NicaNotes: Progressive Media Promoted a False Story of ‘Conflict Beef’ From Nicaragua

By John Perry

(This article was published on Dec. 4, 2020, by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting:

https://fair.org/home/progressive-media-promoted-a-false-story-of-conflict-beef-from-nicaragua/)

In reports by Reveal (10/21/20) and PBS NewsHour (10/20/21) there were calls for a boycott of “conflict beef” from Nicaragua. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal claims to be “fair and comprehensive” and PBS to be “trusted,” but their misleading and inaccurate reports could have drastic consequences for Nicaragua, at a time when the country is already struggling to deal with US sanctions, the pandemic and the aftermath of two damaging hurricanes. Their argument is that cattle farmers who produce the beef that is exported have in many cases illegally settled territory in the rainforest that belongs to Indigenous communities, and that the government does little to resolve the violent conflict that results.

There are some 40,000 Indigenous families in Nicaragua, and nearly a third of its territory is legally owned and administered by 300 Indigenous communities. Reveal and PBS focus on Bosawás, the largest tropical rainforest reserve in Central America, which has seven territories belonging to Mayangna and Miskitu Indigenous groups, whose land claims have been recognized by the government. (Since 2006, the governing party in Nicaragua has been the socialist Sandinista Front, a longstanding target of US hostility.)

For decades, non-Indigenous (or mestizo) settlers have entered these areas, some “buying” land from Indigenous communities, even though it cannot legally be sold, and others simply taking it. A history of legal, quasi-legal and illegal land occupation, along with intermixing of mestizo families with Indigenous people, have produced a multifaceted, volatile situation, which occasionally causes violent disputes. A local NGO, CEJUDHCAN, in February 2020 counted 40 deaths of Indigenous people over five years connected to land disputes, with further mestizo deaths uncounted.

The remoteness of the area provides ample scope for reports of violence to be distorted for political purposes. For example, in January, Reuters (1/30/20) reported an attack on the Mayangna community of Alal by 80 men, leading to six deaths, ten people being kidnapped and houses being destroyed. Along with local opposition media, the Guardian (1/30/20) and BBC (1/30/20) repeated the story, apparently based on just two phone calls from people claiming that “the state is doing nothing.” Yet police investigated quickly, finding 12 houses burned down and two people injured, but no one dead or disappeared. Mayangna leaders condemned the false reports. Two days later in Wakuruskasna, seven miles from Alal, police found and identified four murder victims. They described a criminal gang responsible for both incidents, capturing one alleged member.

Reveal News journalist Nate Halverson misrepresents a different incident. In February, a young girl bathing in a river in Santa Clara was reportedly hit by a bullet. Halverson repeats the uncorroborated claim that settlers were “sending a message” to the local Indigenous community: “Leave.” He dismisses the police’s conclusion that the injury was caused by another child shooting off a gun, a version corroborated by Lejan Mora, president of Santa Clara’s Indigenous government, who knows the family. Community leaders told FAIR that the family had been bribed to lie about the “attack.”

Halverson claims the homicide rate in the area “soared so high…that it would rank among the most dangerous places in the world.” Lottie Cunningham Wren, who runs CEJUDHCAN, tells Halverson that the 40+ deaths in five years amount to “ethnocide” in which the Indigenous people will “disappear”—an improbable outcome, given that there are 180,000 Miskitu and 30,000 Mayangna people.

To those unfamiliar with Nicaragua, news items about Indigenous groups conjure images of uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. Reveal/PBS calls the area “pristine jungle.” Yet these communities have good roads, access to schools, health posts, local municipal services, and government agricultural and technical support.

Romanticized views of forest dwellers create one level of oversimplification. Another, in a region deeply divided between supporters and opponents of Nicaragua’s government, is to report unquestioningly the views of one side, and to suggest ostensibly obvious solutions to land conflicts. Doing so overlooks many obstacles and incorrectly alleges government neglect, ignoring the many advances being made alongside the problems that remain.

