Conservation news

Nicaraguan beef raised illegally in biological reserve mostly exported

  • Environmental organizations and the indigenous Rama-Kriol Territorial Government in southeastern Nicaragua have reported the invasion and deforestation of the core zone of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.
  • The invasion is caused by the advance of agriculture and the expansion of cattle raising.
  • Most of the cattle sold in La Maravilla market come from the company’s paddocks. Some of these cattle are raised and fattened inside the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.

(This article is a collaboration between Mongabay-Latam and Onda Local, read the first article here)

Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, Nicaragua – “When I see my Chontaleños and Boaqueños (people from Boca de Sábalos and around the Chontaleño river) compatriots burning forests and planting grass, I ask them: what is the benefit if you have to burn four hectares of forest to raise only one cow that produces three liters of milk? Why don’t you set aside part of those hectares for reforestation, without stopping being a cattle rancher?” recalls Jaime Incer Barquero, presidential advisor on environmental matters. This anecdote reflects what it is happening with the Nicaraguan cattle ranching model: it grows at the expense of the forest instead of shifting to sustainable cattle ranching practices. It is uncommon in Nicaragua for a presidential advisor to recognize this type of problem.

This model is seen in one of Central America’s most important reserves. It is a paradox that in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, an area of forest is less valued than an area of deforested land. “Here people ask you: how is your farm going? Is it already productive?” referring to deforested areas, explains Saúl Obregón, of the Rio Foundation.

Cattle found in the core area of Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Photo by Rangers of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government

The logic of cattle ranching

Buying land inside the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is cheap and profitable. This has facilitated the arrival of many people from Nueva Guinea, Boaco, El Rama, among other places.

This is a win-win situation. While in Nueva Guinea a block of land costs 30,000 córdobas ($1,000) —where the land has been prepared and legalized for livestock, in the forested areas it is illegally traded for 2,000 córdobas ($66), says Alejandro Mairena of the Cooperative of Producers of Cacao Familias Unidas de El Castillo, Río San Juan.

Marcos Gómez from the community of Nueva Quezada, in the buffer zone of the reserve, adds that commercializing the lands of the reserve has become a business. “There are a lot of people who have good farms adjacent to the reserve. They sell the land, mark the limits of another area and then sell it, and so on…”

In a recent trip by Mongabay-Latam and Onda Local to the interior of the reserve, it was confirmed that the cattle rancher José Antonio Solís Durón took 2,000 blocks (1,400 hectares) near the Chontaleño River. Maps of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government—an indigenous group that represents nine territories and is legally recognized by the Nicaraguan State—and GPS references coincide in locating this river and “La Haciendita” of Solís Durón in the core area of the reserve. That is, Solis is inside the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, although he said that he “bought” the block for 1,000 córdobas ($33).

The haciendita inside the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, where José Solís Durón usurped 1,400 hectares of land. Photo courtesy of Onda Local
Solís Durón’s haciendita. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

The story continues. Solis Durón and his family also own a 700-hectare farm in the community of San José in Nueva Guinea. The cattle rancher also confirmed he owns another 200 blocks (140 hectares) in Sangni Laya, Siuna municipality, North Caribbean, where the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve is located in Mayangna indigenous territory, and another farm of 500 blocks (350 hectares) in La Danta, inside the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.

The study “Dynamics of land grabbing in southeastern Nicaragua” (2016) by Amaru Ruiz, president of the Rio Foundation, states that the central government, instead of implementing the environmental legal framework, promotes a developmental model that favors extensive cattle raising, monocultures, and mega projects that leads to environmental degradation.

Under this dynamic, the illegal purchase and sale of land has accelerated in southeastern Nicaragua. Cattle farmers take advantage of those who have established areas of cultivation with water sources.

Income at the expense of the environment

Historically, Nicaragua’s predominant economic activity has been agriculture and livestock production. The last census in 2011 registered a herd of 4.2 million head of cattle, a figure that grew to 5.3 million in 2015, according to the Central Bank of Nicaragua and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

In 2016, beef was the primary export, surpassing traditional products like coffee and sugar. The government’s Plan for Production, Consumption and Trade in the 2017-2018 Cycle reported that in 2016, meat exports totaled $420.5 million; it is expected that by 2017 it will generate $500 million.

The livestock groups agree that there are about 140,000 farms in the country, which rely on the environment, rainfall, and temperatures. At high temperatures cows do not produce milk and therefore, cattle reproduction decreases. “Rain provides pastures their nutritional quality and volume needed to grow, which then serves as food. This is one of the reasons why the cattle ranching frontier is advancing towards wetlands,” says Álvaro Vargas of the Federation of Livestock Associations of Nicaragua.

