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Bitter Fruit: Labor, Design and The Ravages of Agribusiness

August 24, 2016

By Lauren Weinstein

Eight years ago in Managua, Nicaragua I saw whole families living in tents on a field outside of the National Assembly. They were there in protest, all of them workers in Nicaraguan banana fields demanding compensation for the health effects they had been suffering after what was thought to be exposure to illegal, toxic pesticides used on Central American farmlands since the 1960’s. They had began to experience illnesses with effects so severe that they couldn’t work at all — much less long hours in extreme conditions — and, ultimately, were unable to provide for their families. They were seeking compensation for those effects, and for the birth defects, sterility, and developmental disabilities their children suffered as a result of their parents’ exposure to these toxic chemicals.

Maria Martinez of La Carrera, Juiquilisco, El Salvador, works to collect sugarcane scraps near the Bay of Juquilisco.

Maria Martinez of La Carrera, Juiquilisco, El Salvador, works to collect sugarcane scraps near the Bay of Juquilisco. Image credit: Tom Laffay for La Isla Foundation

I met these workers while participating in a service learning trip called the Bucknell Brigade. We brought donations of food and played soccer with the children and while our efforts were pleasant and appreciated, they still felt trite and limited — a plate of rice certainly wouldn’t reverse their health issues or stop the current workers in the fields from enduring the same fate, or identify the chemicals responsible. The workers asked us to listen to their stories and to share them widely so that the world, and America specifically, could know the truth about the unseen effects suffered by the people who grow our food. They hoped that by sharing their story we could make changes in not just the banana industry, but in a larger agriculture system that has been taking advantage of Latin American laborers for generations.

So, as a group of young and hopeful university students, we set out to help them tell that story.

A Livelihood in Exchange for Life

We spent a few weeks with the bananero community in Managua, trying to capture some sense of their hopes and adversities, to understand the broad, longer term effects of corporate indifference on children who were never given a chance to live their best lives. In the end we produced a short documentary to share with the small portions of the world we could reach as university students, but it wasn’t nearly enough. In order to do more, we looked to others who were also working in the space but had a more intimate knowledge of the community and more resources to tackle the problem.

Green sugarcane is burnt to discard the leaves while workers proceed to cut through the field in Los Almendros, Cuscatlan, El Salvador.

Green sugarcane is burnt to discard the leaves while workers proceed to cut through the field in Los Almendros, Cuscatlan, El Salvador. Image credit: Tom Laffay for La Isla Foundation

We searched for anyone who might know something about the workers’ situation. We met with lawyers representing the workers in cases against big fruit corporations, we met with small advocacy groups and volunteer organisations who were helping on the ground, we visited banana plantations, and we even found scientists and investigative authors covering the topic. Eventually our quest brought us to Jason Glaser, a long-time advocate for the rights of sugarcane and banana workers in Central America.

In working to support agricultural workers and their families for over a decade, Glaser had started La Isla Foundation and produced the Banana Land movie in an effort to expose the truth about the working experience of Central American agricultural workers, and, ultimately, to raise awareness and funding to improve their conditions and quality of life. But when I met Glaser his work was primarily focused on what appeared to be the mysterious deaths of tens of thousands of sugarcane workers in Central America. Glaser and his organization were looking into Chronic Kidney Disease from non traditional causes (CKDnt) to explain the phenomenon. They found that almost 50% of agricultural workers in El Salvador were showing signs of the disease, which leads to kidney failure, sterility, and in many cases death, and that this pattern was similar in other Central American countries, as I saw first-hand in Managua. In the past 10 years this progressive, degenerative kidney disease has caused the deaths of over 20,000 Central Americans.

Their research has uncovered that CKDnt is the leading cause of hospital death for males in El Salvador, exceeding the combined mortality rates of AIDS, leukemia and diabetes. Further, while the disease is most prevalent in sugarcane workers in Central America, they found that it’s not an isolated phenomenon. CKDnt also affects rice workers, coconut farmers, nut harvesters, and mining and construction workers across India, Africa, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. Toxic pesticides that were banned in the US due to known carcinogenic properties remained pervasive on these plantations (especially on banana fields); it seemed like chemical exposure would be the likely culprit for CKDnt too, yet repeated studies couldn’t directly connect a specific chemical to the primary contributor of the disease.

Ermando de Jesus Hernandez of Los Almendros, Cuscatlan, El Salvador, who suffers from CKDnT, sharpens his machete in the field.

Ermando de Jesus Hernandez of Los Almendros, Cuscatlan, El Salvador, who suffers from CKDnT, sharpens his machete in the field. Image credit: Tom Laffay for La Isla Foundation

What they did find was an unexpected pattern: across all the countries and different labor forces the common factors were taxing hours and extreme environmental conditions. La Isla and their research partners eventually discovered that many days of manual labor in extreme temperatures without adequate access to water, rest, and shade causes acute kidney damage in itself and, over time, can lead to decreased kidney function and, ultimately, to CKDnt. It turned out that a substantial part of the cause was a different kind of human rights violation than chemical exposure, but one more easily preventable: poor work conditions that cause dehydration and heat stress.

Armed with this new realization, La Isla, partner researchers, and fellow advocates set out to change these conditions through research, storytelling, raising awareness, handing out water, and improving educational opportunities. But despite their concerted efforts, they eventually realized that these initiatives alone wouldn’t be enough to prevent or end CKDnt. They would need to start changing the larger industrial and political systems that created and sustain these environments in the first place and that continue to enable, tolerate, and hide abuse of workers.