All these faults are found in the research behind the Reveal/PBS stories, a report by the Oakland Institute, a California-based progressive think tank that compares the situation of Nicaraguan Indigenous communities with “the peoples and forests in the Brazilian Amazon.” Its author, Anuradha Mittal, has spoken to many Miskitu people aligned with an opposition party, Yatama, but evidently to few if any people from other communities—whether mestizos, Mayangna, Afro-descendants or the many Miskitu who support the government. Glossing over this political bias, she claims to speak for the Indigenous people’s “courageous struggle” against government indifference.

Mittal recognizes that Nicaragua’s widely applauded Law 445 established Indigenous land rights, but she argues that despite subsequent land titling, the government has failed Indigenous people by not taking “the final, crucial step of the land claims process” known as saneamiento—“sanitation”which in her interpretation “requires clearing the Indigenous territories of non-Indigenous settlers.” But saneamiento is much more complex than this, as explained below. Nor does Mittal acknowledge the role of corrupt Yatama leaders who failed to advance saneamiento despite controlling the regional government for almost a decade until 2014, while themselves selling land illegally.

Geographer Nora Sylvander, who has studied the issue since 2012, argues that saneamiento could easily “create more problems than it solves,” and may “exacerbate the conflict and violence” rather than curb it. For example, what happens to long-established settlers who have “bought” their land: Do they get replacement land, and if so where? What happens if settlers resist removal with violence—would the government risk lives to carry it out? Guillermo Rodriguez of the Center for Justice and International Law, responding to the Oakland Institute report, said, “It’s a really complex situation. In some places, 90% of the current inhabitants are colonos [settlers].”

Many Indigenous leaders argue that saneamiento is actually working, but could do so more quickly with increased resources and closer political coordination by Indigenous territorial administrations with other levels of government. Both Rose Cunningham, mayor of Waspam, and Miskitu leader Mora described the process to us, in which longer-established settlers may be allowed to stay with community agreement while others, often newcomers, are expelled. In fact, Nicaragua is one of many Latin American countries struggling to develop a viable process of saneamiento, in a Caribbean region which is among the country’s poorest, and where the government assigns limited resources to providing better hospitals, schools and roads.

The crux of the Reveal/PBS pieces is to link the land conflicts in Bosawás, and the alleged failure of government to tackle them, with the production of meat for export. Reveal’s piece is headed “Conflict Beef,” and both it and PBS use pictures of US supermarket meat displays. Both quote Mittal as saying: “The supply chain of beef from Nicaragua is anything but clean.”

This is untrue. The government body responsible for the integrity of the supply chain is IPSA (the Spanish acronym for the Institute for Agricultural Protection and Health). On November 9, IPSA’s director explained to us that they believe their cattle registration and traceability system, approved by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, is as rigorous as any in Latin America. Through it, IPSA monitors the location and movement of all registered cattle – and only these cattle can enter the supply chain for the export market. Registration of farms and tagging of animals is done by authorized agents, not by producers, and cattle can only be moved, sold and slaughtered if they have the correct documentation. None of the 125,253 registered farms are in the strictly protected areas (“nuclei”) of national reserves. One of the largest exporting companies produced a promotional video in November to explain the safeguards it has in place.

All this is ignored by both Halverson and Mittal. The Oakland Institute report laments the “absence of a nationally coordinated traceability system for cattle,” while Halverson cites an unnamed US Department of Agriculture official saying “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.” Yet the USDA audits IPSA every two years, and only IPSA-registered cattle are accepted by the six processing plants certified as meeting USDA requirements. None of these are “near the borders of Indigenous lands,” as Halverson claims. He adds that the European Union doesn’t allow beef imports from Nicaragua, seemingly unaware that the EU already has a pilot project with IPSA to ensure the scheme meets its (higher) requirements.

Of the 705,320 cattle registered by IPSA since 2011, just 11% are in the North Atlantic Region, where the Bosawás reserve is located. The region has 13,348 registered farms, but none are in the reserve’s nucleus, and hardly any are in municipalities where land conflicts occur. Waspam, for example, has only 98, and none of them are in southern Tasba Raya, where violence flared in 2015.

