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Climate Change Is Already Killing Farm Workers Around The World

Sugar cane workers in India | Photo: Jean Marc-Giboux for International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, some rights reserved
Laborers in sugar cane fields worldwide are dying of kidney failure, and climate change is behind it.  | Photo: Jean Marc-Giboux for International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, some rights reserved

Two years ago when I was living in Nicaragua, my friends and I were at a house party drinking Flor de Caña rum. Hearing that I was a journalist, an acquaintance leaned in and said that there was something I needed to hear.

She began to tell me a story about that very rum we were drinking, and how people were dying because of it.

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Many of the workers who harvested sugarcane for the rum were suffering from chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu), she said, a kidney failure disease correlated with heavy workload, heat, dehydration, and possibly pesticides. The company had been called out before in the news, but with little progress.

Days later, I found myself at the rum factory in the guise of an enthusiastic tourist. There in the town of Chichigalpa, where most of the employees are from, the rate of CKDu was six times the national average; at least 2,800 to 3,500 people had died from the disease in the last decade. In Central America alone, the epidemic had killed more than 20,000 people between 2002 and 2015; most of them were sugar cane workers.

Former sugar cane worker in Nicaragua | Photo: Clarissa Wei
Former sugar cane worker in Nicaragua | Photo: Clarissa Wei

I interviewed the widows of the men who had passed away and I interviewed men who were sick.

"Your body is burning up, you feel suffocated,” one of the men told me. "You're lying there and you think it's going to be the last day of your life and then you get it under control — living with a high level of creatinine. Another heat stroke and you could go. You leave the clinic, you look at the sky, you look at your family and kids and decide that you need to take care of yourself."

When my piece about the issue came out on VICE’s food vertical Munchies, it sparked outrage and led to an industry-wide boycott of Flor de Caña.

In response, the company agreed to work directly with the La Isla Foundation, the public health NGO I had quoted in my piece. They got rid of all subcontractors, which has led to improved working conditions. There’s a lot more transparency and the workforce in the fields is also being quickly mechanized.

It should have been a happy ending. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

Recent studies have shown that there’s a direct correlation between climate change and CKDu. The disease affects farm workers across the globe, including here in California. 

Global warming has led to an overall increase of 1.4° Fahrenheit since 1880 and is estimated to be responsible for 75 percent of extreme heat events.

According to a report conducted by UC Davis researchers, agricultural workers in the USA are 20 times more likely to have a heat-related illness than workers in other industries. That report looked at over 200 agricultural workers in the Central Valley of California, where summer temperatures regularly reach 100°F.

Josue Quintanilla drinks a soda as he works in a cane field in El Salvador. | Photo: Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
Josue Quintanilla drinks a soda as he works in a cane field in El Salvador. In places where water quality is uncertain many workers have no choice but to drink sugary sodas instead, increasing their risk of kidney disease. | Photo: Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

What they found: Heat strain and piece-rate work are associated with kidney failure in California farm workers. Unlike hourly rate work, piece-rate rewards higher productivity, and gives workers a strong financial incentive to skip breaks.

The study authors recommended adjusting payment structures and decreasing heat exposure. But according to Jason Glaser, founder of La Isla Foundation, the issue needs to be addressed from a more holistic perspective.  

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The parts of Central America with the highest average temperatures are also the locations of CKDu outbreaks. | Map: Glaser et al

Kidney failure in agriculture workers around the globe is a symptom of a warming planet.

“Climate change will greatly affect our ability to work, to live in health environments, to have sustainable food systems, and provide the necessities of clean water and food for the wider population,“ he says. “We need to look at current and likely impacts of climate change systematically. If we look at the established risk factors for CKDu, heavy workload in high heat, dehydration, exposure to toxins, and even infectious diseases, it becomes evident that all of these risks may increase with climate change.”

In Central America, a study led by University of Colorado researchers found that the locations of highest average maximum temperatures over the last 60 years in Central America corresponded closely with sites of the CKDu in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.

Within the last four decades in Central America, the number of extremely hot days has increased by 30 to 75 percent. During this same time period, the prevalence of CKDu in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica has increased almost ten-fold in men and four-fold in women by 2010.

“Ebola has killed around 14,000 people since 1976, but this disease has killed at least 20,000 in Central America alone in the last 10 years,” La Isla’s Glaser said in a statement in early May. “It deserves substantially increased support immediately.”

Working a burned cane field in Piracicaba, Brazil | Photo: iStockPhoto
Cane fields are traditionally burned before harvest. Workers entering still-smouldering fields experience greater heat stress. | Photo: iStockPhoto

The narrative is the same in India, Thailand and Sri Lanka, where local kidney disease epidemics are occurring in the regions of those countries faced with increasing heat waves and decreased rainfall. The disease is most prevalent in hot agricultural lowlands, especially coastal areas. Water quality is another health issue in big agricultural areas due to lowering water table and droughts, as well as workers’ willingness to risk dehydration rather than drink tainted water.

And while it’s easy to become desensitized to these statistics, Glaser notes that the workers who are affected by these warming temperatures are the very people who provide the basis of our economies and lifestyles.

“Climate change will impact our entire economic system and CKDu is potentially a canary in the coal mine, a warning of what is to come,” he says. “The cost of mitigating our carbon use now, pale by comparison to the costs that we will incur being forced to address [the] water crisis… The health costs that go along with that are not worth the short term gain of torching dead dinosaurs to fuel our economy. We should take stock, we should take care of those who provide the fundamentals of our way of life.”

Banner: A controlled burn prepares a sugarcane field for the harvest in El Salvador. | Photo: Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images