Skip to main content Skip to footer

Nicaraguan Beef, Grazed on Deforested and Stolen Land, Feeds Global Demand

June 10, 2020

By Mario Rautner, Sandra Cuffe

  • A Mongabay analysis shows major multinational companies including Nestlé and Cargill are at risk of sourcing Nicaraguan beef from indigenous regions consumed by settler occupation and mass deforestation. Both companies admit they can only trace the origin of their Nicaraguan beef back to the slaughterhouses, not the ranches.
  • More than 100 indigenous people living in the country’s autonomous indigenous regions have been killed, kidnapped or injured since 2015 amid conflicts ignited by settler migration and land grabbing.
  • Nicaragua is one of the world’s most heavily deforested countries, having lost about a fifth of its forest cover since 2000. Its indigenous regions were particularly badly hit, with deforestation rates as high as 27% over the same period.
  • Lawyers allegedly rubber-stamp land sale documents that have no legal basis, further compounding invasions of indigenous territories. Meanwhile, researchers have identified locations of scales and intermediaries serving ranchers occupying a biosphere reserve and indigenous land.

TIKTIK KAANU, Nicaragua — Eduardo Solano did not say much on the way home. He bought some oranges from a fruit vendor at a makeshift dock in Bluefields, the capital of Nicaragua’s South Caribbean Autonomous Region, and settled in for the three-hour boat journey that would get him most of the way home to Tiktik Kaanu, an indigenous Rama community he leads.

The other passengers were heading past Tiktik Kaanu to an illegal settlement where non-indigenous Nicaraguans have invaded indigenous communal lands, cleared the forest, and brought in cattle to graze. Traveling through the indigenous territory, the boat glided past towering mangroves and stretches of forest lining the Kukra River, where turtles, herons and blue morpho butterflies provided flashes of color against the walls of green. Here and there the forest gave way to clearings and pasture along the riverbank.

“Our lands are reduced,” Solano said after disembarking and hiking the rest of the way home. “They come with the idea of destroying the forest. It is not like us Rama, we protect it. But they come in cutting down trees, sowing pasture, and then bringing in cattle.”

Tiktik Kaanu is one of the nine communities — six indigenous Rama and three Afro-descendant Kriol — that govern Rama-Kriol communal lands. After years of struggle and international pressure, the Nicaraguan government granted a collective land title just over a decade ago covering more than 4,400 square kilometers (1,700 square miles) of land and nearly as much sea. But subsequent steps to ensure property rights within the title faltered, and invasions of communal lands by outsiders and cattle are on the rise.

“After we received our [land] title, many people came in,” Solano told Mongabay during a visit to the region in October. “We’re invaded all over.”

Access to Nicaragua’s eastern indigenous autonomous zones is limited, with many areas only accessible by boat or on foot. Photo by Sandra Cuffe for Mongabay.

The lay of the land

Most indigenous people in Nicaragua live in two densely forested regions along the fertile Caribbean coast — the South Caribbean Autonomous Region (RAAS) and North Caribbean Autonomous Region (RAAN) — that were established in 1987 during the “Contra War” waged by U.S.-backed forces against the post-revolutionary government led by Daniel Ortega. The autonomous regions were afforded a measure of self-rule. But after the election of Violeta Chamorro in 1990 concessions were granted to logging and mining companies and demobilized combatants were encouraged to resettle there, sparking tensions that persist to this day.

A riverside sign in the Rama community of Tiktik Kaanu explains that indigenous communal lands cannot be bought or sold. Photo by Sandra Cuffe for Mongabay.

A law laying out a five-step process to securing collective land titles in the RAAS and RAAN was introduced in 2003, Law 445, after indigenous Mayangna communities two years earlier took a South Korean logging company to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and won. The law obliged the government to remove non-indigenous settlers and concessions from communal land. Despite a slew of land titles being issued following the re-election of President Ortega in 2006, indigenous groups say his administration has yet to implement this crucial phase of the plan, known as saneamiento, or “cleaning up.”

Despite the new rules, thousands of settlers continued to arrive in the autonomous zones, many claiming to have purchased land titles. As a result, violent land conflicts have persisted, displacing thousands of indigenous people and leading to dozens of killings.

In the past five years, 40 indigenous people have been killed, more than 40 injured, and more than 40 kidnapped in cases related to land invasions, according to the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, an NGO that provides support and legal assistance to indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant communities.

Most of the attacks have taken place in the northern region, home to indigenous Miskito and Mayangna peoples, whose struggle led to the landmark ruling in 2001. But following the decision, the government has dragged out the court-ordered demarcation process for years.

