Who is Jason Glaser?

A brief interview with the Tällberg Foundation Global Leader and documentarian-turned-worker’s rights activist


Jason Glaser, Founder, President and CEO of La Isla Foundation in San Salvador, El Salvador and Chicago, Illinois. Mr. Glaser’s work blends scientific research, advocacy, publicity, business innovation and community development to address the widespread consequences in Central America and elsewhere of chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT). The Foundation is an international research and policy NGO working at the intersection of public health and human rights to address a fatal epidemic of CKDnT among sugarcane workers in Latin America.

Mr. Glaser is part of the 2015 class of Tällberg Foundation Global Leaders, along with Jamila Afghani, Antonella Battaglini, Martín von Hildebrand, and M.S. Swaminathan.


How did you move from visual journalism to activism?

It was a pretty surreal change — even when I articulate it now. I was working for MTV and NBC and HBO and that’s what I wanted to do. I always wanted to be a cinematographer, I thought that was the coolest job on the planet. And, I actually got extraordinarily bored working on sets in New York that felt like we were incredibly overpaid and overtimed to just move lights around the set. I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can try journalism.

And, I had been really taken with a project my sister had done when she was at Wake Forest — at the business school of all things. They were looking at small and medium business and how they could develop them in Nicaragua as a form of development because they viewed some of these commercial farms and some of these sweat shops and free trade zones as not really lifting people out of poverty. And, I thought well that’s pretty progressive for a business school, that’s interesting. And, I went down to document that, to try my hand at documentary-making with a couple of colleagues. And, we did a piece at a school and they liked it quite a lot.

What I found there, to me, when I saw the poverty, and I saw some of these industrial farms, I saw something that looked pretty structural. Like these people weren’t disadvantaged by accident. It looked like a pretty intentional structure — to pay people poorly and to get quite a lot out of them. And I was curious about how that came about.

I got very lucky and I got to talk to William Easterly over at NYU who wrote The White Man’s Burden. And then I was able to contact Noam Chomsky and Steven Kinzer as well and they were incredibly gracious, and I started exploring this idea that this kind of system was a result of a failure in our extraction system — of mining, of how we take ore or agriculture out of a country. And what that actually does to the people who live there, and how it limits any kind of sustainable or tenable development. The idea being, you couldn’t really blame this on just Spanish colonialism or the hangover from that, that it had a more modern model that wasn’t working. And, what I arrived at was United Fruit Company — the original Chiquita Banana, and the idea of a banana republic and what that did to the region. And, the idea of a company having too much power over a region. And, the US also being quite influential and guiding what the policies would be and what the agrarian reforms might or might not be.

So, I started a documentary on the banana industry. And, while I was filming a group of protesting banana workers they said, ‘Well, it’s bad for us, but you should talk to these sugarcane workers’ — who were part of the protest camp as well. It was one of those scenes that will stick in your head for the rest of your life. It was a line of cops, of policemen and they were kind of scared and battered and bruised. And it was one of those Central American nights, when the lightning is arcing across the sky and it’s kind of spitting rain, it stops raining, it’s quite eerie. And there was a line on the other side of the street. A line of men in hammocks in the saddest protest I’d ever seen. They were like two miles off the central road, totally isolated. No one was going to see them except the local population. And they were dying in hammocks of what they said was kidney disease.

And the police took our producer in for questioning and released her after about an hour and they made her give them her and my phone number. And the next day Burson Marsteller, the public relations firm, called us and said there was nothing to see and we shouldn’t be worried about the situation. Which made me think that there was something to see and should be worried about the situation.

What obstacles and dangers are you and the organization facing in trying to bring about this change? Have you had to change your strategy to circumvent certain obstacles?

Our strategy has been the story of the tortoise not the hair, and we’ve just plugged away at what we knew would work. Those four prongs community development. I would say access to care is the most important and then, epidemiology, the legal, and the media are the four pillars

As far as being blocked in Nicaragua, it’s been a blessing and a curse that we started in Nicaragua. I think you have a government there that’s incredibly insulated, at the executive level, from what’s actually going on on the ground at this point.

