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Commentary :: Media
Deciphering the media campaign against Nicaragua Sugar Estates and the Pellas Group
20 Apr 2010
A stone in the shoe

In a recent article, the most conspicuous organizer of ANAIRC´s disinformation campaign against Nicaragua Sugar and the Pellas Group (Grupo Pellas) and the boycott against Flor de Caña finally decided to make an incursion into a new territory, without completely abandoning his repetitive disparaging epithets, in an attempt to give a new appearance to ANAIRC’s claims and make them seem serious.

Let’s carefully examine what this is all about.
The author persists in his old affirmation that the massive use of agro-toxic chemicals by Nicaragua Sugar contaminated the water in the zone and directly affected workers and their families, except that he says for the first time “that it occurred in the past”. Beware of misleading messages!

This could mean that we are witnessing a change of sign in the campaign because the promoters are probably overwhelmed by evidence showing that the San Antonio Sugar Mill, owned by Nicaragua Sugar Estates, does not use pesticides, but biological and mechanical pest control, which, among other things, has made it an international benchmark in the sugar industry.

There are no grounds for sustaining this reckless affirmation that the San Antonio sugar mill (ISA) has massively applied polluting agro-toxic chemicals in the past. It is a known fact that agrochemicals used by this sugar mill in cane production are approved for use around the world, have not caused pollution, and any interested party can consult this list with the company.

As we continue to read the article, we are surprised that the author states that most of the affected persons “lived in a shantytown… withstanding everything, until they were evicted in 1998 in an effort to hide the alarming increase in CRI mortality rates…”

Is this true?

Keeping in mind the wellbeing of the workers, Nicaragua Sugar (NSEL) determined that it was necessary to rebuild the management approach that until then had governed the population that lived in the sugar mill facilities. In that sense, it was deemed that this population needed to be relocated for the following reasons:

• To provide heads of household with their own house given that they lived in a house owned by the sugar mill. Their relocation to the Candelaria neighborhood allowed them to become homeowners.
• To comply with industrial security standards.
• To expand the facilities as required by the factory´s growth.

The relocation site is still very close to ISA’s facilities, which has allowed the relocated population to keep providing services to the Company.

NSEL offered different options to these people, which were agreed with each family. It is well-known that the San Antonio sugar mill has continued to support residents in Candelaria by repairing streets, supporting immunization campaigns of the Ministry of Health, donating land for a children’s playground, transporting personnel, cleaning septic tanks, supplying trucks with potable water as needed, etc.

But let´s continue with the text. The writer talks about “working conditions, lack of hydration… were other elements that contributed to a direct link between CRI and the sugar industry”.

Let’s see the working conditions of cane cutters.
Adequate practices of hydration and food consumption by ISA workers have been established as a policy by Nicaragua Sugar, which has adjusted its annual operating plans to promote healthy lifestyles.

Each team of field workers is made up of approximately 150 to 300 workers, who arrive in buses to the different plantations in groups of 60 to 70 people. Each worker brings a 4-6 liter container from his home. Each bus carries a 55-gallon plastic barrel filled with water.

On the other hand, the company provides the following benefits to the cane cutters: lunch in the field (contracted with a company and based on a balanced nutritional diet), hydrating fluids and nutritious cookies each day, medical care for each cane cutter and his family, and food supplies. A group of social and health workers supervise that cane cutters receive these benefits.

As we continue to read, we find that the panegyrist affirms that “the manual irrigation of agro-toxic chemicals was another element that contributed to a direct link between CRI and the sugar industry”.

Does this match reality?

The San Antonio sugar mill has mandatory personal protection equipment and safety measures that are strictly enforced in the application and use of agrochemicals. This equipment consists of a work uniform, long sleeve shirt, cap, mask with filters, rubber gloves, boots and raincoat.

Nicaragua Sugar periodically examines agro-chemical applicators to discard any sign of intoxication.

NSEL also provides training in diverse topics, such as use and handling of agrochemicals, biological pollution, environmental management, integral solid waste management and recycling, among others.

Nicaragua Sugar provides adequate facilities so that workers may bathe and change clothes. It has 15 showers that are used by agrochemical applicators before and after each workday. Showers and eye-washers are also available in the factory, laboratories and co-generation areas.

In the next section, the designer of the ANAIRC campaign addresses one of his favorite topics, which is to attack pseudo or white unions in the San Antonio sugar mill and rum distillery, stressing as follows: “… unfortunately one of them is affiliated to a Sandinista union (CST), which in turn is affiliated to international union organizations…”.

But what really exists?

NSEL currently has five unions that are duly certified and registered at the Directorate of Union Associations of the Ministry of Labor. These unions are: Ronald Altamirano Union with 500 members, Union of Democratic Workers with 825 members, Faustino Martínez Union with 1,500 members, Teachers’ Union with 33 members and Employees’ Union with 80 members.