More recently, Mayangna communities in and around the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve have been subject to violent attacks and incursions by armed civilians seeking to exploit their forest and lands, sparking panic and mass displacement. On Jan. 29, dozens of armed men invaded the Mayangna community of Alal, located inside the Bosawás reserve, burning homes and killing at least four indigenous residents. A report published last month by the Oakland Institute accused President Ortega of downplaying the crisis and failing to protect indigenous communities.


‘They come with dogs and weapons’

Tiktik Kaanu, or Leaf-Cutter Ant Hill in the Rama language, is a village of about 130 people living on either side of a bend in the river. Residents subsist on small-scale agriculture, producing enough to feed themselves and a modest surplus to sell in Bluefields, the regional capital. The community is only accessible by boat or on foot, but its relative proximity to Bluefields and to a highway connecting Bluefields to Nueva Guinea, the livestock hub of the region, makes Tiktik Kaanu more accessible than many other parts of Rama-Kriol territory.

Within titled Rama-Kriol lands, Mongabay saw evidence of incursions by outsiders: established clearings, newly razed areas, and cattle, both with and without ear tags — a telltale sign that livestock had been moved into the area in a process known as cattle laundering.

The calls of howler monkeys are audible from the porch of Solano’s wooden stilt home. There are also spider monkeys, white-faced capuchins, coatis, and other mammals in the area. But the wildlife pales in comparison to what Solano says he saw as a child growing up on the reserve, when it was not unusual to see tapirs bathing in the river.

“When there were not many people around, we had all kinds of animals because there was a lot of forest, but when outsiders, the non-indigenous, come in, the animals flee,” he said. “They come in with dogs and weapons. They raze everything and it’s worrisome for us as indigenous peoples because it is our livelihood.”

Solano is Tiktik Kaanu’s representative in the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government (GTRK), which comprises leaders from each of the nine communities, who are elected by local assemblies. The GTRK is tasked with managing this vast territory with little to no support from the central government, despite the government’s legal obligation to protect the communities’ land rights. Tiktik Kaanu is far from alone in facing the threat posed by settler communities.

Tiktik Kaanu community president Eduardo Solano says settlers brought cattle into indigenous lands illegally. Photo by Sandra Cuffe for Mongabay.


Forging land documents

Non-indigenous Nicaraguans arrive from Chontales, Juigalpa and other areas west of the Caribbean autonomous regions, Dalila Padilla, the GTRK secretary, told Mongabay at her office in Bluefields in October. Some are big-time cattle ranchers. Others are poor families trying to eke out a living. Either way, they cannot legally own property in Rama-Kriol territory.

Some non-indigenous Nicaraguans do not know they are invading communal indigenous lands. Their lawyers are usually aware of the situation, but it does not stop some of them from drawing up land sale documents, according to Padilla. “The expansion of cattle ranching in the territory is one of the major challenges we face,” she said. “When [outsiders] invade, they invade lands and then convert it to pasture. They turn it into a ranch for cattle. All over the territory, they only focus on cattle ranching.

“Many lawyers do things for money,” she added. “If a lawyer gives them a document, they think it is legal but the truth is, it is not.”

Rama-Kriol Territorial Government secretary Dalila Padilla alleges law firms often provide settlers with fake documents. Photo by Sandra Cuffe for Mongabay.

Indigenous communities and the GTRK have developed policies to address the problem. Under the agreements, communities may vote to permit outsiders to remain, but settlers cannot sell or expand land holdings, bring more settlers in, or exploit communal resources, and they must respect the authority of indigenous leaders and decisions made in community assemblies.

However, without the political will and resources from the Nicaraguan authorities to follow through with their obligation to enforce land rights within the title, the process relies on voluntary engagement by settlers. It also does not apply in the Indio Maíz Biosphere Reserve, much of which is within the Rama-Kriol title. As the last significant remaining tract of protected forest in the southern region, its increasing destruction from incursions, cattle ranch expansion and forest fires has caused widespread alarm in Nicaragua. “Indio Maíz is in danger, and not just the forest but people too, because there are threats against the Rama,” Padilla said.

Three of the nine communities in Rama-Kriol lands are located inside the Indio Maíz reserve. Corn River, a Kriol community, and Greytown, a mixed community, are both located on the coast. But Indian River, a small Rama community, is right in the heart of Indio Maíz, and its residents and leaders have faced threats from outsiders invading the biosphere to clear land for cattle.

“The indigenous leaders of Indian River have shown up where non-indigenous people are to tell them the lands are communal, that the lands belong to them, and that people need to go back to where they came from,” Padilla said. “The non-indigenous began threatening the Rama, trying to displace them so they can have all the land.”