Above photo: Nicaragua is the largest exporter of milk in Central America and the fourth in Latin America, according to the Pan-American Dairy Federation (Fepale). Wilder Pérez R. for Mongabay.
The latest political attack on a country already suffering from illegal US sanctions.
Earlier this year Nicaragua’s opposition and its supporters in the international media were promoting stories about the Sandinista government’s “failure” to address the Covid-19 pandemic. This backfired when Nicaragua became the first country in Central America to get the virus under control. Next they claimed that Sandinista supporters were attacking Catholic churches, but then it emerged that an opposition politician had paid for one of the robberies that took place. The latest effort to malign Daniel Ortega’s government tries to link Nicaragua’s beef exports to the United States with land conflicts in its remote Caribbean forests.
Masaya, Nicaragua – Nicaraguan cattle ranchers, spurred by a surge in beef exports to the United States, are alleged to be attacking indigenous communities in eastern Nicaragua, destroying “pristine jungle,” forcing people to flee and killing those who resist, according to Reveal News. In a related report on PBS Newshour, beef imported from Nicaragua during the pandemic is said to “come at a high human cost,” while the Center for Investigative Reporting calls the imports “conflict beef.” These claims are based on allegations by the Oakland Institute in California, whose director Anuradha Mittal says that “the supply chain of beef from Nicaragua is anything but clean.”
These reports make false links between land conflicts and meat exports, creating an image that Nicaragua (like, for example, Brazil) is carelessly or deliberately allowing indigenous lands and rainforest to be destroyed while the government does nothing about it. Cattle ranchers’ violence and exploitation are supposedly driven by increased exports to the US. The reality is very different from this disturbing but simplistic picture.
First, Nicaraguan trade unions and cattle farming associations point out that the vast majority of cattle production is in areas that are distant from Nicaragua’s remaining forests, which are protected reserves. The region discussed in the news items, Región Autónoma Caribe Norte (RACN), in the north-east of the country, is the largest in Nicaragua, with about a quarter of the country’s land area, but is sparsely populated (it has only 7% of the total population). It is a mixture of forest and farmland and has a relatively small proportion of the country’s cattle (about 10%).
Second, cattle movement in Nicaragua is carefully controlled, with animals bearing tags showing their origin. The executive director of the Nicaraguan Chamber of the Meat Industry, Juan Bautista Velásquez, said that meat for export comes from farms certified by the Institute for Agricultural Safety and Health (IPSA). The institute made a new statement (in Spanish) setting out the precautions it takes in full, even though neither Reveal nor PBS made any apparent attempt to obtain a statement from IPSA. The head of the National Livestock Commission added: “The animals that are taken to slaughterhouses are ones that are properly identified and from outside the country’s natural reserves.” Given the remoteness of the indigenous areas and difficulty of access, it would be very difficult for cattle from disputed lands to be able to enter the supply chain for exports. PBS Newshour’s report, which begins with images of packs of beef for sale in US supermarkets, gives a highly misleading impression.
Third, the fact that that there are land conflicts in the RACN region is well recognized by the Nicaraguan government, which has been taking active steps to tackle them. Ground-breaking laws have given communal land rights to indigenous communities across the region. A special army battalion exists to tackle deforestation. There has been considerable investment in schools, health centers and roads serving remote communities. Violent incidents have been investigated and in many cases the culprits have been tracked down.
Nevertheless, the government faces huge difficulties. Nicaragua has the largest area of tropical forest north of the Amazon, yet is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, with limited resources to deal with the extension of the agricultural frontier or defense of land rights in remote areas. The conflicts in indigenous communities have existed for decades and are often complex – sometimes involving illegal land sales, local corruption or clashes between different indigenous groups.
Undoubtedly more could be done to tackle the problems but it is completely wrong to represent the Sandinista government as either negligent or complicit in the land occupations that take place. Even if the government had the strongest determination possible to stop the land invasions and protect indigenous communities, the lack of resources caused by the US economic war against it and the battering taken by the economy in the violent coup attempt in 2018 and in the pandemic of 2020, would make success difficult if not impossible.
By making a completely false link between the land conflicts in remote areas and the growth of meat exports to the United States, the media are fueling the US government’s regime change agenda for Nicaragua, which has been reinforced by President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recent statements, and which is evident in the open support by USAID and other agencies for opposition parties and groups in Nicaragua. If suggestions in the Reveal and PBS reports that US producers or supermarkets should boycott Nicaraguan beef were followed through, there would be further damage to poor communities in Nicaragua – potentially on a massive scale. The livelihoods of 140,000 producers and 600,000 workers would be at risk.
Neither the Reveal report nor the PBS Newshour items make clear that the source of their material – the Oakland Institute – is openly hostile to the Nicaraguan government, producing reports with titles such as “Nicaragua’s Failed Revolution.” Its director Anuradha Mittal refuses to engage with Nicaraguan groups or individuals who question their research, including groups with deep knowledge of Nicaraguan agriculture. She failed to respond to an email asking for proof of her claims. Neither of the other two sources for the pieces are unbiased: Lottie Cunningham Wren’s organization has received US government funding and Camilo Castro Belli is a committed supporter of Nicaragua’s opposition.
Once again, knowingly or otherwise, US media are complicit in attempts by Nicaraguan opposition groups and the US government to undermine Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Reveal has a deserved reputation in progressive circles for its work in exposing immigration abuses, conditions faced by Amazon workers, and other issues: it should pay much more careful attention to the sources of its reports on Nicaragua.