A former ambassador for Nicaragua in France and elsewhere, Ariel Granera Sacara is the Head of Communications at the Pellas Group. In other words, he’s top brass. Besides being a very cultured, clever, funny man, he turns out to be a Dustin Hoffman lookalike. I won’t try to cover up the good impression he made on me. Even though one can criticise a case of collusion between the public and private sectors, there’s no denying that he’s very likeable.
It’s important here to take precautions and describe the context for a subjective reading of this dossier. For a short account of the conversation I had, in French, with Mr Granera Sacara at the office of the Sugar Estate Company of Nicaragua, click here. The interview below was carried out later on (in September 2017) by email, based on the information collected in the meantime.
Rumporter: Ariel, how is the sugar industry organised in Nicaragua? And how is your multisector group organised in terms of sugar production?
AGS: In Nicaragua, there is the CNPA, the National Committee of Sugar Producers, a private non-profit organisation whose objective is to promote agribusiness companies in Nicaragua. The sugar estates that make up the CNPA are San Antonio, Monte Rosa, la Compañía Azucarera del Sur and Montelimar.
R: How long has your company been cultivating sugarcane?
AGS: Records indicate that they started the first crops in 1891, but known archives show that the first harvests took place in 1898.
R: How many hectares do you own? Where are your fields located? What is the proportion of direct and indirect (subcontractors) jobs among the cane farmers working for you?
AGS: We exploit 23,817 hectares in total, all of which are in North West Nicaragua. We employ all our cane cutters directly and no longer have subcontractors.
R: In your opinion, what has caused an increase in CKDu cases among cane workers over the past fifteen years?
AGS: Global warming could be a cause. A common pattern among the most affected workers is the act of doing physical labour in hot weather. This is surely a sign that heat stress and dehydration provoke acute lesions which, over time, must cause severe kidney failure.
But the disease also affects people who don’t work in the agricultural world or in mines. There have been cases among builders, dockers and even people who don’t do anything at all. Triggering factors may also include certain toxins, certain agrochemical products, certain infections (leptospirosis, hantavirus), analgesic abuse, and heavy metals. So far there hasn’t been a final conclusion. We are developing a public health protocol aimed at reducing risk among our employees.
R: As I was studying the whole case, it came to my mind that the World Bank investing recently in the Nicaraguan sugar industry may have had an impact. Haven’t these investments been made too quickly in a region where there is no real culture or organisation when it comes to sugarcane production? I’m thinking of the way Martinican dwellings were organised, an organisation which, despite questionable conditions, had its merits, especially in terms of providing hydration to cane cutters. Do you agree with this analysis?
AGS: Sugarcane has been cultivated in this region since 1891. Besides, the expansion of land took place at a slow pace, and most investments were in ethanol production. So, I don’t agree with this point of view.
R: There are other sugar producers in Nicaragua, for example Monterossa, your Guatemalan competitor. Why haven’t they received criticism too?
AGS: You should ask these other sugar estates about this.
R: What do you think about the changes that in 2008 the Parliament brought to the social security legislation regulating the compensation and management of workers suffering from an “occupational disease”? These changes have made eligibility for therapy more restrictive, with in particular an obligation to prove 26 consecutive weeks of work, a difficult condition to fulfil for seasonal workers hired on a daily basis? As a result, many patients have been denied that status and unable to pay for healthcare. This is a tragic situation, especially for those suffering from an advanced form of the disease. Do you know who influenced the members of Parliament who voted in favour of this change in the law?
AGS: These are strictly political decisions, we haven’t taken any part in them.
R: Let’s come back to your company. What have you put in place to fight against the disease, within your company but, more importantly maybe, within the National Committee of Sugar Producers?
AGS: Within our company, we have put in place a vigilance protocol, the purpose of which is to protect our employees’ health. It includes daily medical tests, information and training provided to workers to, among other purposes, prevent problems caused by stifling heat and dehydration. The use of personal protection equipment, of appropriate clothing, breaks in the shade to allow organisms to cool down and the management and monitoring of the protocol itself.
Within the Committee of Sugar Producers, we have shared with other members all our knowledge and the findings of the experiments we’ve been conducting. We are developing a manual aimed at fighting against heat stress. Also, we’re promoting an initiative aimed at creating exemplary plants complying with Bonsucro’s standards (Editor’s Note: a global organisation and network promoting sugarcane and social and environmental responsibility among its cultivators).
R: During my interview with them in Léon, I asked Marvin Gonzales and Aurora Aragon, public health doctors, a direct question: does Ingenio San Antonio (the sugar division of the Pellas Group) really do all they can to fight the epidemic? Here’s the answer they gave me: they don’t doubt what you say, nor your intentions, they monitor as closely as possible the results of the experiments you conduct, but they blame you for a lack of transparency. Transparency when it comes to the data you collect, the nature of the phytosanitary products you use, etc. They clearly lack resources and this data could prove to be very valuable for them. Are you willing to put this data at their disposal to help fight against the disease?
AGS: Since 2009, Ingenio San Antonio has given both the Boston University School of Public Health and the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston free access to their clinical and statistical data. And findings of the studies carried out by these two institutions have been made public (read our interview with Jason Glaser about this).
No other company in the world has opened its doors as wide as we have for the study of this problem. At this very moment we are putting in place a joint project with La Isla Network that includes a public health investigation aspect. Dr Marvin Gonzales will be a member of the research team that will work on the subject, along with the researchers we employ in-house.