Raising cattle in humid areas decreases costs; in dry areas, they have to invest in food supplements instead.

Photo courtesy of Onda Local

The Alexander Von Humboldt Center, a Nicaraguan institution specializing in environmental issues, revealed in its study “Land Use Change” that from 2011 to 2016, there was a reduction of more than one million hectares of open and closed broadleaved forest, mainly in protected areas and biosphere reserves. The study points out that there was a conversion of forests to grasslands and other monocultures such as the African palm. Grasslands gained 997,000 hectares in five years. The two biosphere reserves in Nicaragua, Bosawás and Indio Maíz, were the most affected.

Regarding Indio Maíz, the study indicates that the buffer zones present a significant increase of pastures and little natural regeneration of the forest, and also states the urgency of changing the current model of livestock production “which has and must be reconverted” to intensive livestock, to apply technology, to better redistribute spaces, and to encourage the use of agroforestry and silvicultural systems. Thus, the producers would improve environmental conditions on their land and would have no reason to migrate to areas of forest.

Tracking Program: A legality disguise?

Breeding livestock within the reserve is illegal and those who do it are aware of the regulatory framework. The cattle in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve are marked. They have owners and should appear in a local registry, and their owners should pay the municipality annually, who should then verify that the cattle exist in the municipality and comply with property regulations.

Claribel Castillo, mayor of Nueva Guinea, one of the four municipalities where the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is located, was not at home and did not respond to calls to discuss the issue. Enrique Téllez, the municipal councilman, affirmed that the municipality does not do much on the issue. “They just collect sales letters (the municipality’s document that legalizes the sale of cattle). It costs 40 córdobas ($1.30). There is supposed to be control at the municipal level, but there are always controls and records that corrupt them.” While corruption exists, anything can happen, he said.

According to Solís Durón, he registered in the municipality of Nueva Guinea the iron with which he marks his cattle (with the initials “JSD”). The iron is a legal requirement for trading cattle and it must be registered in the municipality of its owner’s origin.

However, as Solís needed to take out his cattle from the haciendita through the community of La Maravilla, he had to also register the iron in the municipality of Boca de Sábalos in Río San Juan to be able to mark his cattle. He first had to check whether the municipality already had an iron with his initials. “They looked in their files and there was no iron similar to mine. Because I registered it as a buying and selling deal, the officials saw me quickly,” said the rancher.

But Mongabay-Latam and Onda Local verified that the JSD iron was not registered in the municipality of Boca de Sábalos, which indicates that Solís obtained the transport certificate and sales letter illegally. The municipality has a service window exclusively for farmers in the community Kilometer 20, near La Maravilla, where Solís said he had taken the cattle transport certificate and the sales letter.

In Nueva Guinea, there are six artisan blacksmith workshops. Only three are authorized by the municipality. Photo courtesy Onda Local

Besides the irregularities in the registry, blacksmith’s workshops make irons for cattle often without authorization of the municipality, making falsification possible. “I do not have the permit, but I still do it,” said one craftsman. Therefore, people can ask for an iron and then use it without a legal registration in the municipality.

The lack of control of registration procedures, transport certificates, sales letters, iron records, and poor coordination among municipalities facilitates the legalization of stolen cattle in other municipalities, says municipal councilman Aquiles Matamoro, who adds that the situation was raised with the mayor, but they didn’t get a response.

In addition to an iron, cattle with a tag or earring can be registered with a database where it is possible to verify the name of the owner or former owners, farm number, origin, age, race, sex, transfers, among other things.

The tool is part of the Livestock Tracking Program, created in 2009 and administered by the former Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAGFOR). Since 2014, the Institute of Agricultural Health and Protection (IPSA) is in charge of the program. Its website says that traceability aids health surveillance and disease control, facilitates certification processes and access to higher value markets, stops cattle raiding, and other functions.

The municipality of Nueva Guinea (282 kilometers from Managua) is a pioneer in traceability, with its system initially implemented with cattle ranchers organized in cooperatives. In 2014, the program was better implemented under the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). “If you do not register your cattle you will not be able to sell them,” said Donald Ríos, former municipal mayor and president of the Nueva Guinea Producers, Breeders and Farmers Association (Asoprogan).

