Cliven Bundy: reactionary rancher
Going through back issues of Harper’s, I ran into a February 2015 article by Christopher Ketcham titled “The Great Republican Land Heist: Cliven Bundy and the politicians who are plundering the West” triggered some thoughts about the role of cattle in our environmental crisis. As a food source whose resource intakes (water and land) are disproportional to its nutritional value and that is increasingly in demand as globalization allows easy access to beef everywhere, it must be assessed with a cool and exacting view even if that risks being tarred as a “neo-Malthusian”.
Long before I began blogging, I wrote a piece titled “Cattle and Capitalism” that quoted an Alexander Cockburn from the April 22, 1996 Nation:
Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow’s shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world’s second-largest grain importer, while a dietary “pattern” based on excellent bread was vanishing.
The Harper’s article, which unfortunately is behind a paywall, is valuable for uncovering the damage that Cliven Bundy’s herds were doing to pristine land that was under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Essentially Bundy and local rightwing bands have terrorized the BLM into submission. The article also details how ALEC, an industry lobbying group with the Koch Brothers in the saddle, has been pushing for legislation that would essentially allow Bundy and his fellow ranchers to accomplish legally what they have been attempting to do criminally. Christopher Ketcham writes:
In western Utah, a few county commissioners announced that they planned to violate the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by illegally rounding up herds of wild mustangs that were competing for cattle forage on public land. In June and July, the BLM responded to that threat by rounding up the mustangs for them. On June 14, a California man, who had been posting favorably on Facebook about Bundy’s revolt, shot and wounded a BLM ranger in the Sierra Nevada mountains after he was asked to move from his illegal campsite. On July 1, a group of gold miners descended onto a BLM-managed stretch of the Salmon River in Idaho to dredge the riverbed with industrial suction equipment. The action most likely violated the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the ecological health of parts of the Salmon River in partnership with the BLM. The miners were not looking for gold. A spokesman for the Southwest Idaho Mining Association, in Boise, told the Associated Press that the illegal dredging had a single purpose: to drive the EPA from the state.
Ketcham refers to articles by Bernard DeVoto on the rancher’s assault on public lands from decades ago. This has been a problem for over a hundred years at least. I should add that if there is any reason to subscribe to Harper’s, it is to be able to access their archives and read an author such as DeVoto. This is from a January 1947 article titled “The West Against Itself”. If ranchers were capable of such an onslaught nearly 70 years ago, when the conservation-minded New Deal was still continuing although weakened by Truman, can you imagine what would be happening under the neoliberal regime backed by both parties today?
As an ancillary to Ketcham’s article, there’s a piece by Edward Abbey following his that appeared originally in the January 1986 issue. Abbey, like DeVoto, was a regular contributor to Harper’s and one committed to preserving the ecology of the American west. He writes:
Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunchgrasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cactus. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheatgrass. Weeds.
Even when the cattle are not physically present, you’ll see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle. Along every flowing stream, around every seep and spring and water hole and well, you’ll find acres and acres of what range-management specialists call “sacrifice areas.” These are places denuded of forage, except for some cactus or a little tumbleweed or maybe a few mutilated trees like mesquite, juniper, or hackberry.
In addition to the assault on nature, cattle ranching is often an assault on the agrarian poor whose subsistence farming is regarded as an obstacle to “development” just as it was in the Johnson County wars dramatized in Michael Cimino’s unjustly lambasted “Heaven’s Gate”. One scholar argues that the Sandinista revolution was triggered by seizure of peasant land on behalf of ranchers seeking to meet the demands of fast food restaurants in the 1970s:
Historically, the cattle industry in Central America was a very low- tech operation. Cowboys would drive a herd to a major city where slaughter-houses could be found. The cattle would be cut up and sent out to public markets, often in the open air and unrefrigerated, where a customer would select a piece of meat off of the carcass. However, to satisfy the external market, a more modern mode of production had to be adopted. Firstly, roads needed to be created to transport the cattle by truck from the countryside. Secondly, packing houses had to be created near ports to prepare the beef for export. Foreign investors made road- building possible, just the way that British capital made railroads possible in the US for identical reasons. The “Alliance for Progress” aided in the creation of such infrastructure as well.
The packing-houses themselves were built by local capitalists with some assistance from the outside. It was these middle-men, who stood between rancher and importer, that cashed in on the beef bonanza. The Somoza family were movers and shakers in the packing-house industry. As monopolists, they could paid the rancher meager prices and sell the processed beef at a premium price since demand for beef was at an all-time high.
