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Farming chemicals cause kidney failure
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Country´s largest company denies wrongdoing against ill workers.

More than 3,000 workers at a sugar plant owned by Nicaragua´s most powerful company have died from chronic renal failure since 1990 and a victims’ group says another 5,000 workers have since developed the condition for the company´s use of agrochemicals.

The San Antonio Refinery is owned by the Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited, a part of Grupo Pellas, which produces Flor de Caña rum as well as ethanol and runs an electricity generator in Chichigalpa in the northern León department.

“In 1969, the Pellas family bought large pieces of land in this part of the country for sugarcane monoculture and liquor production,” Carmen Ríos, president of the Nicaraguan Association of Those Affected by Chronic Renal Failure, told Italian journalist Cristina Artoni. “All of us work in the food production sector. Starting in 1990, people started to die in the village the company had built for its workers, and they continued to die. We started to protest and we told Pellas to close the village. The number of deaths increased at an impressive rate.”

Ríos said that the Pellas family, originally from Genoa, Italy, settled in Nicaragua at the end of the 19th century and in 100 years “became the most important company in the country.”

She said its owner, Carlos Pellas, “says that he does not want to talk about paying damages, but we want to remind him that he is responsible for the reality that we’re living.”

Contaminated wells
Grupo Pellas denies any wrongdoing, accuses the sick workers of being alcoholics or drug addicts, and says that the illness is provoked by other causes. But a 2006 study by the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, cited by Artoni, found that 95 percent of the 26 wells that serve the northwest of the country and close to 96 percent of the small family-only use wells are contaminated with feces, herbicides, bacteria and agrochemicals.

According to a recent investigation by the university, there is a possible cause-effect relation between the laborers´ work and kidney failure.

Dr. Cecilia Torres, an occupational health researcher at the university told the Latin American Regional Office of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers´ Associations that environmental neurotoxins, such as heavy metals — arsenic, cadmium and lead — and agrochemicals such as aldrin, chlorothalonil, maneb, copper sulfate, endrin and Nemagon, are major causes of chronic kidney failure in Nicaragua.

She said that the study was based on Health Ministry figures from 2005, where the rate of chronic kidney failure was one per 10,000 inhabitants. “We realized that this rate increased five-fold in the western zone, and shot up to 13 per 10,000 inhabitants in some municipalities,” she said.

Torres said that the highest rate of chronic kidney failure were in mining areas with 37 percent of the cases, 34 percent in farming, and 14 percent in coffee production.

“In the community of La Isla, in Chichigalpa, where most work on sugarcane plantations, the rate reached 41 percent, with 7 percent of the cases in the terminal stage,” she added.

Dr. Jesús Marín, director of the National Center for the Prevention and Control of Toxic Substances, a branch of the Health Ministry, said that since 1998, there has been a marked increase in chronic kidney failure cases, as well as in the number of deaths associated with the illness.

The Latin American Nephrology Association says that the average mortality rate for chronic kidney failure should be 130 patients per 1 million, but in León and in the neighboring Chinandega department, the death rate is 500 patients per 1 million, and in some municipalities the figure is triple that.

The figures brought back memories of banana workers affected by the use of agrochemical Nemagon, who sued transnational food giants Dole Food, Dole Chemical, Shell Chemical, Occidental and Standard Fruit.

In 2004, a US court ordered Shell Chemical and Dole Food to pay 81 campesina women US$82.9 million in damages for the use of the chemical. Three years later, a California court ordered Dole Food to pay $2.5 million to six banana workers from the Standard Fruit company — a part of Dole — after Nemagon exposure left them sterile. The court found the company guilty of negligence for hiding the damages that the pesticide caused to the reproductive system. Nemagon was banned in the United States in 1979 and two years later in Nicaragua.

The companies were found guilty by the Permanent Peoples´ Tribunal at the Americas Social Forum in Guatemala last October, in a non-binding but symbolic resolution.
—Latinamerica Press.

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