The aforesaid unions represent the most varied political and ideological tendencies and the members of the Sandinista leftist union “Ronald Altamirano” would fall head over heels if they read that the pen-pusher of ANAIRC ranks them as a pseudo or white union.

Ever since NSEL began to operate in 1890, it has never interfered with the right of the workers to form unions, as proven by the fact that unions have existed in the company from the 1960s to date. However, according to the columnist, if the unions do not think like him, they are white, if the workers’ leaders denounce ANAIRC’s absurd campaign, they are in favor of the employer, if the workers demonstrate to defend their jobs and benefits in the San Antonio sugar mill, they are forced to demonstrate, and if the unions are leftist, then he doesn’t know what saint to pray to.

If we keep on reading, we will see that the writer abandons the unions and bursts into the academic world, more specifically the University of Leon, to present a study by Dr. Cecilia Torres that allows him to discourse on “the factors that cause CRI”, saying that “among the major risk factors are environmental nephrotoxins, such as heavy metals, arsenic, cadmium and lead, and agrochemicals like Aldrin, Chlorotalonil, Maneb, copper sulphate, Endrin and even DBCP (Nemagon)”.

It’s okay. However, one wonders what all this has to do with Nicaragua Sugar and the San Antonio sugar mill. None of these products have been used or are being used by the company.

But it doesn’t end there. If we scrutinize a little further, we see that the journalist, not satisfied with his unfortunate encounter with toxicology, goes back to his old ways, always under the protective shield of Dr. Torres, and refers to the “disastrous” working conditions of cane cutters in Nicaragua’s sugar industry.

What a disappointment it must be to find out that the San Antonio sugar mill has established a progressive working system so that workers adapt to environmental conditions and avoid heat stroke during the freshest hours of the day until they are able to work full days. Most workers arrive at the plantation at 6:00 a.m., start working at 7:00 a.m., and stop working between 11:00 a.m. and 12:00 noon when food is delivered at the work sites.

On the other hand, as of 2005 the company set a maximum of seven tons from an average of nine tons cut by each worker, and eliminated the higher pay incentive after the sixth ton. This incentive is now distributed among the first seven tons so as to reduce work effort without affecting the income of workers.

Going back to the article, we discovered a really sad situation in which the author manipulates some statements by Dr. Mario Jiménez, an epidemiologist at the Center for Research on Aquatic Resources (CIRA) of the Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN-Managua).

With the clear intention of depicting the sugar industry, in particular the San Antonio sugar mill, as the contaminators that caused CRI, the writer tries to illustrate this with an excerpt from Dr. Jimenez’s statements: “the studies we conducted in the country’s western zone revealed the presence of organochlorinated compounds like lindane, toxaphene, DDT and DDE in the well water for human consumption…”.

To what is Dr. Jimenez referring?
To the study titled “PRESENCE AND CONCENTRATION OF PESTICIDE RESIDUES AND BIOLOGICAL CONTAMINANTS IN THE WATER WELLS FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION IN THE LOCATIONS OF THE FORMER BANANA PLANTATIONS IN THE WEST OF NICARAGUA”, which he carried out in Nicaragua’s western region, together with Dr. Salvador Montenegro Guillén, both members of Nicaragua’s Center for Research on Aquatic Resources (CIRA) at the NATIONAL AUTONOMOUS UNIVERSITY OF NICARAGUA (UNAN-Managua).

The objectives of this study were 1) to identify the presence of pesticide residues and biological contaminants in the water wells for human consumption in the former banana plantations in Nicaragua’s western region and 2) to establish the potential relation between the presence of pesticide residues in the water wells and the effects on the health of the population that lives in those locations.

The manipulation is more than evident because the CIRA report has nothing to do with sugarcane. It is related to findings linked to mass banana production in the zone.

Chinandega was an agricultural emporium for several decades where tons of chemicals were applied to control banana and cotton pests. Years after the boom of these crops ended, many former agricultural workers began reporting serious diseases.

But there’s still more.

In his eagerness to find a scientific endorsement that legitimizes his statement about the alleged causality link between CRI and sugar production, the representative of ANAIRC goes back to interview Dr. Jiménez and attempts to obtain the endorsement that he yearns so much. Nevertheless, the most he could obtain as an answer was: “although CRI is clearly a multifactor disease, we cannot exclude that it is related to work in the sugar mills”.

As lawyers say, the confession of the parties shifts the burden of proof. Does this have any relationship with the ANAIRC campaign where it is categorically and emphatically stated that it has already been proven so no study is needed, that CRI is unquestionably caused by sugarcane agricultural practices, particularly those of the San Antonio sugar mill, and thus the money demanded by the organization should be granted?

