Jason Glaser

Jason Glaser

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.

—Joe Macaré


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 222011

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