Down the Drain: Rum community in turmoil as thousands of deaths linked to sugar cane production

Courtesy of Jason Alexander, Tacoma Cabana

The images on social media grab your attention –empty bottles, neck down in a sink. The contents? Flor de Caña rum. A recent article in Vice magazine details the fates of Nicaraguan sugar cane harvesters, who are dying at an alarming rate from Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). Influential bar owners and rum experts, such as Martin Cate, Ed Hamilton, Bobby Heugel, Andrew Friedman, Nicholas Feris, and Jim Romdall have posted their own empty-bottle photos or links to the Vice article (as well as a previous link in The Guardian that tread similar territory, without the groundswell) on Facebook and Instagram with thoughtful commentary. If you have access to those posts, I urge you to read them.

The crux of the Vice investigation is that in the Chichigalpa region of Nicaragua, in the years between 2002 and 2012, a syndrome called Mesoamerican nephropathy caused 75 percent of the deaths of men aged 35 to 55, numbering in the thousands. The primary employer in Chichigalpa region is Ingenio San Antonio, which harvests the sugar cane used to distill Flor de Caña rum. Sugar cane workers are paid by the harvested ton, rather than an hourly wage, thus many work extremely long days to make enough money to survive. The common term for Mesoamerican nephropathy is Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD); symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramps, and associated problems, leading to kidney failure. The Vice article suggests two primary causes of CKD: First, insufficient hydration and rest for sugar cane harvesters, who often work in extreme heat in a subtropical climate, leading to kidneys being overloaded. Second, pesticides used for the cane harvest may also contribute to the condition.

From these headlines and Facebook posts, much outcry and indignation has arisen within the rum and bar communities. Some bars have dumped their Flor de Caña stock down the drain, vowing to buy no more in support of the workers’ struggle for better conditions. Other folks have suggested that perhaps there are other ways to use current Flor de Caña stock to benefit the workers directly– fundraisers selling pre-batched drinks with the proceeds donated to NGOs who help the workers at the local level. (Others have suggested that this choice is akin to throwing a barbecue to raise money to prevent animal cruelty.)  It’s a complex, emotional issue. Flor de Caña is in the cross-hairs at the moment, and people are already boycotting.

Like those who have already spoken out on the issue, I abhor the situations these workers find themselves in. However, this issue is worth understanding beyond a knee-jerk “Flor de Caña is evil!” reaction. I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading articles and following Facebook threads about this, and while I don’t claim to have the firsthand expertise of someone like Ed Hamilton, who has traveled extensively to this region, there are several important perspectives that can be shared here, to continue the conversation:

This CKD epidemic isn’t limited to just Flor de Caña or Nicaragua. Per this Wikipedia article, the problem also exists in “…southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica.” Meaning, the problem isn’t simply just one company treating its workers poorly, but is perhaps a symptom of an industry or an agricultural system in these countries and potentially others.

High CKD rates also are not limited to sugar cane harvesters. In fact, a recent scientific paper focused on Ingenio San Antonio had this to say: “Interestingly, we found that workers in irrigation and drainage, as well as shrimp farmers, at the sugar estate had the highest attack rates of disease compared to other occupations, including cane cutters.” It also says “…our immediate concern is that a rodent-borne pathogen is responsible for the epidemic of acute renal disease, with conditions favorable for leptospirosis, hantavirus, or even a new pathogen.”  The rate of CKD among shrimp famers is three times the rate of cane harvesters. Let that sink in for a moment.

Simply put, the scientific paper posits that urine from pathogen-carrying rodents leeches into runoff water where workers are exposed to it, and that these pathogens are linked to kidney disease.  It’s worth pointing out that this paper was funded in part by a non-profit organization for promoting Nicaragua’s sugar cane industry. Nonetheless, it provides a reasonable argument for complicated causation beyond just insufficient hydration or pesticide use—both of which likely exacerbate an already dangerous situation.

The Guardian article tells the story of a cane worker named Walter: “For his first nine harvests, or zafras, Walter was contracted to work for Ingenio San Antonio (ISA), Nicaragua’s oldest and biggest sugar mill. Each year, before the harvest, a company doctor would test his blood, urine and blood pressure before declaring him fit for the backbreaking work of cutting cane with a machete in oppressive heat. But in 2012, his blood test showed the first signs of kidney dysfunction. His annual contract was not renewed and he was left without a medical follow-up, compensation or benefits.” A bit later, the article continues: “Outside the sugar plantations, there are very few jobs in Chichigalpa, so like many CKD sufferers Walter used a fake ID and went back to work cutting cane – this time in a ‘ghost team’ for an ISA subcontractor.”