Glaser explains that after this realization his role has shifted beyond crisis response and aid and into transformational systems change: “In trying to figure out how this happened, why it happened, and what we could do about it, we realized that it’s a systemic issue.” As a result, La Isla and other partners designed WE Program — a collective action initiative aimed at reducing CKDnt-related deaths by connecting information and recommendations to decision makers and action takers. WE Program brings together the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), occupational health experts, policy and decision makers, and universities and industry producers to identify and implement solutions to the principal CKD risk factors.

Adolfo Antonio Garcia of Los Almendros, Cuscatlan, El Salvador is outfitted with accelerometers and goes through the steps of preping the device with researchers before cutting sugarcane.

Adolfo Antonio Garcia of Los Almendros, Cuscatlan, El Salvador is outfitted with accelerometers and goes through the steps of prepping the device with researchers before cutting sugarcane. Image credit: Tom Laffay for La Isla Foundation

Ultimately, the goal of WE Program is to help agriculture workers prevent the onset of CKDnt by promoting safe working conditions and enabling workers to work as efficiently as possible. Already, actions as simple as providing shade tents, accessible clean water, and routine rest breaks is increasing workers’ quality of life. WE Program designed new machetes with a steeper bend to them that is less physically taxing for the workers to use while simultaneously increasing their efficiency by about 30%. The private sector has been offering initial solutions to address risk factors. Camelpak, for example, is providing steeply discounted wearable waterpacks to enable workers to hydrate as they work. WE program is testing to see whether or not the disease accelerates, decelerates, or stays the same over the course of the coming harvest season as a result of these new provisions.

While helpful, these are improvements and optimizations, not ultimate or scalable solutions. The water packs can be uncomfortable and hot during long hours of arduous field work in 40 degrees C (104 degrees F) temperatures. The machete, while more efficient than before, still requires bending over, which continues to be physically straining and tolling on the workers’ spine and joints. Additionally, because of growing global demands and the industry’s thirst for money, Mesoamerican workers are taking on longer hours and being expected to harvest more than ever before while temperatures rise. As more men become ill or die from CKDnt, women are beginning to take on the sugarcane work and to experience the same effects, in some cases even worse because women are even less inclined to drink water throughout the day if there isn’t a private and safe place to relieve themselves in the field (and there often is not).

What we have learned, once again, is that just telling the story isn’t enough.

Workers in a field outside of Apopa, El Salvador before a data collection session, pictured next to restrooms that have been installed in order to combat the kidney disease.

Workers in a field outside of Apopa, El Salvador before a data collection session, pictured next to restrooms that have been installed in order to combat CKDnt. Image credit: Tom Laffay for La Isla Foundation

A Call to Action

So why not do more if we can? 

While long term solutions to this issue requires systemic, institutional, and policy driven transformation, the attention and ideas of the design community can still greatly improve the lives and conditions of workers in Latin America. IDH and WE Program are looking for more ideas and better solutions from multidisciplinary problem solvers; we’re calling on product and industrial designers, service designers, social impact designers, community development workers, and research students to design new and better ways to protect and help agricultural workers suffering from dehydration and heat stress.  

What are we looking for?

Opportunity Areas:

  1. Easily accessible water drinking options (i.e. a portable, durable 2-3 litre water canteen that workers can use frequently, but will not contribute to physical discomfort, inconvenience, or over heating)
  2. Transportable and durable forms of shade cover.
  3. Field toilets for workers, primarily women.
  4. More ergonomic machete designs that help field workers maximize output with reduced energy use.
  5. Service and experience designs of new cues and practices for water breaks and rest.

Proposed designs must be:

  • Relevant. Designs should thoughtfully consider cultural and environmental contexts (i.e. being used in extreme heat conditions during rigorous physical activity) and demonstrate an understanding of conditions and constraints through research or personal experience.
  • Practical. Proposed designs should be able to be replicated and produced with inexpensive materials and manufactured locally.
  • Innovative. Proposals should offer something not only new and different, but better as well — more sustainable, efficient, usable versions of what is already available.
  • Scalable. Designs should be able to be spread and utilized across Latin America, in other sugarcane sites, or in other agricultural contexts like Asia and Africa where workers are experiencing similar issues.

What should I submit?

Share your ideas with us through proposals that include a project summary of 700 words or less and 3-5 pictures or sketches. Include your research approach and key insights, an explanation of process, a clear concept proposal, and a pitch for a user testing approach. Proposals can be an idea that you’ve developed previously, but have adapted or adopted for this context and purpose.

How should I submit?

Submissions are due in .pdf form to hasdai@impactdesignhub.org by September 9th at 5:00pm EST. The subject line of your e-mail should read ‘LA Design Challenge Submission’ and the attached .pdf should be labeled with the number associated with your submission’s opportunity area, your first and last name, and the title of your project (e.g. ‘2. Samuel Smith—Shade Cover’).

What happens next?

A committee of designers and content/context experts will review submissions and the top 10 proposals (consisting of two selections in each opportunity area) will receive a 30 minute idea development and mentorship session with product and service designers with experience in international social impact design, and content and context experts from WE Program. Merit-based winners selected from the second submission will be showcased on the IDH website and have the chance to have their concept shared/tested with sugar cane workers identified by WE Program.


All images courtesy of Tom Laffay and La Isla Foundation.

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