels of creatinine in their blood—a substance that signals kidney malfunction. He acknowledged that the company dismisses workers who come down with CRI, saying they are no longer strong enough to work. The company does not pay them for disability, he said, but they qualify for government aid.
About 1,100 workers filed three lawsuits over the last two years against the two mills, alleging negligent use of chemicals in the cane fields. Those lawsuits have not reached the stage where evidence has to be submitted. In another lawsuit filed earlier by about 1,100 workers, the San Antonio mill agreed to an out-of-court settlement in which the company denied any responsibility for CRI but agreed to make “humanitarian payments” totaling more than $2 million to victims.
Adrián Mesa, the lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the earlier cases, said the suits reached a point where the plaintiffs could not prove that the chemicals were the cause of the disease, and the mills could not prove the opposite. “We said, let’s not talk about who is guilty,” Mesa said. “Let’s look at this as a humanitarian issue, because what our clients need is money to cope with their disease.”
Sacarías Chávez, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the more recent lawsuits, alleged in court papers that CRI is caused “by being in contact—directly or indirectly and without any protection—with chemical agents” used in the cane fields. The suit does not cite scientific evidence for that link.
Felix Celaya Rivas, a physician who works at San Antonio’s hospital, argued that while both men and women work at the mill and the cane fields, few women have been stricken with CRI. He also asserted CRI has been reported in other parts of Nicaragua not related to sugar-cane fields. Celeya posed a genetic vulnerability to kidney disease in the local population, or heavy metals spewed by the nearby San Cristóbal volcano
The situation is similar at the Monte Rosa mill, where about 300 former workers who claim they were fired after company-required blood tests showed signs of kidney failure have been protesting near the mill’s main gate for months to demand indemnification. The mill was bought in 2000 by Pantaleón, a large Guatemalan business group. (Miami Herald, May 6)