Yet clearly there are cattle in the reserve. Although the Oakland Institute report fails to mention it, Miskitu people typically have small numbers of cattle. Many more may be introduced by settlers, either by agreement or illegally. However, while meat (and milk) from these cattle can be sold locally, there are multiple barriers to their entering the export market. In addition to the IPSA system, cattle trucks leaving the reserve have to comply with municipal administrative requirements, present documents at permanent army checkpoints and face random police checks.

A group of cattle farmers interviewed for this article in Siuna, the city closest to Bosawás, explained in detail how these measures prevent cattle kept in the reserve from entering the export market, adding that the army also removes illegal ranchers. Two leaders of the Mayangna nation interviewed for this article described how this is done in coordination with Indigenous forest wardens. While clearly such evictions are only partially effective, it is extremely difficult to see how the remaining ranchers could evade the army and police and breach the IPSA system to sell cattle for export. Local producers say this is impossible, and neither Mittal nor Halverson offer any evidence to the contrary.

The source of the Reveal/PBS material—the Oakland Institute—is openly hostile to the Nicaraguan government, a fact made obvious by the title of its report, Nicaragua’s Failed Revolution. As well as including a very biased account of the violence the country experienced in 2018, the report makes detailed accusations against Sandinista politicians Myrna Cunningham, Rose Cunningham and Carlos Alemán Cunningham, noting that they are from the same (Miskitu) family. It refers positively to the work of CEJUDHCAN without pointing out that its director, Lottie Cunningham Wren, now aligned with the US-supported opposition, is also part of the same family that the Oakland Institute report alleges is involved in corrupt land dealings.

Based on her work with Mittal, Cunningham Wren is also interviewed by Halverson for Reveal/PBS. The two senior Mayangna leaders we spoke to, Arisio Genaro Celso and Eloy Frank Gomez, regard her as simply looking for ways to attack the government while being out of touch with the Mayangna community’s needs. Likewise, Miskitu leader Mora accuses CEJUDHCAN and Cunningham Wren of blatantly lying about events in the region. Fresly Janes Zamora, Miskitu president of the Twi Yahbra territory, said she is benefiting from violence in the area and not seeking solutions. Another person interviewed by Halverson, Camilo de Castro Belli, is described as a journalist, but in fact is a fellow at the Aspen Institute, a neoliberal think tank, a committed supporter of Nicaragua’s opposition and the son of Gioconda Belli, a prominent opposition figure.

Before this piece was written, both Halverson and Mittal were asked for proof of the claimed link between conflicts in Bosawás and beef exports to the US. Although they replied, they offered no proof. A list of suggested corrections to the Reveal article, invited by its editor, was rejected, as was the offer of an article in response to Halverson’s.

Other media picked up the damaging Reveal/PBS piece: Environmental website One Green Planet (11/17/20) linked the story to the enormously different scale of deforestation taking place in the Amazon. KPFA radio in California devoted two episodes of the show A Rude Awakening (11/6/20, 11/13/20) to interviews with Mittal, in which she made generalized attacks on her critics and on the Ortega government, again without offering any proof of her claims. Neither responded to complaints.

By making a completely false link between the land conflicts in Nicaragua and the growth of its meat exports to the United States, ostensibly progressive media are fueling the US government’s regime-change agenda, just as they have in relation to Venezuela. The US pursues this agenda via economic sanctions (renewed by Trump days after recent hurricanes hit Nicaragua) and blatant financial support for opposition groups in the run-up to Nicaragua’s 2021 elections. If the calls for a boycott of Nicaraguan beef in the Reveal and PBS reports were actually heeded, there would be enormous damage to the Nicaraguan economy and to poor communities in Nicaragua. The livelihoods of no less than 140,000 producers and 600,000 workers would be at risk.

Once again, knowingly or otherwise, US media are complicit in attempts by Nicaraguan opposition groups and the US government to undermine Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Reveal has a deserved reputation in progressive circles for its work in exposing immigration abuses, conditions faced by Amazon workers and other issues: It should pay much more careful attention to the sources of its reports on Nicaragua.