Simply put, Ingenio San Antonio (in theory at least) prevents workers from continuing in a harmful line of work. Despite that, workers with no better economic options continue to do this work, despite being aware of the huge risk. While CKD is no less tragic in and of itself, it points to an even bigger problem of extreme poverty and lack of basic economic survival. By simply paying more for harvesting, or providing alternative sources of income, workers might not be forced to make the terrible decision to put their bodies in harm’s way even more so than they already have.

In terms of what harvested sugar becomes, rum is an incredibly tiny fraction overall. The San Antonio plant where Flor de Caña sugar is processed can make 340,000 liters of alcohol per day, and that doesn’t all become Flor de Caña. Millions upon millions of liters of biofuel ethanol are made from sugarcane. If these massive sugar producers were to suddenly lose all their rum-related business, it likely wouldn’t create a huge impact on their bottom line, given that profits are coming primarily from other industrial uses. While boycotting a producer like Flor de Caña has tremendous leverage for raising public awareness of an issue via social and traditional media, it may not have as much impact on a company’s bottom line as you might hope as you dump those bottles down the drain.

Back in 2013, Grupo Pellas, the owner of Ingenio San Antonio and Flor de Caña, issued a press release addressing the epidemic, which is worth a read. It cites a 2010 Boston University paper indicating no direct link between worker conditions and CKD, as well as stating that they have “…eliminated almost entirely the use of pesticides….”  Grupo Pellas has addressed the issue more recently in light of the uproar, but at this point I don’t have a usable link to include here.

The increased attention given to the horrible CKD problems in recent days is a good thing. However, the problem is much more complex and multi-sided than you might determine by reading just the headlines or posts and standing with a moral boycott of one product. Many Caribbean rum-making islands make little or no sugar themselves. Per Ed Hamilton’s Facebook post on December 6, 2015: “…there is no sugar being produced today in Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, St Kitts, Antigua, Dominica, St Vincent, Grenada and Trinidad.” Rum producers in these countries import that molasses from elsewhere. If you choose to boycott Flor de Caña, can you be sure that other rums on your shelf don’t originate in the same cane fields? Or the sugar cane fields of other companies with similar conditions? This is an industry-wide issue that deserves deep investigation.

I’m not able to put forth any answers, other than perhaps mitigating unsafe working conditions and paying harvesters more so that they can reduce their risk of exposure to CKD. However, by sharing this post, I’m hoping to further contribute to a broader discussion.  Awareness is a great first step.  Where do we as rum supporters go from here?

12/8/2015 Update: In response to the attention around this issue, the the Office of the President of Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua (makers of Flor de Caña) have opened a dialog with the U.S. Bartender’s Guild (USBG), sending an open letter and links to Frequently Asked Questions. The open letter can be read here. The gist of the letter is that they’ve been actively collaborating with outside parties to understand the root causes of CKD (it’s still in question) and how to put a stop to it. It cites their work with Boston University and Baylor university towards those ends.

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13 thoughts on “Down the Drain: Rum community in turmoil as thousands of deaths linked to sugar cane production”

  1. Thank you for the mention and the timely summary. Please note, there are many causes of Chronic Kidney Disease, but insufficient water intake and fatigue are not among them. These cases are most likely caused by regular exposure to nephrotoxic chemicals (agricultural or naturally occurring).

    1. As in the case of gentamicin toxicity, dehydration as well as acidosis (both likely to be in effect in these patients) are well known factors predisposing patients to acute tubular damage.

      The potential for chronic environmental work-related dehydration and acidosis leading to accumulation of incremental acute insults must be considered a potential contributing factors.

      I would be curious to know what local substances might be consumed by any route (PO, inhalation, superficial exposure) that could exhibit nephrotoxicity in the face of extreme dehydration, especially if linked to a seasonal production and intake.

      Out of curiosity is the use of stimulants a commonplace phenomenon during the harvesting season, or other potentially illegal substances which might not be self-reported?