But the program is in the process of being consolidated, which is why Nicaragua does not export meat to Japan or Europe, says Ignacio Vélez, of the Livestock Entrepreneurship project of TECHNOSERVE, which since 1976 has helped small producers access formal markets, improve the quality of their production, increase their profits, and be more competitive while supporting traceability. This “makes the farmers better manage their animals,” he added.

Cow with earring near the haciendita, in the interior of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Photo by Rangers of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government

The earring represents security and benefits for farmers. What does it mean for Indio Maíz where there are tagged cattle?

The investigation done in the reserve concluded that the cattle with earrings had owners, however the information is not public and only the technical staff of IPSA can access it, as well as the owners. One must have a judge’s authorization.

Ignacio Vélez mentions that traceability is only a registry; it should not take care of the forest. “The national laws, the municipal laws, should be the ones that take care of it.”

It seems impossible to move livestock from one place to another with the municipality’s tracking and monitoring program, much less introduce them into a protected area. But in Nueva Guinea, cattle raiding is real. “As there are stalls at the border of each municipality, they produce sales letters and weigh and sell cattle,” says the president of Asoprogan.

When we were looking for information we met Israel Castillo. He came to Nueva Guinea to find out if livestock prices were better here than in the San Francisco area, in Bluefields (South Caribbean) —where he comes from. Castillo has 70 blocks of land where he breeds and fattens cattle for sale. “They are legal animals with their sales letters, my iron and tags.”

Israel Castillo. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

But Castillo says some people transport livestock without documentation. He blames corruption: “… from the thief and the municipalities; and sometimes even the police. If that person has already moved cattle and has paid policemen and the municipality, they are all partners.”

Juan Castillo, an assistant in a truck that transports cattle, is waiting for authorization outside of the Nueva Guinea police station. He will go to the Matadero San Martín (slaughterhouse), in Nandaime, Granada, with 14 bulls and two cows. He recalls that one time his boss ordered him to cover the cow’s iron brands with manure when passing through the police checkpoints to avoid inspection. He adds that there is corruption. “At these checkpoints, (I) pay 50 pesos ($1.60) to a guard and sometimes they don’t even inspect the truck.”

Where do the introduced cattle of the reserve end up?

Seventy-five percent of the cattle slaughtered in Nicaragua are processed in industrial slaughterhouses, most of which are aggregated within the Nicaraguan Meat Chamber. They gather the meat that is generally exported and try to meet the demand for quality by slaughtering young bulls (less than two years).

The remaining 25% of the killings are in municipal slaughterhouses. Although the municipalities recommend some sanitary procedures, the quality requirement is not the same, because it is for local consumption.

Marketers buy cheap and thin cattle and fatten them to increase their volume. Companies also buy cattle.

Trading animals is difficult, says cattle rancher José Solís Durón. Due to the remoteness and difficulty of accessing the haciendita, people have to walk long hours with the cattle to transport them to other places. “The cattle get injured,” states Solís and explains that after leaving the mountain cattle have to rest for at least a day. “You will not find people that will rent you pasture for a lot of days. Although some friends could do you the favor of renting you pastures for the night.”

Solís says that currently he sells cattle to “some Mexicans who own a company, SuKarne. They don’t want old cattle. And those people pay well. Before it was better for me to sell it there than at the ‘point’ (La Maravilla), because when the cows were injured they do not sell for much.” We wanted to verify the trade but SuKarne did not reply to our request.

He added that he recently sold 70 steers, the same amount we found that were being fattened in the haciendita. Another trading place is the slaughterhouse in Managua, he adds. “It’s like 100 ($3.33) a kilo, but they paid 98 ($3.26).” Who did they sell it to? “To Carnic.”

Iron found by Mongabay-Latam and Onda Local in the haciendita, property usurped by cattleman José Solís Durón, inside Indio Maíz. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

Mongabay-Latam and Onda Local requested an interview with the management of this company to understand the control mechanisms of the cattle they buy, addressing the company’s commitment to the environment. We told them about our research but they rejected our interview request. Jose Luis Núñez, general manager, stated by email that Solís was not among their suppliers.

However, Solís says that he had to have a good liaison to sell his cattle to SuKarne and Carnic. “A friend that I’ve worked with for a long time connected me to the companies. The buyer at La Maravilla buys a lot.” His friend told him that he would do all the paperwork and transport them in the truck.