 

Briefs

By Nan McCurdy

Half Million Roofing Sheets for Recovery
On Dec. 3, a new shipment of 13,773 sheets of zinc roofing sheets went to the municipalities of El Tortuguero, La Cruz de Río Grande, Desembocadura del Río Grande and Laguna de Perlas in the South Caribbean, for a total of 513,773 sheets delivered nationally, as announced by vice president Rosario Murillo. In Prinzapolka, “270 thousand people have started treatment against leptospirosis, a disease typical of this season.” (Radio La Primerisima, 3 Dec. 2020)

12,000 Production Packages for Indigenous Families
A total of 12,000 production packages for the third planting of crops on the Eastern side of Nicaragua (where there is enough rain for three harvests) are being distributed to Miskitu and Mayangna Indigenous families living in 115 communities in the municipality of Waspam recently affected by hurricanes Iota and Eta. This consists of bean seeds, work tools, rubber boots, bio-inputs and more. Families will plant in December or January and harvest in March or April. (Radio La Primerisima, 9 Dec. 2020)

Nicaragua: Second Country with 100% Electricity Access
The president of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), Dante Mossi said, “Nicaragua will be the second country in Latin America to achieve 100% national coverage, which is a historic accomplishment that demonstrates the commitment of the Government to guarantee this basic right for the population.” Mossi added, “We must acknowledge and congratulate Nicaragua for obtaining US$115 million in funding from the United Nations Green Climate Fund to manage the effects of climate change. Approval of funds at this scale by the Green Climate Fund is unprecedented for the region and a clear recognition of Nicaragua’s work on environmental protection, as well as adaptation and mitigation of the effects of climate change. We have a lot to learn from the Nicaraguan experience,” Mossi said.

(Radio La Primerisima, 3 Dec. 2020)

Green Energy Production Reaches more than 74%
While the national electrical coverage as of October was already 98.33%, electrical generation based on renewable resources reached 74.39% as of November 25. In 2006, only 26% was renewable and 74% was generated with oil. Today the maximum energy demand is 689.04 MW with an installed capacity of 3,884.63 GWh. (Informe Pastran, 3 Dec. 2020)

CABEI to Support Projects in Education, Health, Housing and Infrastructure
More than 40 public investment, productive and social assistance projects may be executed in the country with a loan of US$300 million from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). The Executive President of CABEI, Dr. Dante Mossi, reiterated that, “The NIC-Solidaria Program brings with it a series of high impact actions that will promote the reactivation and development of the economic sectors, in addition to supporting efforts to reduce poverty.” Projects financed by CABEI through NIC-Solidaria will focus on the following sectors: education, health, housing and road infrastructure, followed by activities in the agricultural and rural development sectors, fishing and climate change; the promotion and attention to micro and small enterprises (MSMEs), attention to vulnerable groups and social assistance for the COVID-19 pandemic. It is expected to benefit 1.5 million people and generate 2,138 permanent jobs. (Radio La Primerisima, 4 Dec. 2020)

Aid for Hurricane Recovery and for Covid-19
Nicaragua is close to achieving its investment goals as well as securing resources for post-hurricane recovery and managing international resources for the reactivation of the economy. Finance Minister Ivan Acosta specified that US$480 million from the IMF and CABEI, another US$115 million from the Green Climate Fund will be directed mostly in relation to the pandemic, while additional efforts are made to achieve resources for recovery and reconstruction after the damage of hurricanes IOTA and ETA in what is a regional international effort. Acosta explained that the Inter-American Development Bank will approve a contingent loan of US$35 million for post-hurricane reconstruction, and the World Bank another US$86 million. Acosta stressed that by February 2021 it is expected to have achieved US$200 million to be allocated specifically for the reconstruction of hurricane damage that totals about 7% of GDP, more than US$700 million. Acosta highlighted the smart decision of President Ortega to have contracted for climate risk insurance in 2014, noting that the payment of US$10 million in insurance money from Hurricane Eta was used to mobilize aid to the Caribbean region and another US$19 million from Hurricane IOTA is pending. (Informe Pastran, 4 Dec. 2020)

