Just north of my site, León, is the department of Chinandega (it gets even hotter than León in Chinandega – I have once heard it referred to as the devil’s anus, as opposed to León, which is just “the furnace”). In the southern part of the department is the municipality of Chichigalpa, which is the sugar cane capital of Nicaragua. Chichigalpa is also home to the Flor de Caña rum distillery. Flor de Caña and Ron Plata (made by the same company) are the largest Nicaraguan rum brands, and in my opinion, quite tasty (they’re also incredibly cheap, compared to the price of rum in the US).
The problem with this rum, and the crux of the dilemma, is that the workers of the cañales (sugar cane fields) are dying of kidney failure at young ages and alarming rates:
The disease is not new, nor is it unique to Chichigalpa, but it occurs more frequently, and appears at younger ages in workers, than anywhere else in the world. And the disease is absolutely debilitating, if not fatal. Researchers are trying to pinpoint what causes it, with likely causes currently being chronic dehydration and toxic pesticides.
Given this fact, is it ethical to buy the rum?
The first argument that you could make against buying the rum is that you shouldn’t support a company that causes so much harm to their workers. The rum is made by the powerful Pellas family. They are a rich Nicaraguan family that controls many of the major companies of Nicaragua. They are multi-billionaires. And it seems, at least to me, that they truly do care about their workers. They have set up health clinics for their workers and educate them about healthy work habits. They are funding research into the disease and its treatment and prevention. They also have world-class schools for the children of their employees. I should also mention that there is a Peace Corps Health Volunteer in Chichigalpa diligently working to educate the community about the health risks associated with their work and how to stay healthy.
It also bears noting that the workers are freely employed by the Pellas. The workers knowingly make the decision to put themselves at risk, and receive compensation at rates established by the free market. However, just because the workers freely choose to work in the cañales does not mean that they actually have other opportunities. Nicaragua has a bleak employment picture, and the cane fields are likely the only option for these workers (mostly men) who need to earn a living to provide for themselves and usually their families as well.
So based on that train of thought, I’m off rum. Except…
If we boycotted rum the workers would be out of a job anyway, which is what they are trying to avoid. This is the argument a lot of my friends made, but I have some issues with it. Take the analogy of conflict diamonds. If we stopped buying conflict diamonds a lot of people would certainly be out of a job. However, I still think that most people would say that we should not purchase them because of the harm their mining causes people, regardless of their alternative economic recourses.
Besides, on the one hand, if we boycott the rum the workers don’t have a job and are doomed to poverty, and on the other hand they die young of kidney failure leaving widows to care for families. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. So again, it seems like I should lay off the rum, but then I just think that it is wrong of me, simply imperialistic, to make the decision for the people of Chichigalpa about their lives and how they choose to provide for their families. After all, they are aware of the risks of their work. Plus, I don’t think that we should blame the Pellas family for the lack of other economic options for their employees. That is a Nicaragua-wide problem, not a problem brought on by the Pellas (at least directly – they are a powerful family and certainly have political influence, which obviously affects the economy).
So again I am torn. I would definitely feel better about the rum if the workers demanded and received more from the Pellas’, such as guaranteed early retirement, better health benefits, and/or life insurance. But right now, that’s not happening, and I don’t know enough about organized labor in Nicaragua to comment on why. If there are unfair barriers against these types of benefits and the labor organization necessary to realize them, then I’m off the rum. But if not, I guess I find it ok to buy the rum, since I believe that the people of Chichigalpa can make the decision between unemployment and health risks for themselves.
Whether or not I’m drinking it I will be working to improve the economic opportunities for this region of Nicaragua so that there are alternatives for the cane workers and the next generation. I also will continue to support increased funding for research, and contributions from the Pellas family for their workers’ health. Another Peace Corps-style approach would be to go to Chichigalpa and talk to the workers and their families about what they think and what they want for the consuming public to do. It is certainly better to make a decision with them than make a decision for them.