Livestock on the scale of La Maravilla. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

Some of the slaughterhouses that operate in Nicaragua are El Matadero San Martín, Nova Terra S.A., Nuevo Carnic S.A., MASESA S.A.; and for seven years the Mexican transnational, Ganadería Integral Nicaragua S.A.—known as SuKarne—which in recent years has collected livestock in several municipalities, according to people of La Maravilla and Junier Herrera Maradiaga, representative of SuKarne in Nueva Guinea, who adds that among the company’s requirements is that the cattle is marked as required by its international clientele and the security measures of the company.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega attended the inauguration of the $115 million SuKarne processing plant in Villa El Carmen, located about 45 kilometers from Managua. SuKarne is the Mexican company with the largest presence in the global animal protein market.

Residents living inside the buffer zone of the reserve noted that Sukarne paddocks are the main destination for cattle traded in La Maravilla; much of this cattle is raised and fattened inside the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, several traders said. “It goes to Managua,” confirmed Elías Martínez, from Boca de Escaleras.

SuKarne Nueva Guinea. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

Nicaragua and Costa Rica take advantage of the fact that the other Central American countries do not produce enough meat to export; both countries have better livestock potential.

But the best market and destination of the Nicaraguan industry’s top-quality meat is the United States. However, quality does not seem to be a consumer right for Nicaraguan people, says Álvaro Vargas, from the Federation of Livestock Associations. “Good meat is exported, bad meat remains in the country. The select cuts are gone, we eat the rest.”

State permissiveness?

When entering the reserve no one asks you where you are going. People come in on a day-to-day basis, and there is not even a checkpoint. Virgilio Jirón, a cattle trader who we met at La Maravilla, said that there was a checkpoint a while ago, but now it’s gone. For him, this is one of the reasons why people invade the reserve: “If the president does not do something soon, Nicaragua will lose the reserve,” he emphasized.

In La Maravilla we found a checkpoint of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA): a humble wooden house with a chair and a table. “This checkpoint monitors other checkpoints like Aguas Zarcas, El Diamante and Samaria, although they are currently abandoned,” said the manager, and added that between December 2016 and January 2017, MARENA and the Army carried out evictions in some areas of the reserve and set ranches on fire. The worker refused to give more information and told us to ask MARENA-central.

We requested an interview with the head of MARENA to hear their opinion about what is happening inside the reserve and what measures would they take, but we did not get a response.

In August 2011, MARENA, the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government (GTRK) and the Autonomous Regional Council of the South Caribbean Coast signed a joint agreement for the management and protection of protected areas. However, the GTRK has disagreements over the non-compliance of MARENA. “The technicians who take care of this process are rarely seen,” says the GTRK. However, they intend to have meetings with representatives of institutions such as MARENA to “enforce the implementation of the signed commitments.”

On July 12, 2017, the GTRK filed a formal complaint with MARENA. José Solís Durón was accused of “excessive and indiscriminate deforestation” for livestock exploitation purposes inside the core area of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. They demanded proper intervention of the government: investigation, follow-up, and visits to the affected area. They pointed out that Solís violated various articles of the Political Constitution and the Environmental Law.

Deforestation around the haciendita. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

The Nicaraguan government has remained silent despite declarations from the GTRK, cattle rancher associations, and other civil society stakeholders.

According to Article 363 of the Criminal Code, whoever puts the environment, property and/or life of the population in serious danger will be punished with imprisonment of three to six years and 600 to 900 days of probation. Also, whoever incurs the crime of usurpation, invasion of communal or indigenous lands, will be sanctioned with one to three years in prison.

Nazario Martínez of the GTRK, during the radio edition of the Onda Local program on July 21, mentioned that they are waiting with “hope” for Nicaraguan government intervention. Allen Clair, also of the GTRK, added that in the absence of a prompt state response, they would assume the complicity of the government. “The Nicaraguan government has the opportunity to demonstrate that it is interested in the indigenous communities, but we will take its silence as if they promoted the invasion.”

Press conference of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government held on Tuesday, 11 July. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

The indigenous resistance continues

In the indigenous and Afro-descendant worldview, life is closely linked to the forest. In exchange for protection, respect, and teaching new generations about the ecosystem’s importance, the forest provides them with food and a home. It is a relationship of interdependency between animals, plants, and people.

The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is going through difficult days. That is why the GTRK sends community members inside the reserve to build surveillance posts and protect their territories.

Except for the indigenous resistance, it seems to be a bleak picture for the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve and Nicaragua. Although the country is reputed to have one of the best legal frameworks for the defense of the environment and nature, it seems that the highest authorities lack the political will to enforce it.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on August 15, 2017.