Government Battles Deforestation in Indigenous Territories
The fight against deforestation in Indigenous territories is showing progress because there is attention from the institutions of the Sandinista government, said Arisio Genaro Celso and Eloy Frank Gomez, President and Secretary of the Mayangna Nation. They stated that the Guardabarranco Environmentalist Movement supports this work and is in charge of distributing plants for reforestation in the affected areas. They noted that in all of the Mayangnas territories, trees are being planted in order to recover the reserves. On the subject of deforestation and the participation of some Indigenous people in these activities, Eloy Frank Gómez said, “The colonists have a strategy of using people to move into large areas of land; we know that there are Mayangna people who are in this illegal business.” “Unfortunately we have some situations of violence that have occurred in some territories for those reasons,” added Asirio Celso. The leaders referred to a confrontation that occurred between members of the Indigenous community and a group of criminals who came into the area. The affected families immediately received help from the government, which provided them with security through the Police and the Army. “The government attends to our families,” they emphasized. They commented that in that incident, settlers organized in criminal gangs were involved, but the Police and the Army did their job and the situation has calmed down. See video: https://radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias-generales/destacado/gobierno-batalla-contra-despale-en-territorios-indigenas/ (Radio La Primerisima, 5 Dec. 2020)

Titling of Indigenous Lands Advanced with Sandinista Government
In an interview with Stephen Sefton, Fresly Janes Zamora, president of the Twi Yahbra Indigenous Territorial Government, shared his observation that the objective of law 445 is to regulate the communal property regime of Indigenous and ethnic lands. One of its main achievements was the demarcation of Indigenous territories because demarcation had not advanced with the neoliberal governments. Janes said “The lands were not communal lands before; they were national lands that were administered by the municipal and national governments. But since the demarcation process began with the administration of the Sandinista Front it was recognized that we are the owners of the lands.” The restitution of Indigenous property rights established by Law 445 has five phases, one of which is the Indigenous community’s request for demarcation and titling. By mid-2011, 17 of the 23 Indigenous territories on the coast had been titled under the Sandinista government. The demarcation establishes that, in order to conclude the process, saneamiento must be done in the titled territories and this involves the removal of non-Indigenous settlers.

If an Indigenous person intends to sell the land, they must sell it to the Indigenous or Afro-descendant community that owns the rest of the land on which it is located. This prevents the arrival of non-Indigenous people who could generate conflict in the area. Janes said that the saneamiento stage is a very complicated issue. Law 445 clearly states that Indigenous lands are not to be sold or given away, but they can be leased. “Although the government doesn’t want to, if the community wants it, it can be leased, because it has autonomy,” he added. The Sandinista Front has achieved the demarcation and titling of most Indigenous territories, and this is part of the restitution of rights to Indigenous peoples, something that the liberal governments were not interested in. (Radio La Primerisima, 6 Dec. 2020)

United Nations Supports Central American Efforts to Deal with Climate Change
During a Virtual Summit between the Heads of State of the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the United Nations General Secretariat (UN), President Daniel Ortega as Pro-Tempore President of SICA stated that “the Central American region should be classified as one of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the countries of the region must join forces to face the devastating consequences of global warming exemplified in the recent tragedies which have created greater poverty and inequality for the population.” For his part, UN Secretary General António Guterres noted that “the Central American Integration System is an extraordinary asset and its joint work represents a great opportunity for prioritizing solidarity, inclusion and environmental justice established in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” (Nicaragua News, 2 Dec. 2020)

Remittances on the Increase
The Central Bank (BCN), announced Dec. 3, US$165.5 million in remittances for October, an increase of 5.6% with respect to the previous month (US$156.7 million) and of 14.5% compared to October (US$144.6 million). The accumulated remittances as of October were US$1.5 billion, a 9.9 percent year-over-year growth. Of the total remittances received during the year, those from the United States represented 60.3%, followed by Costa Rica (14.5%), Spain (14.5%), Panama (3.9%) and Canada (1.3%). (Radio La Primerisima, 3 Dec. 2020)

