In an age where multinational corporations claim to be committed to environmental and socially sustainable practices, Jason Glaser tries to hold them accountable. After studying cinematography and photography at Columbia College Chicago, a self-described “self-interested” period in the film industry ended when he visited Latin America and his sense of justice was reignited: “All my fears about how and why the world economic system works were laid out right in front of me.”
He continues to work on a film series, The Affected, which explores the impact of global agriculture corporations like Grupo Pellas (sugar-cane plantations) and Dole and Chiquita (bananas) on the lives of workers across Latin America.
But after encountering a devastating epidemic of kidney failure affecting sugar cane producing regions of western Central America, Glaser decided that making films wasn’t enough. He set up the nonprofit La Isla Foundation, committed to the welfare of sugar-cane plantation workers, widows and children. The Affected will document their lives.
Glaser has led workshops in the region on human rights, organized an independent and successful relief effort for the Miskito Coast after Hurricane Felix struck in 2007, testified in a lawsuit against Dole and written for The Guardian about U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s past life working as Chiquita’s top legal counsel.
What is the greatest challenge facing humankind today?
Feeding each other in a way that doesn’t harm the people who produce that food or the communities and environment near where it’s produced. Clearly there are concerns about the industrially produced food we consume in the United States, but that issue is secondary compared to the barbaric treatment many communities face while producing food and biofuel for export to the U.S., the European Union and beyond.
The epidemic of kidney failure in Nicaragua is directly associated with the work sugar cane field laborers do. Due to the influence of the [industrial conglomerate] Pellas Group [which operates Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited], the most powerful monopoly in the region, the fact that up to 32 percent of men in certain communities have terminal renal disease and no access to adequate treatment is completely hidden from the local press and obscured by the national government. Liberals and Sandinistas have dutifully not engaged the Pan American Health Organization or the World Health Organization, which means this epidemic, despite its gravity, is largely unknown. Much of the sugar is destined for the U.S.; most of the ethanol is shipped to the European Union.
While a causality study still needs funding, right now it looks like these men are literally being worked to death due to a year-long harvest cycle and constant dehydration. Families are left without their principal breadwinners, leading to child labor. On a global scale, coupled with dwindling water supplies and limited arable land, this type of behavior creates a destabilizing effect as people are consistently displaced, often at gunpoint. Displacement and labor abuses are especially common themes in the banana industry.
Industrial agriculture requires massive chemical input and limits consumable food for locals as export crops and biofuels drive up food costs. When you combine the amount of land, the damage done and the number of people impacted it is hard to think of a more pressing issue. It is also a fairly unknown one. Part of this is exposure to the problem as most travelers to the most impacted countries don’t stay in worker communities and often travel through unaware.
Which politician has disappointed you the most?
Daniel Ortega. The ‘leader of the revolution’ in Nicaragua has now seen fit to ally himself with Carlos Pellas, the most powerful businessman in Central America. The Pellas Group’s control of nearly all parts of Nicaraguan life and massive influence throughout the region has been reached via abhorrent business practices and cronyism.
To the working people of Nicaragua, Pellas is synonymous with exploitation. On the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, Ortega told 1 million gathered campesinos (peasants), many of whom fought for a better way of life, that Nicaragua owes so much to Carlos Pellas. Many people just turned around and started to leave the event.
What’s the one thing North Americans should know about Nicaragua that they probably aren’t aware of?
It’s probably the best place to take a budget vacation or volunteer in the western hemisphere. It’s the safest country in Central America, the history is fascinating and there are a lot of people doing wonderful work alongside locals. It’s a challenging but unforgettable place to work.
What action can and should everyone reading this commit to that will make a difference?
Research organizations working on an issue you believe in. Find one that aligns with your values, talents and passions, and volunteer. For example, you can volunteer for La Isla Foundation by helping us secure funding, working in public health programs or on sustainable agriculture, assisting on our trips programs or investigating with our human rights team.
Raise the profile of the issue you care about, tell your friends about it and reach out to others so that a meaningful network can be created. Progressives have to find a way to court a broader audience and connect them emotionally to these issues. So one thing everyone can do is work on making enticing and persuasive arguments around the issues they’re most passionate about and spend less time preaching to the converted.
How hopeful are you that things can change for the better in Nicaragua and worldwide?
‘Better’ for me is when everyone from an investment banker to a cane cutter is paid enough to provide the basics for themselves and their families, and that while working for this they have safe homes and reliable basic services, provided by a state government that they can participate in. The world will never be a perfect place, but it is unconscionable how we treat the people and environment that produce our goods.
Companies and people like Jeffrey Sachs talk about making the world a better place through this or that program, but skate around the issue of sustainable pay. I know banana workers in Ecuador that work seven days a week and bring home between $50-60. That is not a livable wage. I’ve seen more than one five year-old preparing dinner for mom and dad as they make their way home after a 10-12 hour day. The money is there in the system; it’s just poorly distributed.
I also put the responsibility on the shoulders of consumers who are happy to pay 65 cents a pound for bananas when they’re a fruit that should be a delicacy — they are grown thousands of miles away from most Americans. Although, even if companies raised the price and stated they were implementing ‘best practices,’ there is little evidence that they would operate in good faith.
I’m hopeful that most readers agree with me on these basic points and I know this will become a focus of people’s work in the years to come. I may not live to see it, but I do think that eventually most people will get paid a decent wage for a day’s work.
What’s the biggest thing U.S. media have gotten wrong in their portrayal of Nicaragua? What’s a mistake the mainstream media always makes that really gets under your skin?
I think Nicaragua is pretty much off the U.S. radar now. The war is something most Nicaraguans want to move on from, that’s one thing. Also, Daniel Ortega is no communist.
The media in general functions in an echo chamber and very little is investigated. A company or the state department publishes a press sheet, this is accepted as fact and the press engages in punditry immediately instead of looking into the details.
But our hallowed new independent media often just echo the mainstream press or come up with opinions garnered from some time on the Internet. My challenge to successful bloggers would be to use some of the money you’re generating to buy a ticket, a pocket recorder and a camera, and go see what is going on for yourself. Your own voice is boring; what you should be engaged in as a progressive blogger or journalist is providing a voice to those that do not have one.
Name a journalist or author whose work you read religiously.
I like Glenn Greenwald, Jared Diamond and Stephen Kinzer, but I don’t read anyone religiously.
What media, whether local, national or international, do you depend on to know what’s really going on?
The Guardian is great for the most part – they have an excellent piece on pineapple production in Costa Rica. Al Jazeera is a great source if you want to hear the voices of those on the ground, which is the duty of any decent journalist. They’ve done amazing work regarding Dole and Chiquita misadventures in both Ecuador and Colombia.
When did your political awakening occur?
I would call it a social awakening. I’ve not seen a lot of great things out of the political process as of late. Growing up in the Detroit area, seeing the haves and have-nots every time we crossed the border between Grosse Pointe and the city, had an enormous impact. It made me very dubious of anyone who said the system works or that the American dream is alive for everyone.
What’s the best piece of advice someone gave you when you were young?
Everything is for sale. It is ugly advice and has always rubbed me the wrong way, but I’ve come to understand that it is too often true. If we want a more equitable system, we need to understand that sad reality and start with our youth, before they’re brainwashed into a barbaric way of being where anything – property, values, life – is up for auction.
What is the last, best book you have read?
Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. It’s about the colonialism of thought through Western psychiatry occurring throughout the world. Absolutely empowering.
What, if any, are your pop culture guilty pleasures?
I love Tupac Shakur, but don’t feel guilty about it, although I’m told I should.
—February 22, 2011