190826 Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio Image Credit: IANS

Leonardo DiCaprio-backed film says key beef supplier to the U.S. has a dirty secret.

Nicaragua's beef industry is under fresh scrutiny with a documentary backed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, which claims that ranchers there are illegally decimating rainforests to raise cattle for meat that ends up in U.S. supermarkets.

PATROL, funded in part by DiCaprio's nonprofit Re:wild, follows a campaign by the Rama Indigenous group and the Kriol, who are of African descent, to halt ranching in the Indio Maz Biological Reserve. In the past decade, more than 70 community members have been killed and thousands displaced as the ranchers flout laws recognizing indigenous land rights, according to the filmmakers.

Concerns about so-called conflict beef have plagued the global market. While the U.S. exports about $12 billion of beef per year, the country also buys from countries including Nicaragua and Brazil. Nicaragua - the sixth-largest foreign exporter of fresh beef to the U.S. last year - pledged in 2020 to monitor its cattle suppliers amid reports that ranchers were trampling on indigenous rights and hastening deforestation.

Nicaragua's IPSA, the agency responsible for regulating farms and ranches, didn't respond to requests for comment.

"We were trying to understand how the system facilitates this process of colonization and deforestation that in Nicaragua is happening at a faster rate than in any other country in Central America," said Camilo de Castro Belli, a Nicaraguan who directed PATROL with American Brad Allgood.

U.S. involvement in the issue is contradictory, according to Chris Jordan, Re:wild's Latin America director. The government has issued sanctions against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's regime, alleging human rights violations, while U.S. companies spend millions of dollars a year on Nicaraguan beef, he said. The U.S. continually evaluates "how best to use the tools at our disposal" against abuses committed by the Ortega regime, a State Department spokesperson said. "Governments that deny individual human rights or threaten the security interests of their neighbors should not expect their political and economic relationships with the United States to remain unaffected."

A bill introduced in 2021 to prohibit imports into the U.S. of products made on illegally deforested lands hasn't become law. Between 2019 and 2021, Nicaragua exported an estimated 91% of its beef production, with 49% of its shipments destined for the U.S., government data show.

The destruction of Indio Maz dates back to around 2011 and more should be done to protect indigenous lands and livelihoods, said Amaru Ruiz, a Nicaraguan environmental activist who has been living in exile after receiving threats and attacks on his home.

"For these communities, the forest is their refuge, it is their home," Ruiz said. "It is where they get the food, the resources to survive."

Illegal cattle ranching is a hard-to-tackle issue because of the lack of transparency and the significance that beef, one of Nicaragua's top exports, has to the economy, according to Enrique Senz, an economist and former member of the country's national assembly.

Though law enforcement officials are aware that illegal ranching occurs, they rarely make arrests, de Castro said. Cattle ranchers seize indigenous lands - often violently - to expand their pastures and feed livestock, he said.

"Government officials are willing to bend the rules very often in exchange for money or because they are dealing with people who have power," he said.