National Geographic: Undercane

Roughly half the adult male population of Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, is suffering from an often deadly kidney disease that appears to be linked to their work as sugarcane cutters. Known as chronic kidney failure, the disease has cast a pall over Chichigalpa, a city of 50,000 in northwestern Nicaragua that’s home to the San Antonio Sugar Mill.

While it seems obvious to look at agrochemicals, research doesn’t agree. Causes of the disease are still mysterious, but dehydration and heat stress, agrochemicals, antibiotics, and genetics are thought to be possible contributing factors. Chronic kidney failure is known to affect agricultural workers, primarily men, in other parts of the world.

In April 2014, I spent two weeks filming with Ed Kashi documenting sick sugarcane workers, widows and company men of Chichigalpa. It was an incredibly humbling view into the lives of people who are trapped in an industry town with no option but to work as sugarcane workers knowing their fate of developing CKD is nearly certain. As the disease strikes men at younger and younger ages, women have taken to sugarcane cutting work and starting to suffer from CKD as well.

Full story and interview with Ed on National Geographic

Learn more about how you can help

La Isla Foundation is a public health and policy NGO working at the intersection of public health and human rights to address a fatal epidemic of chronic kidney disease (CKD) among sugarcane workers in Latin America.

Pan American Health Organization is the world’s oldest international public health agency. It provides technical cooperation and mobilizes partnerships to improve health and quality of life in the countries of the Americas.

Solidaridad is an international civil society organization with more than 45 years of global experience in facilitating the development of socially responsible, ecologically sound, and profitable supply chains. Solidaridad works across 12 supply chains and operates through 10 regional offices on 5 continents.


Cinematographer, Editor, and story development

Full Credits
Director: Ed Kashi
Cinematography: Jessey Dearing and Ed Kashi
Editor: Jessey Dearing
Photography: Ed Kashi
Additional Interviews: Tom Laffay, Chance Multimedia
Colorist: Mallika Vora
Original Music: Leon Muhudinov
Additional Music: Elias Music
Special Thanks: Katie Stark, Cristhian Velasquez, Indievoices Donors
Produced by: Talking Eyes Media