Just about everyone in the country has had fast food, whether it be McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, or any other mega fast food chain. It is cheap, convenient, and has become part of our day to day lives. While our first experience of biting into a burger may have happened under different circumstances, for a special birthday, or after getting a perfect grade, many (if not all) of us have a memory of a perfect moment with family or friends sitting in a booth inside a burger joint. The golden arches of McDonald’s have become globally recognized at this point for their affordable menu items and burgers, unlike its infamous search for the cheapest beef. The cost to our world for these dirt cheap burgers is much bigger than the few dollars we spend. Low grade inexpensive ground beef most often comes from illegal cattle pastures that push deforestation further and displace indigenous populations in the Amazon. In the end, indigenous people are the ones who pay the real price for the cheap beef in our burgers.
Damiana is the wife of the Chief of the Apy Ka’y community – one of the indigenous tribes of the Guarani people. Her family was a prime target for hitmen hired by cattle ranchers who took over her ancestral land in Western Brazil. In 2013, she lost her husband and her three sons to suspicious “roadsides collisions” that left the Apy Ka’y community vulnerable and leaderless. While there is no evidence to prove that the fate of Damiana’s family was nothing more than a series of unfortunate events, it is incontestable that this void in leadership allowed cattle ranchers a greater opportunity to control the stolen land. The Brazilian government play an important part in these events, as there was no true investigation of their deaths. It comes as no surprise considering the great amount of power and money that the Brazilian cattle industry possesses.1
Damiana’s tragic situation is not the first time the indigenous amazon community has been the focus of targeted killings. In 2011, more than 40 heavily armed and hooded men attacked the Kaiowa-Guarani tribe in western Brazil. They killed the Kaiowa-Guarani chief. According to Funai – the Federal Indigenous Affairs Agency of Brazil – land disputes led to an attempt by ranchers to expel the tribe from the land both sides claimed.2
These deaths demonstrate that indigenous amazon tribes pay a huge price because they unfortunately have their homes on the land that helps ranchers win the race for cheap beef. Not only do they pay in blood, the amazon tribes also face the slow death of their culture. Losing so many of their community members has an enormous impact on the ability to pass on their culture and traditions to the next generations. The lack of protections afforded to the indigenous people of Brazil from their government further complicates the situation. Compared to their indigenous tribes in Peru or Argentina, the indigenous people of Brazil lag far behind in recognition and enforcement of their rights. The Brazilian government fails to enforce the few laws meant to protect indigenous people, and prefer to bow to the demands of aggro-businesses.
Why is there so little government protection for the Amazon tribes? There is a variety of interconnecting motives that lead to the current problems that the Amazon tribes face, most are motivated by greed and facilitated by corruption. Land still represents power in this case and everyone wants the land of the Amazon. Outsiders want tribal land for what is on it or underneath it. The key new threats come from a massive boom in oil and gas exploration, illicit gold mining, rampant illegal logging and the rapid spread of ranching and farming that follows deforestation and renders the land quickly infertile.3
The current threats that indigenous tribes face are connected to the development of the beef industry in the state of Mato Grosso. Mato Grosso is the agribusiness giant of Brazil, with a cattle herd of 30.2 million in 2017. Thus, the anticipated global demand for beef heavily influences land use patterns in the state, as well as land inputs – or newly added land for the cattle to graze.4 Contrary to the agricultural/monetary giant that it is today, in the early 60s, cattle ranching was seen as a nuisance to a country’s development. “…local ranchers were considered obstacles to the introduction of so-called rational development, which promised to transform backward provinces and triumphantly lead the nation out of its centuries old lethargic development into the prosperous modern era.”5
Today, the idea that cattle ranching could prevent the development of a country is still under debate, but the growth of this sector into one of Brazil’s economic giants promotes its power. Matto Grosso’s rapidly expanded its beef industry in a way that paralleled the rise of the fast food industry. What eventually became McDonald’s was started in 1940 by brothers Dick and Maurice “Mac” McDonald along Route 66 in San Bernardino, California. At first, the brothers took a traditional restaurant approach but soon realized there was a new profitable venue to take: many people were interested in eating quickly. In an effort to capitalize on the growing car culture, the McDonald brothers developed their “Speedee Service System” of food preparation. They had streamlined the food assembly line, along with their menu; reducing it to hamburgers, milkshakes and french fries. By the 1950s, they had opened 8 more establishments. From there on, the fast food industry grew exponentially driving fast rising demand for cheap beef, which cemented the growth of Mato Grosso and other beef industries in Brazil.6