The saddest part is the Sandinistas on the local level, even the mayorship in Chichigalpa, as they’vehad to navigate their own minefield between the companies and their federal government. Even people on the departmental level have shown enormous willingness to move forward on this. And, it just hits a block once it hits the national level. It hits a wall and it just stops. And you know, as far as companies go, historically Pantaleon is the biggest producer in the region. They have a mill in Nicaragua. And Ingenio San Antonio — which is owned by the biggest family in the region, the Pellas Group, also based in Nicaragua — has been pretty hostile. The Pellas group continues to be.

You know they paid for Boston University’s studies, which for five years said that there was no link, and that it wasn’t occupation necessarily. And now of course Boston’s studies, five years later when they’re not getting paid anymore, say it does appear to be occupational. And now [Pellas Group is] mad at them — they’re even mad at the people they used to consider an ally. They’ve just taken that kind of ostrich approach, dig in approach — the shorthand would be the tobacco company approach.

On the flip-side, the Costa Rican government — we were heavily involved in the lobbying efforts there and invited there, and we’re part of a whole. They did everything right. They consulted all the governments. They consulted their own researchers and did their own study. They consulted our researchers. They showed a lot preliminary research with them. And, they just passed a law last month that says they have to have heat stress and dehydration mitigation in reference to CKDnT. So that’s one story in Costa Rica.

And then in El Salvador we’ve had a very open and pleasant relationship with their government, their Ministry of Health, Dr. Orantes. And that’s been great for many years. There we have a mill that’s allowing us to try an intervention with the best data that we have available on the heat stress and dehydration factor while we continue to look for the toxins. And this is a mill that’s saying, ‘Use our people, use our logistics. You pay for the science and we’ll pay for the logistics; we’ll have to scale it up anyway. Let’s cut the nonsense; let’s figure this out together.’ It’s been fantastic. And, they’re also totally comfortable with NIOSH coming down this year, the Center for Disease Control, they’re piggy-backing with us to do environmental sampling to see if there is still a toxin component, which many of us think there still is. And, that’s amazing.

And, then in Guatemala, where Pantaleon is based, we did that exhibit with Ed in Amsterdam. And, who was there but the Mexican embassy and the Guatemalan embassy! I said, ‘who informed you guys?’ And, they said, ‘Pantaleon.’ The Mexican Ambassador to Holland’s wife was there, and she used to work for Pantaleon, and I though ‘Oh my gosh, it’s not going to be a good story here.’ And, quite the opposite — they said ‘Pantaleon acknowledges that things have been rough historically, but they’re looking at the data, they’re looking at the approach, and they want to reboot the relationship.’ And, I’m meeting with their head of occupational health next month at the mill that we work with in El Salvador.

That is all to say that there is this huge tidal shift that we got by doing that study — that consensus-building, chipping away approach. I think it’s a story of escalating an issue so people actually know it exists, isolating the parties like the Pellas Group and the Nicaraguan government that are using that dig-in, tobacco company approach. Or the old coal mining company approach of just digging in and put your head in the sand. And, then encapsulating them. Encapsulating them with reason, encapsulate them with PAHO, encapsulate them with the neighboring governments, encapsulate them with the other producers. And now the buyers. You know, Coco Cola and Unilever at the same meeting, they didn’t ask what we wanted to do, they asked how much do we need to do what we want to do. As in money.

So there’s this big, dynamic shift, and I just think Nicaragua has not caused a change, but it has caused a lot of pain and frustration for the people in Chichigalpa. Because these are the people who helped put this on the map. And they are so isolated, and that is a worry and that is a challenge.


An interview with Jason Glaser in Stockholm on November 11, when he was in town as one of the Tällberg Foundation Global Leaders 2015.

To learn more about the Tällberg Foundation and the Global Leaders, please visit our website.