Cattle ranching has been an important source of income in Nicaragua since the nineteenth century. The flatlands of the Pacific, North and Central regions of the country provide extensive pasturelands. These have facilitated the growth of an activity that today comprises some 138,000 ranchers. Their sustenance is based on the production of meat and milk.
In the last two decades, ranching has expanded greatly, principally due to the demand for beef in the United States. Nationally the cattle herd doubled, and the value of meat exports increased 850% by 2019, to a record $700 million.
The growth has helped dynamize the Nicaraguan economy. At the same time, it constitutes a challenge for society.
Like any agricultural activity, cattle-raising uses natural resources such as land and water. The sustainability of the activity depends on appropriate management. It’s not easy to achieve such a balance, especially given the characteristics of the activity in Nicaragua. Eighty-five percent of the country’s farms are administered by small and medium ranchers who are dispersed throughout the country.
There are also cultural barriers, linked to traditional beliefs and practices. Often, these traditional practices are not very environmentally friendly. Among these ideas, is that a cleared farm is better than one with trees. The forest is seen as an obstacle to development, and clearing the land becomes a perverse symbol of progress.
In Nicaragua, open range ranching is prevalent. In this model, productivity is low and large extensions of land are required for grazing. In more remote areas, management, sanitation and insufficient genetic development limit the sustainability of the ranching sector. That’s why there’s a correlation between the agricultural frontier and the growth of the cattle herds. This is especially true on the Caribbean side of the country, where the constant rainfall makes it possible to grow grass year round.
According to the Nicaraguan Federation of Ranchers’ Associations (FAGANIC), there are some 2,355,000 heads of cattle in the Caribbean zone. These represent 46% of the national herd. Global Forest Watch is an organization that monitors the loss of forest cover on the planet. They report that Nicaragua’s North and South Caribbean regions respectively lost 78% and 73% of their primary forestland from 2001-2019. That’s 10,210 square kilometers of forest, an area ten times greater than the Nicaraguan department of Granada. It’s also the equivalent of 1,868 football fields.
This has increased pressure on the indigenous lands, especially around the Indio Maiz and Bosawas reserves. Although these lands form part of the National Patrimony, the forests continue being stripped. Groups take over the lands for activities that violate the existing environmental laws.
The first link in the chain are the land traffickers, who speculate with the lands’ value. Next are the farmers, who work the land and plant basic grains, on their own or as agricultural peons. Afterwards, they plant improved pasture grass.
The ranchers then rent or buy the land to fatten their cattle. Some graze their cattle there all year, while others bring them in during the Pacific zone’s dry season. Given the fluctuation in basic grain prices, cattle raising is seen as a more secure activity. It’s also considered an activity that provides an opportunity for faster growth.
In the cattle auction sites around the reserves, the cattle are marketed with no questions. For example, in the community of Las Maravillas in Indio Maiz, cattle are sold at a rustic auction. The cows are then transferred to a farm on the outskirts of the reserve. Days later, they will be taken to the slaughterhouses in different localities of the country.
The case of Jose Solis Duron provides an iconic example of the area’s lawlessness. At the beginning of 2017, forest rangers from the indigenous Rama-Kriol tribes came upon men with chainsaws. The men had deforested some 4,942 acres (2,000 hectares) within the nucleus of the Indio Maiz reserve. There were dozens of calves already there for fattening, all identified by tags.
After several months of investigation, the owner of the farm was identified. In an interview with reporters from the Onda Local radio station, he said he supplied a number of meat companies. These included the Mexican-based Sukarne and the Nicaraguan Nuevo Carnic. He also owned other farms outside Indio Maiz, as well as in the municipalities of Nueva Guinea and Rosita. Solis registered all of his cattle as belonging to a ranch outside the reserve. He purchased the documents he needed to sell to the slaughterhouses. In this way, he evaded the tracing system.
These mechanisms and the lack of regulation at the auctions make the tracing system very weak. Many cattle ranchers do comply with the laws. However, illegal cattle-raising has had a very negative impact on Nicaragua’s protected lands and indigenous territories. A legal complaint was filed against Jose Solis Duron. Subsequently, the Nicaraguan Army and the Ministry of Natural Resources burned down the illegal farm. In the end, though, Solis was never accused of environmental crimes. Today, he is still cutting down the forest in Indio Maiz.
From 2018 onwards, the indigenous communities around the two reserves report more cases of land invasions within their territory. Members of the Mayangna and Miskito communities have been killed, and hundreds of people have been displaced. All of this has endangered the original inhabitants’ food security.
Despite these serious human rights violations, the government hasn’t taken any measures to protect the communities. Instead, they’re building roads and allowing the uncontrolled growth of the settlements in the reserves.
Inaction against the growing illegal cattle trade has become a major threat. It threatens not only the reserves and the indigenous communities, but also the legal ranchers who respect the environmental norms. Moreover, it threatens the cattle ranchers who are engaged in projects to adopt environmentally friendly forest grazing practices. The latter are working to reduce the impact of cattle raising and comply with the standards of the international market.
Politicians, companies and consumers in the United States are the principal market for Nicaraguan meat. As a group, they’re ever more aware of the need to protect the world’s forests. The government, private companies and civil society should all be taking measures to keep illegal cattle ranching from damaging the exports markets. Even more important, measures should be taken to protect our primary forestland.
An emergency plan is needed to reinforce protection of the reserves and support the indigenous and afro-descendent communities. Such a plan must also correct the failings in the tracing system and investigate and charge the illegal ranchers.
The plants authorized for producing, processing, and marketing the meat must also adopt stricter control mechanisms. They need to contribute resources and implement technological solutions to keep the illegal meat from contaminating the legal market.
It requires a joint effort. Otherwise, this situation could trigger a banning of Nicaraguan meat in the US markets. The sustenance of thousands of farmers, whose livelihoods come from legal ranching, depends on this.
Such joint action is the most effective way to protect the human rights of the indigenous and Afro-descendent communities. It’s also the best way to mitigate the impact of climate change and safeguard ecosystems vital to the Nicaraguans’ well-being.
It’s the responsibility of all of us to protect the environment and leave a better country to the future generations.
*Camilo de Castro is a member of the coordinating team of the Academic and leadership training program of FLACSO Costa Rica, which seeks to empower and strengthen the strategic capacity of emerging leaders from Nicaragua. Since 2017, he has worked with Global Wildlife Conservation, the Rama and Kriol communities and the private sector in Nicaragua to promote actions that contribute to slowing the advance of the agricultural frontier in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.