The government of Brazil invested in maintaining cattle ranchers’ monopoly. In 2018, 8.7% of Brazilian Gross Domestic Product came from the cattle industry, worth an estimated BRL 597 billion (US$149 billion). This is no small chunk of change, and shows the global connections of Brazil’s dominance in the beef industry. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef, with its main markets -in terms of volume in 2018- Hong Kong, China, Egypt, the European Union and Chile, with the United States following closely behind.7 The last 5 years in the United States (especially in 2020) saw an increase in the demand for beef, partially due to a growing population and partially due to the Covid-19 pandemic beginning in 2020, when people were buying meat in bulk.8 During the 2020 quarantine, people were not buying as often, but they were buying in bulk and as populations grow, so does the demand for beef.9 Brazilian beef exporters saw an 8% increase to 2.02 million metric tons, according to Brazilian beef industry association Abrafrigo. Abrafrigo reported that beef export revenue grew 11% higher above the number in 2019, to $8.4 billion; and expects an additional 5% increase in Brazilian beef export volume by 2021.10
Given these numbers, it is not surprising that the Brazilian government usually bows to the demands of the cattle industries, at the expense of indigenous people’s lives. It is also not a surprise that most of the Amazon deforestation falls in land under indigenous control. Since the beginning of Bolsonaro’s presidential term (January 1st, 2019), he has taken steps to reduce protections for indigenous people, in order to make it easier for non-Indigenous Brazilians to carry out economic activity in the Amazon. Bolsonaro has also tried to shift authority away from agencies whose mission is to protect Indigenous rights (including land rights) and toward the Ministry of Agriculture, which has a vested interest in expanding development.11
Part of indigenous and global concerns deal with the issue of conservation and sustainability. Cattle is a high demand industry, both in the sense of the amount wanted by the global economy and the amount of effort/resources needed to produce beef, which is not sustainable in the long run. Proof of this comes from – frankly – the ridiculously high amount of illegal logging and ranching. The soil nutrients disappear and push for more deforestation which is not sustainable long term. When large area of forest is cut, it leaves vast swaths of land vulnerable to erosion by the winds, rains and subsequent floods that deplete the top soil. With no vegetation roots to hold the soil together and retain water in ecosystem, this accelerates the cycle of erosion already in motion. The current method of grazing is especially unsustainable, Gustavo H. Merten and Jean P.G. Minella explain in their analysis that “Pastures are considered degraded when soil fertility has been exhausted, so that grazing is reduced and invasive plants of low nutritional quality appear (Carvalho et al., 1990). These areas, especially when found on sandy soils, show clear evidence of erosion channels and gullies linked to the river channel.”12 Essentially, more and more land is needed for the cattle to graze, but the speed at which the cattle do so, quickly takes the nutrients from the soil, with little chance to replenish. Even with all the favoritism that the cattle industry receives from the Brazilian government, it is simply not possible to sustain the growth of the cattle industry even by killing indigenous leaders to dampen the resistance from tribes against ranching practices. The pace of deforestation threatens Brazil and the entire planet. In 2011, scientists determined that around 62% of all deforested amazon land ends up as cattle pasture, a number that has remained steady for the past decade.13
Environmentalists proposed several ways to sustainably manage the Amazon, including public policy (based on punitive measures) and interventions in beef and soy supply chains, such as having new protected areas in active logging areas, enforcement of protection laws, and reduction of herd size or retraction of soy fields (dependent on corporate risk management). Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter, and the second largest soybean exporter, intervention in either or both of these industries would help in settling territorial fights, which have shown to be effective.14 Optimized farming and farming techniques can promote sustainability, especially in agricultural mega-centers like Mato Grosso. In states such as Mato Grosso, controlling the cattle industry and the use of land can provide sustainable improvements. Thus, initiating policy change in centers such as these helps in the fight to control of the agricultural encroachment on the Amazon forest.15 Nonetheless, these efforts can only be effective if encoded in regulations and enforced by the government, something that the Brazilian government appears reluctant to do.
