The plight of the sugar cane cutter

The discussion about sugar cane workers in Nicaragua and the response from Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited is highlighting Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD), a problem that has been identified in several countries across several industries associated with strenuous work particularly in tropical climates. If you think I’m writing this to exonerate anyone for the death of any human being stop reading this and crawl back into your dark, ignorant hole. Today, I am not employed by Flor de Caña or any of the affiliated companies that make this rum but they have earned my respect over many years.
I had the privilege of visiting Nicaragua and the Ingenio San Antonio sugar factory and the Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua distillery that makes Flor de Caña rum a few years ago after Skyy Spirits acquired the import rights to Flor de Caña for the US. Before traveling to Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, I was aware of kidney disease among cane cutters in that region, which at that time was being attributed by some journalists to insecticides used to control insects. To say I was concerned about this issue, and my involvement as a consultant to the importer of a rum company that was being accused of poisoning their workers, is an understatement. During my visit I asked about insecticides and was told the use insecticide use had been reduced after planting eucalyptus trees around the sugar cane fields which provided a habitat for birds of prey that control rats and other pests that attract the sugar cane harvest.
A couple of decades ago burning cane was a common practice that drove poisonous snakes from the cane fields. Burning also makes it easier for workers to cut the cane by eliminating the sharp, serrated leaves that cut worse than paper. Every year less and less cane is burned around the world. The environmental impact of burning cane is terrible as the dense, thick smoke blows for miles through dwellings adjacent to the fields. At times the smoke can be so thick visibility is reduced and airports miles from the fields are forced to close. As an alternative to burning, more and more sugar cane around the world is cut by massive machines that have a couple of advantages. Machines are more reliable than men toiling in the tropical heat and the fields don’t have to be burned (though they still are in many places).
I saw some sugar cane cutting machines in the maintenance yard next to the sugar mill and asked how much sugar cane was being machine cut. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and labor is cheap in this country of six million people. Following the trend of using more machines to cut more cane could have drastic effects on those who depend on the sugar cane harvest as their primary means of support. I was told that the sugar estate will continue to employ as many cane cutters as want to work. Under ideal conditions machines can replace as many as one hundred men. The heavy machines can’t operate in steep hills or muddy fields, so there will always be some demand for manual cane cutters. I also learned that all of the cane cutting was done by contractors but that cane cutters in Chichigalpa make more money than those in adjacent Central American countries. Competition for jobs and the fact that these workers are concentrated in Chichigalpa as opposed to being migrant workers may account for some of the higher CKD rates in this area. In many other places, cane cutters travel many miles to work in the fields and aren’t counted in their communities if they get sick and can’t work or even die. Is this scientific proof that this disease isn’t actually more concentrated in Chichigalpa? Of course not, but it is a fact that may skew the statistics viewed by the casual observer.
Today, I’m surprised that many medical researchers agree that they don’t know as much about the causes or prevention of chronic kidney failure that is affecting agricultural workers, miners, dock workers and other laborers around the world as we might assume them to know in 2015. It is generally agreed, however, that more fresh water for hydration and more rest breaks in the shade, two things that will help reduce the body’s core temperature can significantly reduce the occurrence of CKD.
Can more be done for the plight of the cane cutters in Nicaragua? Absolutely! In September, Bacardi was called out for their involvement in buying distillate produced from sugar cane cut by workers who are also affected by the harsh conditions in the cane fields as reported by Fair The tide is turning and more people every day are becoming aware of this problem and more resources are being committed to the health of the workers in Central America but the problem of CKD is affecting more than sugar cane cutters in Nicaragua.