Now then, the man does not give up and persists in going back to the research by Dr. Torres, providing some statistics contained in this study. To quote him: “the results were not homogenous at the community level and revealed a greater incidence of CRI in the mining sector with 37%, as well as agriculture and coffee with 32% and 14%, respectively…”.

On the other hand, CRI has been detected in different occupational groups: cane cutters, miners, banana workers, stevedores and even preschool children. In other words, it does not affect just one specific labor group.

He talks here about miners, coffee growers and agriculture in general. What does this have to do with ANAIRC´s campaign that CRI is caused by the sugarcane of the San Antonio sugar mill?
Let’s look carefully.

As concerns the San Antonio sugar mill, former workers affected by CRI were temporary workers who also performed other types of agricultural activities. Many of them only worked during the harvest season and stopped working for the Company many years ago.

On the other hand, the statement contained in the article that Nicaragua Sugar never mentions the study of Dr. Torres, is not true either. The physicians who work for this company have mentioned it and have indicated that it is one of the research studies that must be known about this health issue.

These statistics appear in the Dr. Torres’s research associated to this other: “However, the community of Isla in Chichigalpa, where the main work activity is sugarcane, the prevalence of CRI is the highest, reaching 41%...” Bingo! The intrepid publicist finally got what he wanted. Although the first statistics are irrelevant for his purpose, the second statistic is the one “that counts” because it serves him as a screen for what he needed.

What the busy reporter does not say is that CRI is present in several zones of the country, including territories where sugar production does not exist and, in the west of the country, the disease rate is higher in Leon than in Chinandega. Even though Leon is not a sugar-producing department, the largest number of patients is reported in the municipality of Larreynaga, where cane cultivation does not exist.

Going back to the tireless narrator, we find him leaving the academia in the following paragraph and entering the detective field like Sherlock Holmes. Let´s find out what he tells us:
“According to a document in the possession of ANAIRC, signed by Marino Castrillo, Director of Human Resources at the San Antonio sugar mill, exhaustive water analyses were made in the San Antonio sugar mill, which showed that the water is heavily contaminated with agro-toxic chemicals and relating this presence to the CRI disease…”

He omits to mention that the referenced document was an outright falsification, for which reason Dr. Castrillo filed a criminal complaint in the Sole Local Court of Chichigalpa in 2008. It is a powerful attention grabber that ANAIRC uses this falsification object of a criminal proceeding in its campaign against Nicaragua Sugar.

But where will this modern version of Caupolican take us now? Surprise! In his obsessive thinking about the Pellas Group and NSEL, he introduces Mrs. Yanirée Alvarez, indicating that she was a member at a given time of the social movement of Leon, and quotes her as saying that Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited tried to purchase 1,500 additional hectares of land to expand cane production “without taking into account that cane cultivation requires the extraction of large amounts of water… which is already seriously affecting water reserves of the population in the rural zones…”

The purchase of land by any company engaged in agricultural production is a normal activity that nobody in his right mind can question. In the case of Nicaragua Sugar, these purchases have been made pursuant to the laws, paying market prices based on supply and demand.

Insofar as that cane production would be detrimental for water availability in the zone, it is necessary to point out that the San Antonio sugar mill has abundant water sources and manages them in a sustainable manner. Water is obtained from 116 wells, 57 river and channel intakes, and 16 diversion dams along the different rivers that cross the sugar mill.

Nicaragua Sugar has the necessary permits for the drilling of wells and intakes from rivers, channels and dams issued by the relevant authorities.

It has been estimated that available volume in the hydrologic water basin that supplies ISA and its surroundings is 309 million cubic meters. According to the irrigation use of this watershed, total annual consumption is estimated at 100 million cubic meters, of which 25% percolates through the soil and eventually returns to the aquifer as recharge and the remaining 75% is easily covered by annual precipitations in the zone between the months of May and November, averaging 70 inches per year.

We have an indicator for this in the standards for well measurements performed for over 40 years at ISA, which indicators, such as static level and dynamic level, remain without great variations.

In 1998 and 2000 , hydrological and hydro-geological studies on water availability, extraction and safe yields were carried out in the area of the sugar mill and Chinandega-Leon-Nagarote watershed. The results of both studies show that the San Antonio sugar mill makes adequate use of water resources.

Since the article seeks to be exhaustive, the audacious conjurer later refers to renewable energy and again quotes Mrs. Alvarez, saying that cane cultivation would affect the environment to benefit “only a privileged group of businessmen”, as opposed to the potentials of geothermal, wind and solar energy.
How far-fetched!

In the San Antonio sugar mill, sugarcane bagasse is used to generate electricity, instead of being discarded. Co-generation capacity is 60 MW per hour, which allows for eliminating the use of bunker and providing 7% of Nicaragua’s power consumption during the harvest. It is a clean and cheap energy source. Since bunker is not consumed, it is estimated that over 95 thousand tons of greenhouse gases are reduced per year.