The indigenous people of the amazon have not been standing idling by. Despite the opposition they face, amazon tribes continue fighting for their ancestral land, some in more direct ways than others. In 2019, over 300 hundred leaders of groups in Brazil (Indigenous and non-indigenous) marched toward the capital Brasilia’s main avenue towards the congressional building, as part of a protest against the Bolsonaro government. This was part of a three day annual event – known as Free Land Encampment – to protest Bolsonaro’s pro-business policies, which they believe takes away their land rights and opens the Amazon to hazardous conditions.16
The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe (less than 300 people) only came into contact with the outside world in the 1980s (according to the Povos Indigenas No Brasil), however, they have started to use modern drones to detect and fight illegal deforestation on their territory. The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe manages to maintain their traditions while also incorporating modern technology because they recognize the importance of maintaining nature in order to preserve their way of living.17 The Xikrin people of the northern Amazon are fighting back invading loggers and ranchers in a more “hands on” manner. They have guarded their territory in the state of Pará with rifles and wooden batons, expelling the loggers and ranchers who illegally occupied their land and set fire to the forest.18
The international community has also played a part in the indigenous fight for the amazon. Thanks to increasing pressure from international businesses, entrepreneurs and investors, Vice President Hamilton Mourão has declared that the Bolsonaro government will enforce an “absolute moratorium” on burning the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetland biomes for 120 days. The added attention from the world has helped indigenous communities to fight and protect their rights, thanks to the soft power behind agreements signed in the last decade. These documents include the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both of these documents establish the rights that all indigenous people have, with the main difference being the focus on American Indigenous groups (North, Central and South) in the American Declaration compared to the rights of all indigenous groups in the world by the United Nations Declaration.19 “It [American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] affirms the right of self-determination, rights to education, health, self-government, culture, lands, territories and natural resources, and it includes provisions that address the particular situation of indigenous peoples in the Americas, including protections for those living in voluntary isolation and those affected by a state’s internal armed conflict.”20
In addition to this national recognition, Bolsonaro’s efforts to reduce indigenous rights or shift authority in the government agencies has not been as successful as he hoped. However, the lack of action from the government continues to harm indigenous communities; Bolsonaro’s refusal to grant Indigenous communities control of old and new territories has resulted in an additional 1.5 million hectares of deforestation per year.21
The Native people of the Amazon fight against the greed, theft, and exploitation of their native lands every day. The work to protect the rights of the indigenous people of Brazil and the Amazon has only but started, so much is at stake. With the increased scrutiny of the world on Brazil, indigenous people now have more room to maneuver to seek support to protect their rights and their survival in the Amazon. One way to help indigenous people in the Amazon in our day-to-day life is by researching where our meat products come from and buying more locally grown, sustainably farmed, organic produce and meats – which has the added benefit of helping U.S. and Texas cattle ranchers and smaller family farms. Admittedly, this might not be possible for some – cheap food can often also be the only food available or affordable – but there are still many ways to contribute, such as petitions or simply spreading awareness. When alternative affordable items are not available, not buying the cheap burgers at all, still provides an ethical option. In today’s world, everything we do affects others – locally or globally – and often both. This is why we have to be aware of the world and hold accountable the institutions that condone the mistreatment of people. In this way, since we know the demand for cheap beef is fueling the oppression of indigenous people and the destruction of the Amazon, we can at minimum no longer add to this the problem. Awareness and more ethical choices can help prevent situations like those of Damiana, who lost her husband and sons to suspicious circumstances, or an armed attack by 40 men killing the chief of the Kaiowa-Guarani tribe, and give hope to the Xikrin people, who defend their territory with riffles and batons against the daily invasions on their native tribal lands.