witness statements

name: Ronald Cummins
section: Environment
for: The Defence
status: ?


Although companies like McDonald's and Burger King like to claim that they are in favour of rainforest presrvation and maintain that they buy no hamburger meat from recently deforested areas, they are an integral part of a worldwide "Hamburger Connection" which - left unchecked - threatens to destroy what is left of our tropical rainforests and countries like Costa Rica and Guatemala.


1. Five years of sustained travel and research in Mexico and Central America between 1983-93.

2. Author of five widely used children's social studies books on Central America and the Caribbean called Children of the World. Co-author of a biographer on Oscar Arias, former Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of Costa Rica. These books may be found in thousands of school and libraries in US, Canada and the UK.

3. Author of numerous journalistic and investigative articles on Guatemala, Costa Rica and Central America which have appeared in publications such as Latin American Perspectivs, Cultural Survival Quarterly, Z, the Guardian, Tico Times, and others.

4. Chief field researcher for Costa Rica and Central America's best selling guide book The New Key to Costa Rica

5. Frequent lecturer at high schools and colleges from 1988 through to the present.

6. Interviewed by over 50 North American radio stations in 1993 on McDonald's, beef overconsumption and sustainable agriculture issues. Interviewed and quoted in several dozen daily newspapers as well as in my capacity as North American Campaign Director for the international 'Adopt-a-McDonalds' campaign between Jan 1990 and June 1993.

Full cv:
Not available for this witness

full statement:

Fast food chains, beef overconsumption and deforestation: The Case of Guatemala and Costa Rica

Based upon extensive travel and research in both Central America and North America, I understand the relevant issus raisd in this case and hereby summarize my views. I believe that the present global overproduction and overconsumption of beef are unsustainable from an environmental and socio-economic standpoint, as well as from a human health and animal welfare standpoint.

For this reason giant multinational fast food chains such as McDonald's and Burger King have come under increased scrutiny and criticism in recent years for:

By the end of the decade the majority of McDonald's profits are slated to come from its overseas operations, with a growing Third World market, especially in Mexico, Brazil, and Latin America, becoming increasingly important. With the globalisation of the world economy, more and more US beef and dairy production will move south of the border, to Mexico and Central America, further undermining traditional, more sustainable agricultural practices.

I have read a statement by a UK journalist, David Rose of The Observer, who quotes McDonald's London management to the effect that they would not buy beef from rainforest areas deforested within 10 years previously (their stated policy up to 1988) or 25 years (their stated policy from 1989 through the present).

Of course this policy does not exonerate McDonald's from complicity in the worldwide 'Hamburger Connection' since,

  1. meat imported into the US from rainforest is routinely mixed together with domestically produced hamburger meat in the processing plants;

  2. by their own admission McDonald's is directly complicit in rainforest destruction prior to 1988;

  3. neither a 10 year nor a 25 year time span gives tropical rainforest time to naturally regenerate. As I indicate below the ONLY corporate policy consistent with tropical rainforest preservation is to ban all foraign beef imports into northern hemisphere countries where McDonald's operates containing rainforests (Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala etc) to stop buying beef from lands which were EVER (or at least in the last 100-200 years) covered by rainforest.

    Years of travel and investigation in Guatemala have shown me that the country has had the most unequal system of land distribution in Central America (2% of the landowners control over 70% of the land, including almost all of the fertile land, while 85% of its mainly indigenous and small farmer population are living in abject poverty) as well as one of the most serious problems of deforestation and rainforest destruction. These two problems are of course inter-related and made worse by the intervention of fast food giants such as McDonald's in the Guatemalan economy. In a nutshell here's how the multinational beef industry is harming Guatemala and its people. Since the rich ranchers and plantation owners monpolize all the good land (leaving most of it idle, or in many cases raising cattle more for status than actual profitability) the landless poor are forced to till unsuitable highland areas where they slash and burn the forest, plant a few crops of corn and beans, and then move on (since rainforest land is poor agricultural land) to cut down more forest. Since 1984 I have observed that after the campesinos abandon a deforested area the cattle ranchers often move in, making use of the land but enjoying 'plausible deniability' (along with their clients such as McDonald's) that they weren't the ones who cut it down.

    Although imported beef is only a small portion of the total consumed in the USA (approx 1%), USA beef imports account for 10-15% of all Central America beef production. Central American beef (which becomes anonymous as to its point of origin once it arrives at a US point of entry and its stamped 'US inspected and approved') is used generally for hamburgers and fast food patties. Contrary to popular myth, Central American beef is not imported by USA beef cartels because there's a lack of supply (for decades the US has produced a surplus of beef) or because it's cheaper; but rather because the cartels (Cargill, Iowa Beef Processors, Con-Agra) use alternative suppliers (Argentina, Australia, and Central America) as blackmail to keep the prices which they pay to US family ranchers as low as possible. My firsthand experience has shown me that cattle ranching of course is not the only practice which is destroying the Central American rainforest. Unsustainable forestry, corporate banana plantations, other agro-export crops, and inappropriate tourism development are just as bad, if not worse, in some instances.

    Although Costa Rica has a reputation for ecologically conscious and progressive, my travels throughout the country have shown me that it is suffering from the worst ratio of tropical deforestation in the world, which is also the conclusion of a recent study by the World Resources Institute. Overr the past decade vast stretches of forest have been destroyed to make way for cattle pastures and banana plantations. In the remaining rainforest areas similar dynamics are at play which we have described in Guatemala (rural poverty and landlessness, an influx of economic refugees from Nicuragua and Panama, unsustainable forestry practices, banana plantations, corporate tourism etc).

    The last thing Guatemala and Costa Rica need are a barrage of advertising from corporations such as McDonald's or Burger King encouraging their citizens to adopt 'fast food' lifestyles and eating habits. Central America and the developing world in general do not need fast food rstaurants chains nor a beef centred diet. What Costa Rica and Guatemala need are:

    If McDonald's, Burger King and other fast-food giants are sincere in wanting to preserve the environmental in general, and tropical rainforests in particular, they should immediately call for:

    1. a ban on beef imports into North America from Central America and a halt to foreign beef imports in general (as the Rainforest Action Network has called for);

    2. a halt in the expansion of North American syle fast-food restaurants into the Third World;

    3. the promotion of sustainable, equitable, environmentally friendly agricultural policies (both in the North and in the South);

    4. a change in the menus (healthier less beef and meat dentred, locally and sustainably produced foods), advertising, marketing, and purchasing practices of their own and other multinational food corporations.

    To the best of my knowledge the above statements are true and accurate.

    experience: Lecturer and field researcher into Latin America
    date signed: Undated

    references: Not applicable/ available
    exhibits: Not applicable/ available

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