Bitter aftertaste for Nicaraguan sugarcane workers
More than 700 community members and ex-sugarcane workers filed a complaint in April with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) for injuries to their health and the environment allegedly caused by the operations of Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited (NSEL).
NSEL is a subsidiary of Grupo Pellas, one of the largest and most diversified corporations in Central America, with stakes in energy, sugar, Flor de Cana rum, ethanol, cars, banking and credit card companies. The towns of Chichigalpa, Goyena and Abangasca in northwest Nicaragua are surrounded by thousands of hectares of NSEL sugarcane. The company has brought much needed employment to the region, but this has come at a cost to the workers’ health.
Much of the sugarcane produced here will be used for biofuels - as with a growing percentage of the 145 million tons of sugar produced each year worldwide. While biofuels have been touted as an alternative to fossil fuels, they can also have negative consequences for the environment and people. The Nicaraguan complaint highlights the need to consider the wider impacts.
Communities report respiratory problems caused by clouds of smoke and ash created when the sugarcane fields are burned before harvesting. And many believe the chemicals used on the sugarcane are the cause of widespread chronic renal insufficiency (CRI) - particularly prevalent among workers in NSEL fields. Up to January 8, 2,677 people had died of renal failure resulting from pesticide poisoning, according to an association for those affected.
Communities and sugar workers have also complained of contaminated water and threats to their water supply because of the large quantities needed to process the sugarcane. They accuse NSEL of harassing those who have attempted to establish a trade union or raised concerns about the company’s operations.
NSEL received a $55 million loan from the IFC in 2006 to increase its sugarcane production and to fund the construction of an ethanol plant. The community complaint was submitted to the Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, the mechanism established to hold the IFC accountable for violations of environmental and social standards. The documents present evidence that NSEL activities have violated these standards.
"The IFC must ensure that it does not trade one environmental problem for another," said Kris Genovese, attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law, which helped with the preparation of the complaint. "These communities represent the thousands of unseen victims of biofuel projects that fail to account for their impact on human health and natural resources."