Mystery in the Fields

Published — April 5, 2012 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Support our new investigation into a deadly disease killing agricultural workers

Join the KickStarter campaign to expose how chronic kidney disease is an international epidemic killing some of the world’s poorest workers


Editor’s note — 4/16/12: In the past 24 hours, our Kickstarter project has officially exceeded our goal of $7,500. Many thanks to everyone who pledged their support. We’ll have more details on the investigation’s next steps soon.

A deadly disease is killing thousands of the world’s poorest laborers — and no one knows what is causing it. Last December, reporter Sasha Chavkin and the Center for Public Integrity published an investigation about this deadly mystery, chronic kidney disease.

In the United States, chronic kidney disease is a manageable illness that mostly affects older people with diabetes and high blood pressure. But in Central America, each year thousands of agricultural laborers — almost all men, lacking the usual risk factors, and as young as their 20s — are dying of a new strain of chronic kidney disease that has baffled scientists for more than a decade. The disease has so decimated one community of sugarcane workers in Nicaragua called La Isla, or The Island, that it is now known to locals is La Isla de las Viudas — The Island of the Widows.

That first story about the epidemic prompted the Costa Rican government to launch a study and a leading Costa Rica plantation to announce an overhaul of its worker safety practices. Photographer Anna Maria Barry-Jester produced an award-winning photo gallery on the Island of the Widows that shows the day-to-day routines of a community where an incredible 40 percent of the working-age population suffers from the disease.

But new evidence suggests that this mysterious new form of CKD is not a regional anomaly but an international phenomenon. Sasha and Anna are working on a new investigation that will be the first to connect the outbreaks that are killing some of the world’s poorest and most marginalized workers in Central America to other parts of the world — across several continents.

Now, we’re asking for you to support this team to travel and report, for the first time, on the epidemic’s scope, and expose the risky working conditions and international neglect that have enabled the ailment to become a public health crisis to another part of the world. Sasha plans to write a series of articles exploring this new international threat, and Anna will produce a photo gallery and video illustrating its human consequences. Each year this deadly epidemic is killing thousands of the world’s poorest citizens — please help make the world take notice by going to KickStarter and pledging your support for this work.

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