Nicaragua Exporting Vaccines to the Region
At the V International Congress Nicaragua-Russia 2020 for exchange of experiences and technologies between scientists and institutions, Dr. Roberto Lopez, president of the Institute of Social Security (INSS), reported that in 2019, for the first time in history, Nicaragua exported more than US$15 million in vaccines and medicines to other Latin American countries. “Another result of our joint work is that we have supplied ourselves with all the influenza vaccines required for three years now at a cost that is much lower than purchasing from the transnational medicine companies,” said Lopez. Finance Minister Ivan Acosta applauded the announcement that the Russian Federation will begin distributing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccination, voluntary and free of charge to the Russian people. (Radio La Primerisima, 3 Dec. 2020)

Nicaragua Obtains Second Linear Accelerator
The Nicaragua Health Ministry announced that a second Linear Accelerator in the Nora Astorga National Radiology Center in Managua will be inaugurated Dec. 10. With a cost to Nicaragua of US$5 million, it will benefit 2,000 cancer patients throughout the country. (Nicaragua News, 7 Dec. 2020)

Granada-Malacatoya Highway Benefits 200,000 People
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MTI) inaugurated Phase III of the Granada-Malacatoya highway on Dec. 6. The cost was US$ 4,841,498, benefiting 201,600 inhabitants of Managua, Granada and Tipitapa. Nicaragua funded the project from the public treasury. Nicaragua News, 7 Dec. 2020

Celebration of the Purisima Raised Spirits
With the traditional fireworks at noon on December 7, families across the country began the celebration of La Purisima with the cry of “What Causes So Much Joy? The Conception of Mary!” An immense number of people forgot about the Covid-19 epidemic and took to the streets to celebrate this tradition, receive gifts and food, and sing hymns to the Virgin. The popular tradition of “Gritería” is a national holiday, which began in the 19th century in the city of León and since then has spread throughout the country as a national celebration. The pilgrimage of people to the many altars to Maria installed in the homes and government delegations began at noon and at 6 pm and midnight the gunpowder festival was repeated. See Photos: https://radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias-generales/destacado/departamentos-del-pais-dan-inicio-a-la-griteria/ (Radio La Primerisima, 8 Dec. 2020)

Weekly Covid-19 Report
The Ministry of Health Reported 38 new registered cases and 42 people recuperated from Dec. 1 to 7 and one death from Covid. Since March there have been 4,709 registered cases and 4,498 people recuperated and 162 deaths. (Nicaragua Sandino, 8 Dec. 2020)

Important Investments in Nicaragua
The largest online fulfillment center in Central America is being built in the Eastern Market of Managua. Grupo Sol (Salvadoran) is leading the construction, the investment for which exceeds US$10 million. “It is like Amazon and here you will have your logistics center and there will be an online dispatch system; from Bluefields you will be able to order something without having to come to the Eastern Market and with the same price,” explained Armel Gonzalez, owner of the project. “Our main interest is to support private initiative and the government and all parties,” said Gonzalez. Byron Olivera, general manager of the Olivera construction company, said, “Since the work began, we have generated more than 200 direct jobs and 500 indirect jobs.” “We congratulate the investors of Grupo Sol who are trusting the country, and that shows economic stability in the nation,” said Jorge Gonzalez, a member of the group. (Radio La Primerisima, 9 Dec. 2020)

US Extends TPS for Nicaraguans and Others
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Dec. 8 that it will extend the validity of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) documentation for TPS beneficiaries from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras and Nepal. Some 400,000 people are currently protected under this status, of which some 200,000 are Salvadorans, 57,000 are Hondurans and 2,550 are Nicaraguans. Beneficiaries remain in a legal situation that prevents them from applying for residency or U.S. citizenship. The measure will last nine months and expire on October 4, 2021. The decision involves an automatic extension of employment authorization documents (EADs), so beneficiaries do not need to apply for a new work permit. TPS, created in 1990 by the U.S. Congress, allows citizens of countries affected by war or victims of violence or natural disasters to remain in the United States and work and protects them from deportation. (Radio La Primerisima, 8 Dec. 2020)