This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.
This video was created in collaboration with PBS NewsHour.
In February, three teenage girls waded into a small creek in northeast Nicaragua, near the town of Santa Clara, to bathe. As the girls rose from the water and dressed, a shot rang out. One of the girls, a 15-year-old member of the Indigenous Miskito community, fell to the ground. Blood pooled from a hole in the side of her face.
Someone was sending a message to the Miskito community in Santa Clara, according to the girl’s family.
Nicaraguan cattle ranchers, spurred by a surge in beef exports to the United States and desperate for more pastureland to keep up with demand, are attacking Indigenous communities in the forests of eastern Nicaragua, forcing residents to flee and killing those who resist. Dozens have been left dead.
Once in possession of their stolen forestland, the cattle ranchers burn it, destroying pristine jungle that contributes to the destruction of the second-largest rainforest in the Americas.
Cattle raised in Nicaragua can end up on American grocery store shelves, with no label indicating where it came from. Rather, some of it is labeled as grass fed, suggesting it is more humane and sustainable.
In January, dozens of armed men attacked another Indigenous village in northeast Nicaragua, killing four people in the Mayangna community, injuring two others and burning down 16 homes, according to a United Nations report.
The deadly attacks have risen during the pandemic. As COVID-19 outbreaks slowed down American slaughterhouses, forcing U.S. grocery stores to scramble to fill shelves with foreign beef, Nicaraguan suppliers rushed to fill the gap.
Nicaragua is the third-largest supplier of frozen beef to the United States. And this year, it is on track for its biggest year ever, having already shipped 33,000 tons of beef to the United States, according to trade data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This small Central American country – the size of Mississippi – now exports more than 90% of its beef, with the U.S. as its biggest customer. Shipments from Nicaragua to American meat importers have about doubled over the last four years.
That growing beef production has spurred violence and bloodshed in Nicaragua’s Indigenous communities as cattle ranchers seize land to clear the jungle for fresh pastureland.
“While the world’s attention is focused on the pandemic, there’s another pandemic that is ravaging the Indigenous in Nicaragua,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, a California-based nonprofit that investigates land theft around the world.
The homicide rate in the Indigenous Mayangna community soared so high in the first half of this year, as a result of murders by cattle ranchers, that it would rank among the most dangerous places in the world.
“That is going to cause us ethnocide. And as Indigenous people, we are going to disappear,” said Lottie Cunningham, an Indigenous leader and attorney in Bilwaskarma, a Miskito community in the northeast.
A letter declaring war against an Indigenous community was attached to the door of the local judge in Wisconsin, a small Miskito town in eastern Nicaragua, where people were resisting the cattle ranchers and others invading their land. The note read:
Warm greetings citizens of Wisconsin,
The Indigenous people of Nicaragua are legally the owners of these lands – accounting for about one-third of Nicaragua’s total land area – under an international court ruling nearly 20 years ago.
But Nicaraguan cattle ranchers covet that land. And so far, President Daniel Ortega’s government has encouraged the growth of the cattle operations, saying they are vital to the economy of the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and supporting the building of massive new slaughterhouses near the borders of Indigenous lands. Ortega’s administration is doing little to protect the Indigenous communities against a growing number of outsiders arriving to seize their land for natural resources, according to an April report from the Oakland Institute.
Federal police who investigated the shooting of the 15-year-old girl found her cousin accidentally shot her with a homemade gun, despite a growing pattern of settlers shooting Indigenous people, and quickly closed the case, further raising the ire of the Indigenous community.
The Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States, Francisco Campbell, reached by phone, declined a request for an interview and did not respond to written questions emailed to him.
This shift to Nicaraguan beef has been hidden from American consumers due to a loophole in U.S. regulation.
Four years ago, in the wake of a trade dispute among the United States, Mexico and Canada, the USDA changed the rules governing beef imports to allow American retailers and meat wholesalers to stop labeling beef with its country of origin.
Nicaragua has a long history as a beef producer. It is the country’s largest export, according to the government. But about five years ago, violent skirmishes between the Indigenous land owners and cattle ranchers began escalating.
Cattle ranchers arrived to cut down and burn the pristine jungle and plant grass genetically modified for tropical soils on the denuded land. Then they bring in the cattle. These pasture-raised cattle then make their way to Nicaragua’s slaughterhouses, most of them owned by one of the six major companies in Nicaragua that have USDA permission to export to the United States.
