For Immediate Release

Thousands of Sugarcane Workers Die While Authorities Stall

WASHINGTON - In most of the world, chronic kidney disease – CKD – is a manageable illness that primarily affects the elderly.  But in Central America the condition is instead devastating whole communities, according to a new investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Between 2005 and 2009, about 2,800 people have died each year – mostly men and most manual laborers in harsh sugarcane fields of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica – according to an ICIJ analysis of global health data behind the Island of the Widows investigation.

As the death toll rises, those in a position to fight the disease – the region's sugar industry, wealthier nations such as the U.S., and international development agencies – have largely resisted pleas to take action.

What triggers CKD remains a mystery – researchers suspect exposure to toxins. There is strong evidence, however, that a key factor in the disease’s development is dehydration and heat stress. Workers toil until they suffer severe dehydration or collapse, damaging their kidneys.

“In the 21st Century, nobody should die of kidney disease,” says Ramon Trabanino, a doctor in El Salvador who has studied CKD for a decade.  

Among the key findings in Island of the Widows:

●      Internal studies by one of Central America’s largest sugar plantations show that the company has long had evidence of an epidemic tied to working conditions, yet some of its employees continue to be exposed to severe heat stress and dehydration.

●      Those with the resources to help solve the mystery – wealthier nations such as the U.S. and Canada, as well as international development agencies – beat back recent efforts by Central American nations to boost the disease’s profile among global public health officials and the United Nations.

●      The World Bank issued two loans totaling more than $100 million to Nicaragua’s sugar industry during the height of the epidemic without formal consideration of kidney disease.   After workers protested, it agreed to provide $1 million to sponsor Boston University's ongoing study.

Island of the Widows will also air on Public Radio International’s news show, The World, and in English and Spanish on the BBC World Service. The television partner is the Spanish-language Univision network. Print partners for this project include El Nuevo Herald of Miami, Hoy of Chicago, La Opinion of Los Angles and Al Dia of Dallas. In Latin America, publishing partners include the online newspapers El Faro in El Salvador and Semana in Nicaragua, and the daily newspaper La Nacion in Costa Rica.

Read the full story here.



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The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) was launched in 1997 as a project of the Center for Public Integrity to globally extend the Center's investigative style of journalism in the public interest. Based in 50 countries, ICIJ’s global network includes 100 of the world’s top investigative reporters who produce collaborative, cross-border reports on major global issues around the world. ICIJ also supports international investigative journalism by presenting the biennial Daniel Pearl Awards for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, and independent news organization specializing in investigative journalism on significant public policy issues. Since 1990, the Washington, D.C.-based Center has released more than 500 investigative reports and 17 books to provide greater transparency and accountability of government and other institutions. It has received more than 50major journalism awards, including honors from Investigative Reporters and Editors, George Polk, Online News Association, Overseas Press Club, Pen USA, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Society of Environmental Journalists, and Society of Professional Journalists. 

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