In addition, the Somoza family used its profits and loans from foreign investors to buy up huge swaths of land in Nicaragua to create cattle ranches. They had already acquired 51 ranches before the beef-export boom, but by 1979, after two decades of export-led growth, their holdings and those of their cronies had expanded to more than 2 million acres, more than half of which was in the best grazing sectors. It was these properties and the packing-houses that became nationalized immediately after the FSLN triumph.
The gains of Somoza and other oligarchic families in Central America took place at the expense of campesino and small rancher alike. While the plight of the campesino is more familiar, the small rancher suffered as well. Before the export boom started, about 1/4 of all cattle were held by ranchers with properties less than 25 acres. After a decade of export-led growth, small proprietors had lost 20 percent of their previous cattle holdings and owned only 1/8th of the cattle in the region.
(It should be mentioned, by the way, that this decade of export-led growth was statistically the sharpest increase in GDP in Central America since WWII. Yet this growth created the objective conditions for socialist revolution. “Growth” in itself is a meaningless term. It may satisfy the prejudices of libertarians, but it has nothing to do with human needs or social justice.)
Nicaragua was notable in that the exploitation was home-grown, but in the rest of Central America the pirates flew the stars and stripes. R.J. Reynolds owns thousands of acres of grazing land in Guatemala and Costa Rica through its subsidiary, Del Monte. It shipped the meat on its subsidiary Sea-Land and market the finished product in many varieties: Ortega beef tacos, Patio beef enchiladas, Chun King beef chow mein. It also satisfied the fast-food market by supplying Zantigo Mexican Restaurants (owned by Kentucky Fried Chicken.) By supplying such dubious products, this powerful American capitalist company was also in the process of helping campesinos getting thrown off their land and tropical rain forest acreage cut down in order to create grazing land that would be exhausted in a year or two.
When a wealthy rancher needed new land for his herds, they often hired gangs to go out and burn and slash wooded areas. A more common practice, however, was to con the poor campesino into acting as an accessory. Anthropologist Robert A. White describes what took place in Honduras. “Some large land holders used the rental of land to the small farmer as a means of clearing the hillsides of timber and preparing it for pasture for cattle grazing. The land was rented for a season or two to the smaller farmer, who was expected to clear the often heavy timber in order to prepare the land for seeding. Each year a new area was rented to be cleared so that gradually the whole area was prepared for pasture.” This took place all across Central America. The campesino was allowed to farm the land just long enough to allow the tree-stumps to rot, at which time they were evicted to make room for cattle. The ecological consequences of all this was disastrous and the practice continues to this day.
If cattle-ranching had created jobs for the displaced peasantry, this land-grab might not have had the explosive political consequences that did. As it turns out, however, few jobs were created in comparison to other export agriculture sectors. Cotton cultivation offers 6 times more employment per acre than cattle ranching, sugar 7 times more and coffee 13 times more. Under a more equitable world economy, of course, all of this land would be used to produce food for the local population instead of resources for foreign or local oligarchic companies.
Another advantage of cattle-ranching is that it inhibits return to the land by disenfranchised peasants. In other forms of agriculture, the landlord could permit the peasant to live on the fringes of the estate in return for some kind of rental payment in kind, such as a few sacks of corn or hard labor such as clearing rocks. When the beef boom commenced, however, every acre became more exploitable and so the peasant had to be expelled. When cattle were introduced into land formerly owned by peasants, barbed wire and the grazing herds tended to act as impediments to peasant squatting.
These contradictions reached their sharpest form in Matiguas “municipo” of Matagalpas, Nicaragua. In this section some 30 percent of the land was covered by forests, by 1976 only 5 percent of the land remained forested. Where 8 percent of the land was used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later.
Later on Matiguas, Matagalpas became a bastion of Sandinista support.
From the point of view of what I regard as “productivist” Marxism, there is a belief that by posing the question of ecological limits you are adapting to neo-Malthusianism. This is a socialism that assumes that once the profit motive is eliminated, we can finally begin to live a rational and bounteous existence.
However, can we really ignore the ecological threat posed by cattle? Does socialism have a magic wand that can make a steer use less water and require more grazing acreage than under capitalism?
To produce one pound of beef, it requires 1,799 gallons of water while a pound of soybeans requires 216 gallons. Perhaps in the future socialist world beef, like a spin in an automobile or a plane ride, will be a luxury that is carefully rationed out on an equal basis. That might not square with anti-catastrophist Eddie Yuen’s citation of the 1970s Italian revolutionary graffiti “Con la rivoluzione caviale per tutti” (After the revolution, caviar for everyone) but it certainly squares with common sense and historical materialism.