Nicaraguan Ranchers Slam Documentary Film

By La Prensa

HAVANA TIMES – In the last several weeks, a new documentary has focused the attention of film buffs on Nicaragua: not its armed conflicts, but the destruction of the Indio Maiz biodiversity reserve and the risk faced by the indigenous people who inhabit the area. However, while the documentary film reaps international awards, the ranchers – the “bad guys” of the movie who appear as the cause of the destruction – assure the accusation is false. They call the work biased because it didn’t include their version. Some even feel that the film’s real objective is to destroy the cattle industry, one of the pillars of the national economy.

Leaders of Nicaraguan rancher organizations, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, claim the documentary film Patullaje [“Patrol”], produced by Nicaraguan filmmaker Camilo de Castro Belli, presents a real problem, but a biased vision. According to these sources, it only portrays one face of the problem, without including the perspective or validation of any of the 135 thousand ranchers scattered throughout the country.

Camilo de Castro rejects this assertion, recalling that one of the protagonists of the documentary is a rancher living inside the reserve area. In addition, he says, he interviewed two leaders of the agricultural sector: Michael Healy (since deceased) who at the time of filming was president of the Nicaraguan Agricultural Producers’ Association; and Alvaro Vargas who led the Federation of Associated Nicaraguan Ranchers.

Filmmaker denies hidden agenda

Leaders of international ranchers’ organizations who are outside the country believe the documentary is aimed at shining a spotlight on a popular current topic, in order to win awards and gain visibility. In their view, the film’s producers wanted to get access to the abundant resources currently available to projects focused on the planet’s environmental deterioration. They also don’t discount the possibility of political interests.

Leaders of international ranchers’ organizations fear that the reaction the documentary is causing, especially in the United States, could cause that country to close its doors to Nicaraguan beef and other cattle products. Further, the Nicaraguan government’s lack of a response to the threat of losing that market has led some international cattle-raising leaders to suspect that, given the distancing that arose in 2018 between the government and the large business sector, there may be interests at work there too, to destroy the sector.

The regime could reap an advantage, since they’re known to have economic interests in the different links along the chain of this industry, which is one of the country’s most important economic pillars. According to reports from the Nicaraguan Central Bank, in 2023, the livestock sector exported US $966.25 million dollars in beef and dairy product sales. Of these exports, 36%, with a value of US $350.84 million, went to the US market.

Camilo de Castro denies that the driving force of the documentary was to close the US market to Nicaraguan beef, although in some interviews he’s admitted meeting with beef importers to speak about the situation. De Castro clarifies that he didn’t ask for the closure of the markets in these interviews, as the cattle raising sector alleges.

Meetings with importers

“In all the spaces we’ve participated in, including the meeting with Northwestern Meat Inc. in Miami, we’ve spoken about the problems of the National Cattle Tracing System, and offered concrete proposals for solving the problem of illegal cattle raising. We’ve never asked for the closure of the US market,” De Castro assures.

The filmmaker admits that the presence of cattle in the Indio Maiz Reserve is minimal, accounting for some 30,000 head of cattle, in comparison with a national herd that surpasses six million head of cattle.

Nonetheless, he believes that such a comparison distracts attention from the problem of the Reserve’s destruction. Camilo de Castro is convinced that the ranching sector has an obligation to help put the brakes on the illegal ranching practiced by some of the land colonists who have invaded the Reserve. In fact, even though he didn’t include this in the documentary, he says that for several years he has maintained ties with the cattle-raising organizations, in search of mechanisms to detain the illegal ranching in the Reserve.

Ranchers reject the accusations

In a broad written statement, leaders of the ranching organizations express that they are respectful of the human rights of all the Nicaraguans, and their private property rights. As such, they “repudiate the isolated cases of unscrupulous people who violate the rights of the indigenous peoples and cause environmental damage that affects the entire nation.” However, they don’t feel they have any obligation to intervene, rather that it’s the authorities’ job to stop these abuses and punish the guilty.

According to the Green Climate Fund website, the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve is one of five large forests left in Meso-America, and one of the most extensive in Nicaragua, with a land area just under 1,228 square miles. Historically, it was one of the best preserved large biological reserves, but the growing deforestation caused by the expansion of illegal ranching and land trafficking is now threatening the forest and its wildlife. The indigenous Rama people and the Afro-descendent Kriol people share the communal title for over 70 percent of the Reserve, and their culture and way of life also depend on its protection.

