An epidemic in Nicaragua: should we care?


For the most part, life is something we take for granted. We make plans and generally operate on the belief that we have freedom to determine our path. Until sickness arises, that is. Then the illusion is shattered. Illness has a way of trumping all of our plans both big and small. Suddenly everything gets pushed aside and turned topsy-turvy. Life is interrupted.

When there is fault and culpability involved the story changes yet again because illness is avoidable. Work practices or the use of hazardous materials are often implicated or responsible for the onset of illness and death. Sadly, the situation is commonplace, particularly in the Third World where life is valued differently and healthier alternatives are oftentimes much harder to come by. Plausible deniability in the form of standard-issue, corporate doublespeak asserting that ‘no conclusive proof has determined the link between…’ has become the oft-used explanation to deny guilt but huge product liability lawsuits get settled all of the time (in the First World at least) with multi-million dollar payouts and no admission of guilt whatsoever. It’s simply factored in as the cost of doing business.

When I first came across the story concerning the epidemic of chronic kidney disease (CKDu/CDKnt ) amongst Nicaraguan sugar cane workers something about it struck me. Perhaps it was the isolated and mysterious nature of the disease which continues unabated amongst workers in the cane fields. Or maybe it was the fact that such a big story had escaped my attention until then.

Young robust men who once earned their living cutting cane in the northern part of the country near Chichigalpa are being sickened and are dying in large numbers by a disease of unknown origin. Apparently this has been going on for quite some time and while no cause has been identified, evidence suggests that it is either of environmental origin or something related to an intrinsic occupational hazard, perhaps (as alleged by the owners of the plantations) simple dehydration.

A few months after I first learned about the situation affecting the sugar cane workers the story crossed my radar a second time but by then I was back in the States, well-removed from sugar cane plantations and life in Nicaragua. The article highlighted the work of Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at MIT who has spent years looking into possible links between Roundup, (manufactured by Monsanto) the most commonly used herbicide in the world and a wide range of chronic diseases including autism. While I was aware that autism had increased over the years I had no idea that in the U.S. the disease has dramatically spiked without explanation, and according to Seneff, basically follows the exact same trajectory as the rapidly growing use of Roundup. To give you an idea of just how dramatic the increase has been; in 1970 when Roundup was first introduced to the market autism affected 1 in 10,000 babies born in the US. Last year the figure had risen to 1 in 54 for male births, an astounding increase by any measure. Heightened awareness and increased diagnosis can only account for a very small fraction of the statistics and although no causal link has been conclusively established as yet the correlation between the two is striking.

Seneff’s hypothesis centers on the fact that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is designed to interrupt a particular metabolic pathway only present in plants but it also affects humans by destroying their beneficial gut organisms and in turn, their ability to fabricate essential amino acids that are part of early brain development. Certainly one would expect that the government and the regulatory agencies responsible for insuring the safe use of this popular herbicide would take note and proceed with both diligence and extreme caution to determine if in fact a causal link can be established or not. Well here’s how they responded;

In 2014 the U.S. government and the EPA decided to dramatically increase, to significantly higher levels, the allowable residue limits for glyphosate in the food products we routinely consume. Worth noting is that corn, soy-based food products and potatoes are particularly high in glyphosate residue and are about to be allowed to go much higher.

Add to this the fact that recent legislation was passed by the federal government which exempts Monsanto and other manufacturers from any liability if future safety issues arise as a result of genetically modified organisms. You have to ask yourself what possible motivation could have caused such a reaction especially since the only information or data they relied upon was supplied by Monsanto, the manufacturer of the herbicide in question. What could possibly have led to the voluntary reset of residue limits from the previously determined ‘safe’ levels already in place? For certain foods the residue limits will be allowed to more than double. The overuse of herbicides has been shown to lead to more resistant weed strains which in turn require heavier doses of herbicides. Certainly Monsanto knows exactly where residue limits are headed and what accommodations will be required to keep Roundup in use.