After the harvest, in the months of May through July, 17 MW of electricity are produced per hour, of which 12 MW are sold to the national interconnection system. This clean energy is generated with eucalyptus chips originating from the nursery of the San Antonio sugar mill, where 800 thousand plants are produced each year and renovated in 7,650 acres. To date, more than 6 million trees have been planted.

In his relentless effort to find faults attributable to Nicaragua Sugar, the columnist in question passes to talk with a painstaking air about deforestation caused by cane production.

Let’s analyze this also.

Nicaragua Sugar promotes the planting of native species each year as a way of contributing to the recovery and protection of water sources, the preservation of biological wildlife corridors, forest fire protection and natural regeneration.

This reforestation is carried out along the banks of different rivers in the municipalities of Chichigalpa, Quezalguaque, Posoltega, Leon and Chinandega. Some reforestation activities are carried out with students, municipal governments, civil society and government institutions, with the objective of involving all the population in the protection of the environment.

The nursery at the San Antonio sugar mill produces 50,000 native tree species each year, such as kapok, strawberry tree, cedar, mahogany, guanacaste and oak, which are used for reforestation. In 2006 and 2007, for example, 53,500 different species were planted to reforest more than 356 acres of river banks. In 2008, 45,000 new trees were planted in 365 acres along the banks of diverse rivers in Leon and Chinandega.

But there´s still more. The officious spokesman of ANAIRC goes back to the trite theme of Law 456 that recognizes CRI as a professional disease in Nicaragua.

Any person with some knowledge about Nicaraguan legislation knows that this recognition does not establish a causality link between a specific productive activity and CRI. It is known and has been stated on numerous occasions that a medical assessment committee exists.

If the spokesperson were right, ANAIRC would have solved the problem and would have obtained all the money it has persistently sought for several years.

In relation to the statements of the INSS Director, which are taken out of context, the official position of the Government of Nicaragua is not known. As far as raising the percentage that farmers pay to the INSS on account of occupational risks from 1 to 5%, the idea is so preposterous that it never prospered.

Unfortunately never satisfied, ANAIRC´s skilled swordsman meddles with ASOCHIVIDA, Nicaragua´s most representative organization of kidney patients, with which NSEL has maintained for more than one year a very positive dialogue on the CRI problem that affects the members of this association.

ASOCHIVIDA is not at all like ANAIRC. While the first tries to find a solution to the problem, the latter, entrenched in its unjustified money demands, has self-excluded itself from being part of the solution. For that reason and that reason only, it is so isolated in Nicaragua.

ASOCHIVIDA and NSEL agreed that an international, impartial and prestigious organization would conduct a study to determine the causes of CRI in the west of Nicaragua.

After an exhaustive process that involved 9 public agencies, 22 U.S. and European universities and 5 private consulting firms, Boston University was chosen to conduct the study.

The final results of the study will provide important knowledge on the causes of this disease in the west of Nicaragua, define potential liabilities, if any, and articulate prevention and response strategies.

Nicaragua Sugar, faithful to its social responsibility tradition and as an expression of support to the community, has offered its solidarity to the people in the nearby communities who suffer chronic renal insufficiency.

Between 2000 and 2004 it delivered humanitarian and economic aid in the amount of approximately two million dollars to over 1,400 people affected by CRI and currently provides nutritional support to 1,800 families that are members of ASOCHIVIDA and medical assistance to the patients consisting of medicines, equipment and inputs for the Chichigalpa Health Center.

In the limits of disinformation and ready for action, the distinguished essayist moves to the financial terrain and says that Nicaragua Sugar “requested a $25 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to purchase 1,500 hectares of land to expand cane cultivation…” And he then adds that “to accede to a loan from IDB, no judicial causes of action can be pending. Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited has administrative and judicial causes of action pending…”

It is really sad that he makes no effort to investigate his information. For that reason, among other things, the sponsors of ANAIRC lack credibility.

Even though it is not a crime to apply for a loan, Nicaragua Sugar has never applied or plans to apply for a loan with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). If ANAIRC´s apologist has doubts, he can easily confirm this information with IDB.

As concerns the judicial causes of action, some persons did file complaints in this regard, but all of them were dismissed by the courts of justice in separate judgments.

Finally, our illustrious character and the brain behind ANAIRC´s campaign, affirms that ISA has 144 thousand manzanas of land, when any minimally informed person knows that the San Antonio sugar mill owns approximately 19,000 manzanas of land. If the detractor of Nicaragua Sugar wants to verify this through independent sources, the only thing he has to do, which is not very complicated, is to visit the respective offices of the State of Nicaragua where this information can be confirmed.

According to Goebbels, the famous Nazi Minister of Propaganda, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

Maybe this is the source of inspiration of those developing this campaign.

This work is in the public domain