The Indio Maiz Reserve is located in the southeast corner of Nicaragua, within the municipalities of El Castillo, San Juan de Nicaragua and Bluefields. The forest extends southwards to the border of Costa Rica, where it forms that country’s Tortuguero National Park. The region of Indio Maiz and Tortuguero includes high jungle, mangroves, swamps, beaches, and lagoons. It’s a zone of copious rainfall, so that “primary production, as well as the biodiversity, is extremely high.”

Warning of possible danger

1.- Leaders of a rancher’s organization in Nicaragua state that the way the documentary film was conceived and the way it’s being promoted, especially in the United States, is: “irresponsible, with a capital I.” They offer a series of reasons for this judgement:1. It endangers the historic commercial relationship that goes back over 60 years, with the principal buyers of their products (meat, milk, cheese, and other dairy products) in the United States, Central America and other markets. If lost, it would take a lot of time and money to recover these commercial ties.

      2.- Losing those markets would affect the income of over 735,000 families – 135,000 who are ranchers, and another 600 thousand people who work in related sectors. This would violate the human rights of all those who participate in the different links of the livestock chain in the country.

      3.- Minimizes the importance to the ranching sector of the Cattle Tracing system being implemented by the Institute for Agricultural Protection and Health. Although this system requires permanent improving, it has now identified all the cattle ranches in the country, their herd inventory, the origin and destination of the cattle. As such, the traceability is already a public asset that offers the sector greater competitiveness in the marketplaces.

      Ranchers lament film’s “political slant”

      The ranch leaders say they lament the “political slant” of the documentary, that paints them as co-authors of events they’re not responsible for, given the political and historical context in which the events play out.

      The sector denies all responsibility for the Reserve’s deforestation, and assures they’re involved in tangible efforts to implement systems of rotational pasturing that allow ranchers to rotate their herds through different pastures, to prevent the over-exploitation of the land and promote the regeneration of the soil. They’re also involved in efforts to utilize direct planting, cover crops, agroforestry, and other methods to improve the soil health, promote biodiversity and develop strategies to use the water resources more efficiently.

      “It’s unacceptable that while the cattle-raising sector is making all these efforts, media professionals come in to undermine the bases of one of the country’s most important activities – economically, socially and environmentally. We urge the producers of the documentary to stop defaming cattle production, since badly intended publicity could bring serious problems to the country,” stated a leader of one of the Nicaraguan ranching organizations, who asked to remain anonymous.

      They don’t endorse the destruction

      The leader of an international cattle ranchers’ organization also denied the association’s alleged responsibility for the destruction of the reserve. He noted that it would be very naive for their Nicaraguan colleagues to get involved in this type of activity, because they know the consequences this could have on the European and US markets. With that in mind, the ranching associations never endorse any type of production that has a hint or footprint of environmental damage.

      “We believe there’s a political tint to all this – we don’t find any other explanation. It’s aimed on the one hand at destabilizing the country’s most lucrative business, in order to destabilize the government. On the other hand, they’re focused on obtaining funds, awards, or recognitions to position themselves [as filmmakers] and draw the attention of the large European foundations that finance environmental programs. I don’t even think they have a genuine interest in the forests, because in Nicaragua there are other activities that do more damage and contaminate still more, but these are not mentioned anywhere in the video,” stated the ranch leader.

      He also advised Nicaraguan ranchers’ organizations, regardless of whether they have legal status or have had it taken away, to organize themselves and pressure the government to go into the area, investigate, present real figures and act, before this “ill-intentioned propaganda” deprives the country of the most important markets for the livestock sector’s products.

      Other leaders believe that if the government fails to fulfill its obligation to act before it’s too late, in the face of this very grave threat – given that the most affected party will be the country – it could be an indication that they’re actually interested in destroying the ranching sector, with the intention of taking advantage of the vacuum.

      The solution is complex

      Filmmaker Camilo de Castro denies any hidden interest in damaging the ranchers’ associations or in destabilizing the Nicaraguan economy. He affirms that together with the organizations that took part in the documentary, the filmmakers have spent more than ten years working to shine a light on the demands of the indigenous communities and the problems they face.

      De Castro assures that he has documented the advance of illegal cattle raising and the serious effects this has provoked on the forests and the welfare of the indigenous communities, whose way of life depends directly on the forest, the rivers, and the biodiversity.

      The filmmaker admits that the problem of illegal cattle raising is complex, and any solution requires a concerted joint effort between the government, the private sector, and civil society.  For that very reason, he began in 2017 to promote plans and strategies for the ranching sector to put forward and begin to solve the problem. The ranch sector, however, considers this to be the government’s obligation, especially considering the investment it would require. Nevertheless, they’ve never managed to succeed at getting the government’s support, while the ranchers continue asserting that the effort requires work and investment they alone can’t sustain.

      Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.