About the same time as this was going on two other sugar producing countries, Sri Lanka and El Salvador voted to ban the use of Roundup entirely after reviewing independent studies linking glyphosate to identical health issues and mortality rates in their cane workers. Brazil is contemplating similar measures. The U.S. government responded to this decision by immediately threatening to cut off nearly $300 million in foreign aid to El Salvador if they didn’t fall back into ranks and start buying both Roundup and GMO seeds.

Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds are specifically designed to withstand higher doses of Roundup, a sort of ‘hand in glove’ relationship between the plant and herbicide that agricultural oligarch, Monsanto has busily been promoting worldwide with tremendous success. That is until now. More and more individual farmers around the world are beginning to see the downside of heavier and heavier applications of pesticides and herbicides as well as the rising concerns regarding GMO’s. Monsanto in turn has gone from a sort of Jolly Green Giant to an Agricultural Goliath, nasty and threatening when market share is at stake and the U.S. government seems to be more than willing to lend a helping hand.

Ricardo Navarro, president of the Salvadoran Center for Sustainable Technologies (CESTA) lambasted the U.S. response and implored Mari Carmen Aponte, U.S. Ambassador to stop pressuring the Government of EL Salvador to buy products that threaten its food security. Back in the U.S. the agencies responsible for watching out for public health have become the sentinels and shills of big pharma and the agri-giants that would have us believing that spraying more and more poison on your food is a good thing.

Most of us like to assume that the food we eat is safe and our government is looking after us and acting on our behalf. So what should one make of this situation? Should the allowable increase in pesticide/herbicide residues we ingest be welcomed as good news? Are the widespread deaths of Nicaraguan sugar cane workers something that should concern us in the U.S.? Basically, how safe are we?

Dr. Stephanie Seneff’s research at MIT into glyphosate continues (She has gone as far as to predict that at current rates autism will affect half of all babies born in the US by 2025) but her findings to date seem compelling enough to merit further attention, especially by the members of regulatory agencies whose main goal is to insure the safety of our food supply. Actions to the contrary on their part are troubling to say the least but perhaps not surprising given the degree to which US democracy has yielded to a form of corporatocracy-  a land where corporate interests are comingled with and represented by, instead of tempered by regulatory and safety concerns. The question remains whether crony capitalism will win out over mounting concerns over public health.

Anyone who has spent much time in Nicaragua or similar Third World countries probably can attest to the fact that pesticides and other potentially dangerous substances are not handled with the same degree of care and precaution as the manufacturer clearly specifies. MINSA workers fogging for mosquitoes while wearing little to no lung protection immediately springs to mind as just one of many examples. (I’ve personally had the pleasure of fending off local MINSA agents who were keen on scooping some form of granulated pesticide into my swimming pool, bare-handed no less. Despite their assurances that it was harmless I opted not to swim in a broth of pesticides after reading the label).

Straddling the cultural divide as I do by spending half of the year in the US and half in Nicaragua has altered my view of many things to say the least. I think the United States can certainly do a lot to improve its relationship with Nicaragua in meaningful ways and it isn’t just a question of doling out more aid money. I would like to see closer ties between these two countries but increasingly I see the actions of the United States, especially in regards to so-called ‘foreign aid’ as a new form of power and hegemony, the New Imperialism. Gun Boat Diplomacy is, after all so 19th century, so old school.

The story of thousands (yes, thousands) of young men, formerly sugar cane workers, wasting away towards certain, premature death in northern Nicaragua isn’t a story that will gain much traction with readers in the upper latitudes. I get that.  Poor campesinos living at the furthest, most remote margins of society are essentially invisible and voiceless and for most of us living in the First World it is a story simply too far away from what really matters as we go about our daily lives.  The fact that sugar cane cultivation has become increasingly dependent on multiple, heavy applications of Roundup shouldn’t really be a concern for those living in the United States. Wait…or should it?

Sickness is an indifferent arbiter. It levels even the most lavishly lopsided playing fields, including those tipped by prosperity, entitlement and hubris. And in the final analysis it renders us all equally vulnerable and for better or worse, pretty much the same.

About Robert Skydell
Robert Skydell

Robert Skydell divides his time equally between Nicaragua and the U.S. He writes about perplexing cultural issues he comes across in both countries.

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