A few times during my trip to Nicaragua, I felt like I was getting the corporate banner waved in my face, or maybe I was just being my cynical self, but I listened and learned more than I thought I would. Grupo Pellas, the parent company of Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited, Ingenio San Antonio (the sugar mill that processes the cane) and Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua (the distillery that makes Flor de Caña Rum) is committed to the improved welfare of the country. My skepticism about this corporate giant in a country that was endured years of war and an earthquake in 1972 that leveled Managua, the capital city, was tempered when I saw the modern, high-pressure, super-heated boiler and generator in a warehouse near the sugar mill. During the cane season, roughly the first half of the year, the spent cane was burned to produce 23% of Nicaragua’s electricity. The rest of the year, eucalyptus, harvested by men who cut sugar cane during the cane season and who would be otherwise unemployed, fueled the high-efficiency boilers to produce 17% of the country’s electricity.
Another surprising revelation was that spent yeast from the distillery was used as feed stock for the million-gallon anaerobic digesters that convert the nutrient-rich distillery effluent to methane that is used to generate all of the energy used in the distillery and bottling plant. And instead of only producing raw sugar to be sold as pawn chips in the international sugar market, more ethanol was being produced to further reduce Nicaragua’s dependence on foreign oil.
A more subtle suggestion that these companies care about the environment and their future was the rum bottle itself. A more efficient shape than the round bottle used by almost every other spirit company. Square bottles fit into smaller boxes which saves a piece of cardboard a bit bigger than a postcard but multiplied by four million cases a years added up to a few box cars of imported cardboard. Since my visit, Flor de Caña introduced a new bottle which is less efficient, hopefully they will revert back to the more efficient bottle but that’s another story.
Over dinner and the ubiquitous rum and Coke, made with sugar not hfcs, I asked one of the engineers how he was able to convince the company to invest millions of dollars in what seemed like luxuries in this poor country. The answer reminded me of language attributed to Henry Ford. I don’t remember the exact words but it went something like this: By reducing our dependence on foreign oil we can help the stability of our country. By selling electricity to the government grid at just above our cost, we can help every citizen of this country. As the standard of living in Nicaragua improves and people use more electricity we will not be able to continue to provide as much of the electricity demand as we do today, but we will continue do our part to build this country.
Every sugar mill sells molasses to more than one distillery, just as almost every distillery buys molasses from more than one source (only distilleries like this one which are aligned with a sugar mill that produces more molasses than they can use are the exceptions). Likewise, every distillery sells alcohol to more than one customer after they satisfy their own needs. Ingenio San Antonio is no different. Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua is Ingenio San Antonio’s biggest and most important customer but it is by no means their only customer. There are a handful of rums blended from rum from this distillery, but in deference to the blenders and brand owners I’ll let them tell you where they source their raw materials. On the other hand, if I published everything l’ve learned over the past twenty years I would lose the trust of many of the people who have been instrumental in my education in this industry. As I wrote in 1995, there’s a bit of magic in every bottle of rum. If I told you everything, it would no longer be magic. While I take every opportunity to be transparent in regards to every bottle of rum I sell through my import company, I will not take that liberty with every other sugar cane product on the shelf.
Growing and harvesting sugar cane is hard work and one of the reasons that since 2000 there has been no sugar being produced in Puerto Rico, St Kitts and Trinidad. Other Caribbean islands like Antigua, Dominica, St Vincent got out of the sugar business years ago as the economy of scale favored the larger estates in Central and South America.
Cane cutters in most countries are paid by the weight of the cane they cut. Laborers work as hard as they can to make as much money as they can during the cane season. Workers paid by the hour can afford be more concerned with getting enough hydration, rest and staying healthy. In Martinique, for example, a cane cutter can earn more than $2,000/month plus health and retirement benefits as well as having some stability in their lives. But before you think that is a good money I will tell you that I have cut sugar cane in the fields in Grenada while I was researching my first book. I didn’t arrive in the field at sunrise like the rest of the crew but after my breakfast and morning coffee. The crew I was working with were paid about $2/ton of cut cane. We took a few breaks under the mango trees along the road next to the cane field but the fruit wasn’t yet ripe. We quit cutting before 1pm, stopped for lunch and then spent another hour or so stacking the cane into piles to be picked up by a tractor that hauled our harvest to the mill. I would have made enough money for a couple of beers and some food, but wouldn’t have been able to sustain myself on what I made in the field on that relatively nice cloudy day. I also had an advantage over my crew. I brought a few new files that I used to sharpen the blades we used and the time I spent sharpening blades in the shade wasn’t spent cutting cane in the sun.
