Despite their illness, the former sugarcane workers affected by Chronic Renal Failure (CRF) and the widows grouped in ANAIRC are bravely enduring the daily hardships of living in the makeshift campsite where they hung their hammocks over a month ago to stage a protest, confident that sooner or later the Pellas Group will have to abandon its shamefully insensitive attitude.
So far, three workers have had to abandon the struggle due to health complications that required constant medical attention and made their removal from the campsite necessary. The risk of camping outdoors, with no sanitation or running water, was just too great. But for every individual that has to leave there are dozens ready to take their place and join the struggle, which in the past week has gained intensity, with new demonstrations in front of the company’s offices in Edificio Pellas.
As demonstrators in the ANAIRC campsite gather, join in discussions, plan the details of the following day’s protest and begin lighting fires to prepare Nicaragua’s traditional gallopinto1 for dinner, Juan Jesús Castellón sits on his hammock, sheltering his head from the blazing sun under a black plastic tarpaulin.
I come up to him and we start talking. He tells me how he became ill and how he started participating in this struggle.
“I began working at Ingenio San Antonio when I was still a chavalo (young boy). I was only 15 and started out cutting cane. It was very tough and I did it for five years. I went out to the fields at 5:30 a.m. and had to work all day until I reached the target, which was 100 meters of cane. I couldn’t leave before I cut that much, and often had to stay on until 5 or 6 p.m.
The ground I worked on was covered with ashes, because the fields are burnt before the cane is cut. The heat was unbearable, but it was even worse because we didn’t have adequate gear to protect us from the sun. We didn’t have enough drinking water because what we could bring from home was too little, so we had to drink water from the rivers near the fields or from the wells in the mill, which were polluted, but we didn’t know it then.”
Workers are paid by ton of sugarcane cut and a man working at his hardest can cut 7 or 8 tons in a long day’s work. According to Castellón, the company is currently paying 60 cents of a dollar per ton. As several studies have revealed, working long days in such harsh conditions and over extended periods of time, under the blazing sun and with severe water deprivation, it is almost impossible for a worker’s kidneys not to be affected.
“And now –he goes on– workers have to face yet another violation of their rights, which is the presence of contractors. The company has practically left wage and benefit payments in their hands, and they often cheat us, reducing the value of our social security contributions, or keeping them directly for themselves,” Castellón says.
Poisoned with agrotoxic chemicals
After five years on the fields, he was moved to the herbicide department, where he began spraying agrotoxic substances and was poisoned twice with chemicals.
“The first time was when they sent the youngest workers to try out a new mix of herbicides, and 15 of us ended up in the hospital. I was spraying the product and I started coughing really hard and couldn’t stop. That was when I saw the first boy fall to the ground, and when I tried to leave the cane field I fainted. What they told us at the hospital was that we hadn’t washed our hands after handling the herbicide and we’d touched our food when we ate. But we knew that was a lie. The real problem was that we were spraying chemicals without any protection at all,” Castellón says.
Juan Jesús had to stay in the hospital for a week, and when he went back to work he was told to apply fertilizer while he recovered. But after only a week he was back spraying the same herbicide, and he was poisoned again.
In the end, they transferred him to a mechanical department, where he felt better, and was sure the worst had passed. He worked there for ten years, but his illness had set in and progressed without him realizing it.
“In 1999 I became so ill I had to stay in bed. I couldn’t even move. But when I went in for a medical examination they didn’t tell me what was really wrong. They lied to me and said I had back problems. As we were all becoming aware of CRF, I had the test done in another laboratory, and it came back with a 4.3 mg/dl level of creatinine.”
As always happens in such cases, the company simply got rid of Juan Jesús. After 25 years of hard work they told him he wasn’t fit to work anymore and that he should apply for a pension with the Social Security agency.
He didn’t give up and continued to look for work, but it was hard. He did a number of odd jobs until his body gave up on him. Today he lives on his pension, barely getting by.
His creatinine level is now 3.5 mg/dl, three times the level considered safe for men, and his kidneys have started to shrink.
Despite his condition, Juan Jesús is convinced that they are going to win their struggle to obtain compensation for the damage they have suffered. “I’ve seen so many people die over the past few years. All the men who used to work with me cutting cane are gone. They’re all dead and it’s for them as much as for us that we’re here today,” he says.
“The help we’ve received from the IUF, the Italy-Nicaragua Association and from the many people that are supporting us in the country is important to us. We know we’re going to fight to the end. Our struggle is above all for our families, because our days are numbered,” he concludes.