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Putting Faces on the Mysterious Disease Killing Nicaraguan Sugar Cane Workers

Photo by Ed Kashi, used with permission.

Photo by Ed Kashi. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

An epidemic of fatal Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) is killing sugar cane workers at alarming rates in Nicaragua, and photojournalist Ed Kashi has set out to document their stories to “draw attention and resources that could help save lives.”

Kashi explains in his Indie Voices funding campaign:

We’re infatuated with sugar. But where does our beloved sweetener come from? and who tended the crops? More importantly, how does sugar affect them?

In Nicaragua, which exports 40% of its sugar to America, the average life span of men who harvest sugar cane is 49 years. At the root of these early deaths is an epidemic of fatal Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu). In the town Chichigalpa, often called the “Island of Widows,” 1-in-3 men, mostly cane workers, are in end-stage renal failure. This fatal disease is not only a public health crisis, but also a social injustice. The cause of this epidemic is unknown, which is why we are launching this documentary project.

Photo by Ed Kashi. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Photo by Ed Kashi. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The New York Times recently featured Kashi's photographs in their blog LENS. In a post about the project, David Gonzalez writes:

What he encountered when he arrived in Nicaragua was troubling: There were daily funerals and increasing evidence that younger workers were falling ill. A former Sandinista commander who had spent the last 20 years in the cane fields died a month after Mr. Kashi photographed him. Mr. Kashi also learned how the kidney condition was killing workers in parts of India and Sri Lanka, where large-scale mechanization had yet to be introduced.

Gonzalez concludes by quoting Kashi about his goal for this project:

“How do we use visual storytelling to not only tell the tough stories but also offer some amount of light?” he said. “That’s why in my practice my goal now is to humanize and maintain the dignity of my subjects and open people’s eyes so they will at least learn, and maybe also take action.”

Photo by Ed Kashi. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Photo by Ed Kashi. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Kashi wants to return to Nicaragua to capture more videos and photographs in order to “generate education, support, and community awareness.”

Ultimately this material could be utilized in local information and outreach programs to address problems confronting the workers and their families, to stimulate conversation within Nicaragua, to facilitate the development of community-lead solutions, and to expand the network of people willing to take a stand.

Worldwide print and digital media outlets would draw on the work to raise awareness of this growing health issue in an industry whose product is consumed by nearly everyone on earth: sugar. Furthermore, I will make my work (images and film) available to La Isla Foundation, and any other advocates working to raise awareness of the issue, support affected families and eliminate this growing work place hazard.

You can see more of Kashi's photographs and contribute to his campaign for the documentary project “The Island of Widows” on Indie Voices. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

To learn more about this disease, visit this video post where we feature the work of another photojournalist, Esteban Félix from the Associated Press, who received the Gabriel García Marquez Prize for Journalism [es] for documenting this disease affecting Central American sugar cane workers.
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