The reality and truth of this and other work related health issues is that some of us, even in what we call civilized societies, do things that endanger our well being lives. And even if we don’t endanger our own lives we support businesses that endanger the lives of others. As I write this on Sunday afternoon, how many athletes will risk career- or life-ending injuries on the American football field today? The first difference is that many of these athletes are paid more for this day’s performance than the rest of us will make in years and more than most sugar cane cutters will earn in many lifetimes.
How many small American corn farmers that have been bankrupt by the makers of gmo seeds and how has that affected the whiskey you drink. What are the working and environmental conditions in the factory where your phone or computer was made? Yes, these are rhetorical questions.
Before I set sail for the Caribbean, my last job was on an oil, actually gas-drilling, rig in Papua New Guinea. I later learned that it is much less expensive to insure an oil drilling operation than a deep-depth gas exploration drilling rig in the remote jungle. This was the third exploration well in what is now one of the biggest natural gas production fields in Asia. To get to the rig site we flew a chartered, fixed wing aircraft from Port Moresby to Hari, a remote, mountain village that had little more than an air strip and a few huts. From there, we flew in a helicopter to the first exploration well site, marked by a helicopter crash where all of the crew and passengers had died. From there, the pilot took a course over a mountain ridge to the second exploration well site, also marked by a helicopter crash that also took the lives of all on board. Even if we survived the helicopter flights in the rugged mountainous terrain we could only hope that nothing would go wrong as the rig drilled day and night to depths of more than three miles into the earth. I left the oil, or rather gas, fields because I knew I could survive doing something else. I didn’t for a moment think I’d end up in the rum business, but I was open to anything that didn’t involve the possibility of my fiery death as the result of circumstances beyond my control. Many of the friends I made in those places didn’t have the options I had, some perished within a few months of my departure.
When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burned in the Gulf of Mexico after a blowout due to a faulty cement job and a rushed schedule that can only be explained by corporate cost cutting, eleven lives were lost. There was predictable, justifiable condemnation of the events that led to those deaths and the environmental damage that followed. Every conscious person was outraged, but who among us quit driving a car in response to that event.
Certainly, to date, the response from Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited sounds a bit corporate, like GM’s response to their ignition switch problem, or gun manufacturer’s response to mass shootings. If you don’t know it by now let me tell you that this is what corporations do. But, the ball has begun to roll and is gaining speed. Research dollars are being spent and the workers are getting some of the relief they so desperately need. Unfortunately those dollars won’t help those who have died or been disabled by this disease. I am encouraged that research has also been initiated into possible environmental or hereditary conditions that might predispose populations to this condition.
Here’s a link to a new website that outlines what is being done by Ingenio San Antonio as well other information I found interesting and informative about the causes and treatment of Chronic Kidney Disease.
By next year’s harvest, hundreds of cane cutter’s jobs in Nicaragua could be eliminated by buying a couple of cane cutting machines. Is this a solution to the CKD problem in Nicaragua? I, for one, don’t think so. For my part, I’m going to continue to ask questions and listen for the answers. International attention has been drawn to this issue, but I’m not going to condemn a company that is committed to raising the standard of living in Nicaragua. There are a lot of proposals on the table and some may actually be completed.
The Pellas family emigrated from Italy to Nicaragua in the last decades of the nineteenth century and have been citizens of Nicaragua for more than a century. This is not a multinational, corporation that is exploiting everything and everyone in their path. They have built an enviable business under very difficult conditions over many years and from my experience are more proactive toward improving the environmental and social impacts of their business than many others in the industry. Is there a lot more work to be done? Absolutely, but I also wish there were more companies like this one in the spirits industry.

Edward Hamilton
Dec 13, 2015

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