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Their activism against conflict beef in Nicaragua made them political targets

Human rights abuses escalated since the events in PATROL were filmed

By Devin Murphy on June 09, 2023   duration

Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve. (Photo by Nick Hawkins)
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After the last credits rolled and the house lights came up inside the Sheridan Opera House at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride, Colorado, the audience who had been watching the world premiere of PATROL gave the film a standing ovation. 

During the previous 90 minutes, they had watched as Indigenous Rama and Afro-descendent Kriol forest rangers in the Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve in Nicaragua attempted to defend their home–one of the five largest tropical forests in Central America–from being destroyed by illegal cattle ranching. 

The applause was all the more poignant for the filmmakers and protagonists of the documentary because PATROL is illegal to screen in Nicaragua. Since filming wrapped in 2018, the political situation in Nicaragua has become more fraught and authoritarian. The film’s director and protagonists have faced threats, intimidation and retaliation for their activism that has upended their lives.

“I never would have imagined it in my wildest dreams,” says Camilo de Castro, director of PATROL, when asked if he anticipated that the Nicaraguan government would retaliate against him for his work as a filmmaker and activist.  

The last scene of PATROL shows a fire burning in Indio-Maíz. That fire, which was set in April 2018, burned 5,700 acres and spurred protests in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The government responded to the protests with a violent crackdown, ultimately jailing thousands of people between 2018 and 2021. 

In February 2023, Camilo was stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship along with 93 other activists who opposed the authoritarian regime. The government confiscated his house and accused him of being a traitor to the homeland.

“I had to go into exile,” says Camilo. “The government has approved a series of laws now making it a crime to speak out against human rights abuse.”

A loophole hiding the true cost of Nicaraguan beef

Camilo had hoped that the film would open a dialogue between the cattle industry, the Nicaraguan government and Indigenous peoples that would accelerate change. 

“The idea was to work together, but that became impossible because of the uprising and the government’s unwillingness to uphold the law,” says Camilo.

The cattle industry is the second most important export industry in Nicaragua. More than 100,000 tons of beef are exported annually, and much of that beef is sold in the United States. Nicaragua has laws prohibiting cattle ranching in protected areas like Indio-Maíz, but lacks the political will to enforce them. Cattle ranchers are able to raise cattle on stolen land and send those cattle to slaughterhouses where their meat is packaged along with legally raised beef–even if the illegal beef is registered with traceability programs.

Brad Allgood (left) and Camilo de Castro (right) directors of PATROL. (Photo courtesy of Camilo de Castro/PATROL)
Brad Allgood (left) and Camilo de Castro (right) directors of PATROL. (Photo courtesy of Camilo de Castro/PATROL)

As a team of investigative journalists uncovered in PATROL, the Nicaraguan government is likely choosing not to take action because of corruption. One of the illegal cattle ranches in the film is owned by someone with close connections to the ruling party in Nicaragua. 

After beef is exported from Nicaragua, much of it is packaged and sold on U.S. grocery shelves. Due to a loophole in U.S. law, consumers in the United States are likely not aware that they may be buying beef that is causing the destruction of Indio-Maíz and threatening the lives of the Rama and Kriol community.

Two forest rangers in the film–Armando John and Margarito–patrol Indio-Maíz, documenting land grabs, which start appearing deeper and deeper inside the reserve. Despite the evidence rangers collect and appeals for help to remove ranchers and hold them accountable for destroying huge tracts of forest that the Rama and Kriol community hold the title to, the Nicaraguan government does little to intervene. 

Since filming ended, Armando moved to the United States with his family because it became too dangerous to live in the territory.

“We were unsure how the documentary would affect us with all the persecution going on from the government,” says Armando. “We have been able to visit our home and family in Indian River a few times, but now that PATROL is officially out, I don’t know if it will be safe for me to go back. But I’m glad that I have the opportunity to still stand up for my people, our rights, and our land while I am living in the States.

The premiere of PATROL was the first time Armando was able to share his story with people who may have been unfamiliar with conflict beef and how it affects Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Rama forest rangers in Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve. (Photo courtesy of PATROL)
Indigenous Rama forest rangers in Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve. (Photo courtesy of PATROL)

“Seeing the film on the big screen was very emotional for me,” says Armando. “It brought back all of the pain and memories as if I were living through it all again–just like many of my people in Nicaragua still are. I was also very overwhelmed by all of the support we received from the audience. All my life we have been fighting for our rights and it has always felt like hardly anybody cares. This is the first time I have seen a large group of people who care about the struggle of the Rama and [Afro-descendant] Kriol people.

A broken system

Although it’s easy to villainize the cattle ranchers in PATROL, Camilo warns that it is not that simple. He spent time and interviewed one cattle ranching family for the film.

“I know they are there illegally and they should be held accountable for what they’re doing, but I actually also see why they are there,” says Camilo. “They have a need; and they are immersed in a system that doesn’t give them any other alternatives and in fact, live with a government that doesn’t apply the law when people grab land illegally.”

But it is possible for people outside Nicaragua to enact change even in the absence of the government’s political will. Demand for Nicaraguan beef predominantly comes from the United States. 

“We really need to think about the impact that our choices are having on other people,” says Camilo. “We have to think about the power dynamics. As consumers, we have a big responsibility to be informed and to take actions to make sure we’re not supporting companies and products that are having a negative impact on people and the environment.”

In addition to being informed consumers, Camilo also says it is just as important for people to support Indigenous communities and rangers. Camilo and co-director Brad Allgood liken Nicaragua to a microcosm of what is happening in other Indigenous territories and forests in South America and beyond. 

“If we can put up safeguards to prevent conflict beef from being sold, then maybe we could do something that could be replicated in other places,” says Camilo. “[Indio-Maíz] is a perfect place to innovate and work together with the beef industry and the government to put in place those safeguards and really show that the cattle industry feeds directly into that.”

Rama forest rangers. (Photo courtesy of Camilo de Castro/PATROL)
Rama forest rangers. (Photo courtesy of Camilo de Castro/PATROL)

A recent report demonstrated that the beef industry is affecting Indigenous peoples in Brazil just as it is in Nicaragua. 

“I want people to see how the beef industry is destroying our culture and the future of our children and that we cannot stand against this alone,” says Armando. “ I know that we are not the only Indigenous community that is struggling against powerful industries and corrupt governments that are destroying our lives. I hope that showing our struggle will also make people more aware of the global impact that the lack of accountability in the beef and other powerful industries is affecting Indigenous peoples around the world.”

 Re:wild is a partner of PATROL.

About the author

Devin Murphy

Devin Murphy is Re:wilds’s senior communications specialist and helps Re:wild and its partners tell stories about the work they do to protect wildlife and wildlands around the planet. Her favorite stories about conservation include fascinating and little-known species and the dedicated humans protecting them.

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