  2. Those that suggest the evil owners of Flor de Caña rum deserve to have their rum poured down the drain are simply over reacting to something read on the Internet — with the best intentions of course — without knowing the full story. I don’t pretend to know the full story, but it’s a fact that this condition is certainly not unique to this small group of workers. Furthermore, the company has a long history of supporting the people of the small town of Chichigalpa for a very long time. Let’s all agree that something more should be done, for this small group of workers and the many thousands of others in many countries that suffer from similar conditions. The company could easily replace these workers with harvesting machines as most others have already done, but this would eliminate many jobs in this home region. Let’s applaud our rum influencers and luminaries that do more than dump rum in the sink. Let’s get our facts straight and propose a positive solution; some small difference to which we can all contribute, that might be seen as a positive step in the right direction.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Robert. Regarding automation, it’s a similar thought I had at first, and I almost included a paragraph to the same point as you make. What’s worse? Working a job that may kill you, or not having any way at all to support yourself. It’s a horrible choice either way.

  3. Matt, you’re correct to point out, in the comments as well, that automation that would no doubt prevent many people from becoming sick, also would prevent them from working.

    This is an issue that permeates the entire world, in almost every industry. While I applaud the average American’s resolve in fighting for better working conditions in third-world countries, it’s naive to think that the people who work those jobs have another choice. And when prices rise, because of the cost of labor, Americans respond by blaming “greedy corporations.”

    The fact is, many of the luxury items we’ve come to depend on (of which liquor is a giant component) are the result of people working in horrible conditions or for almost no pay. By demanding that companies improve working conditions, we are sanctioning the rising of prices, we just don’t want to pay those higher prices. It’s as hypocritical as could be. I wonder how many champions of the poor, that have marinated their sinks in Flor de Cana, are wearing sweaters from Bangladesh, or drinking coffee harvested by migrant workers barely surviving every day.

    I’m not saying that we should abandon our entire way of thinking and slink off to a commune somewhere and live off of the land. I’m merely calling hypocrisy and activism when I see it.

    This was a well formulated article, and I’m interested in reading more of what you’ve written.

    Cheers

  4. A very special.artikel good to read and think about what is going on to the—production Spirits which we buy think about it . Greetings Sigi Spaeth

  5. I’m a rum fan, including Flor de Caña. After reading this article I started researching about this issue. The problem I see is that the writing is based on what an activists’ organization says, which claims have been questioned, not only by the company but by very respectful third parties such as scientific research universities, trade unions and others.
    Who validates the claims of this activists’ organization?
    Is it fair to promote a product boycott based solely on that?
    I think it’s good to worry about the working conditions that allow to manufacture the products we consume, in this case as in any other, but we must be careful not to be instrumented by people or organizations that might have other interests.

  6. I agree with Francys M. I have also looked for more info after I read this, and this disease not only affects the workers of this company, but workers from other industries in different countries from Mexico to Panama, and in other regions of the world.
    Scientists have not been able to conclude what is causing it, then why attacking a company in particular if this is the information available?

  7. The sugar company that produces molasses and alcohol to make Flor de Caña and other rums has always denied these allegations. They have provided data on the working conditions they have and the continuous improvements they implement for their workers, such as enough hydration, rest, shadow, normal working hours, good healthcare, then here in any case there is nothing conclusive to promote actions against Flor de Caña. I think this is exaggerated and hasty. Maybe an injustice is being committed.

  8. Yes, I have read that this sugar company has long tradition of social and environmental commitment, rather uncommon for a company that operates in Central American countries. I know that the company has many international certifications that endorse this. You can visit its website http://www.sersanantonio.com where there are lots of information on this.

  9. I think it should focus attention on that solutions should be sought to resolve the issue. If there are a number of studies have been funded by the sugar industry, however they have provided all kinds of information and studies are public, this is a great way to find the solution. More people should unite to contribute in solving the problem and not to attack a company with a great history in​ ​​Nicaragua.
    It should not overlook a possible infectious source could be more important than dehydration. Everyone at some point we become dehydrated and are exposed to high temperatures and have no kidney problems​​.​
    I found this interesting and constructive publication​.

    ​http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1286457915001653

  10. I would like to call the attention towards Flor de Caña’s attitude to these attacks and invite you to read the press release issued by the company and the communication of Aaron Gregory Smith, Executive Director, United States Bartenders’ Guild. In any case, this is definitely a company that is very open to dialogue and with a clear attitude. I like that.

    http://us3.campaign-archive2.com/?u=119113f40fc17e9d190d2d218&id=645cbc2783&e=e68aca52dc

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