American companies import that beef, selling it to grocery stores, where it has been marketed as grass fed, even sustainable.
Thomas Foods International USA is one of the major importers of Nicaraguan beef, according to shipment records from Panjiva, which analyzes global trade. It sells its beef to Target, Safeway, Walmart and Yale University, among others. Like many other importers, the company increased its buying from Nicaragua this year, according to import records.
Thomas Foods markets itself as a provider of grass-fed and organic beef, mainly from Australia, and touts sustainability as a key tenet of its operations.
“Environmental sustainability has always been at the core of what we do. No one ever had to convince us of its importance,” the company says on its website.
Beef imported from Nicaragua can be labeled as a “product of the USA” as long as it is processed and repackaged in the U.S. It is effectively indistinguishable from American-raised beef.
Target, Walmart and Albertsons Cos., which owns Safeway, all sell beef from Thomas Foods, which imports some of its beef from Nicaragua.
Target explicitly denied selling Nicaraguan beef. Walmart declined to comment. And Albertsons said it bought beef from Thomas Foods because COVID-19 was creating meat shortages.
Thomas Foods’ chief executive officer, Michael Forrest, sought to distance the company from Nicaragua.
“Only a small percentage of the overall product offering secured by Thomas Foods is imported from that country,” Forrest said in a statement. He declined repeated requests for an interview.
But a review of Thomas Foods’ import records show that about 12% of its beef came from Nicaragua at one point this year.
The company’s chief financial officer, John Cassidy, spoke briefly to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting outside the company’s headquarters in New Jersey and provided information that undermined another marketing claim on the company’s website.
On the Thomas Foods International USA website, the company says it tracks production “every step of the way literally from the farm to the table.” Yet Cassidy acknowledged that the company doesn’t buy directly from farmers in Nicaragua, but rather from slaughterhouses. He said his understanding is that Thomas Foods has no way of ensuring where in the country that beef comes from.
A spokesman for the USDA confirmed that there is no recognized system to trace beef within Nicaragua, meaning importers cannot ensure that their beef wasn’t raised on stolen Indigenous land. As a result, the European Union does not allow beef imports from Nicaragua.
When Cassidy was asked whether his company would stop buying beef from Nicaragua, given deadly violence and land theft by cattle ranchers against Indigenous communities, he said Thomas Foods didn’t want to exploit anyone.
“If we were to find out that these things were going on from the slaughterhouses that we’re buying from, we would probably want to change,” Cassidy said.
Forrest, the company’s CEO, issued the statement to Reveal a few days later, saying it will continue to import from Nicaragua. The statement said its partners in Nicaragua – the slaughterhouses and cattle companies – have an agreement that commits to zero agriculture in protected areas, and Thomas Foods “will continue to work with our network of suppliers to ensure preservation of protected land and the indigenous people as well as the local communities.”
Thomas Foods spokesperson Kelly Loganbill declined to provide a copy of that agreement, and said the company would have no further comment.
Camilo de Castro Belli, a veteran Nicaraguan journalist who is working on a documentary about how the cattle industry is violently affecting the Indigenous communities, cursed when told that a major American meat importer said there were agreements to protect Indigenous communities.
“If they’re saying that there is actually actions being taken, they are lying,” he said.
He said the Indigenous communities and the cattle companies did discuss an agreement, but it fell apart. “The cattle industry has been basically worried about their bottom line, and they haven’t taken any concrete action.”
Reveal obtained documents in August from the lead organization representing the nation’s Indigenous people, the Alliance of Indigenous and Afro-Descendant Peoples of Nicaragua, confirming the group had started a conversation with Nicaraguan livestock and beef associations, but no agreement was ever ratified.
Cunningham, the Miskito attorney, won the Right Livelihood Award, referred to as the “alternative Nobel Prize,” this month for her work protecting Indigenous communities. She asked Americans and U.S. companies to boycott Nicaraguan beef until conditions improve.
“Please don’t buy it. That’s the way they could contribute with us,” she said. “We are just asking people to help us seek justice, that we could have peace in our community one of these days.”
Reveal associate producers JoeBill Muñoz, Mallory Newman and Emma Schwartz contributed to this story. It was edited by Amanda Pike and Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.