I am a member of the Red River Métis people. In my journey of reconnecting with my culture as an adult, I have been taught by elders the importance of knowing just when to harvest the ripest blackberries, what type of bird keeps the rats at bay and how important it is to slow down to rest in Mother Winter’s arms when it gets cold.
Indigenous food systems are built on community knowledge. As Cree journalist Xavier Kataquapit wrote for Nation News in 2019, the Elders taught him how to hunt and fish only for sustenance, taking “only what we need to feed our families.”
But the industrial meat production that dominates our global food system is the exact opposite. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans eat more meat than any other food category, and that number has been steadily ticking upwards. The average American eats 54.6 pounds of chicken per year, for instance, and in 2020, the USDA estimated that over 165 million land animals were slaughtered here, and that doesn’t even count chickens, which were killed in the billions. Globally, the number of animals slaughtered for food is estimated to be around 80 billion per year.
Industrialized animal farming now dominates Western food systems, bringing with it a lack of respect for animals and nature never before seen by the land’s original people. It also brought with it a variety of negative impacts upon Indigenous communities that continue to ripple through today, including destruction of land and resources, and the subsequent displacement of our people.
As trees are burned and ripped from the earth to make room for more farms and slaughterhouses, more Indigenous people are ripped from their own land, leaving many with little to no resources, and for some a culture in crisis.
Animal Farming in South America
In the Amazon region of South America, several Indigenous tribes were forced from their land as cattle ranches expanded.
In Brazil beginning after 1920, European migrants began building large farms to raise cattle. “The Kaiowá [local Indigenous Guarani peoples of the region] were violently forced to leave their land and witnessed the cutting of the forests that give them their name,” writes Dr. Antonio Ioris for CulturalSurival.org.
The country then experienced waves of intensification — during the 1950s and again in the 1990s. Of the eight million hectares originally occupied by the Kaiowá and other Guarani, today they are left with only around 50,000 hectares to accommodate more than 52,000 people spread across the reserves, roadside encampments and in reconquered areas.
Ioris interviewed members of the Kaiowá in 2018. One person told him that “agriculture was a pleasure before the arrival of the karai [non-Indigenous people] […] Now it is a pain […]We have been exploited and they continue to exploit us. But Indian is not the problem, we are the solution.”
Today, cattle farming and beef production are big business in Brazil. Between March 2019 and March 2021, meatpacking giant JBS destroyed over 100,000 hectares of forest for its livestock operations. That’s over 185,000 football fields worth of tropical rainforest, all cleared to raise and feed animals for meat. This deforestation drives climate emissions and biodiversity loss — and also displaces local peoples who know the land better than anyone.
The Amazon is home to many species, all necessary for ecological balance, including Giant otters, jaguars and poison dart frogs. These animals are now endangered due to deforestation caused in great part by intensive animal farming.
Animal Farming in North America
In North America, many industrialized animal farming operations pollute Indigenous communities, as more livestock operations open in low-income communities populated heavily by Indigenous and BIPOC residents.
A 2020 analysis published by the Environmental Working Group documented every pig, chicken and turkey farm in North Carolina, noting that the state’s farmed animal population produced five million tons of waste each year. The increase in livestock operations took place mostly in Duplin, Samson and Robeson counties, which are predominantly Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities. These vulnerable populations make up 57 percent of the counties’ residents, with 28-29 percent of residents living in poverty. The counties are also where 4.5 million pigs — more than half of the state’s pig population — are farmed.
David Shane Lowry, associate professor of anthropology at Biola University and a member of the Lumbee Tribe, told Mercy For Animals in 2020 that his family lived near large-scale chicken factory farms for decades. The area, Robeson County, is one of the USDA’s counties of persistent poverty, with at least 75 percent of its residents identifying as Native American, Black, Latinx or immigrants, according to Lowry. “Chicken farms and corporate husbandry operations and also, if I can include this, oil pipelines — all of these things are not equally dispersed between all settler communities,” Lowry explains. “They actually continue to be pushed into and on top of Indigenous Native American communities.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council explains that people living as well as working in close proximity to industrialized farming operations breathe in hundreds of gasses that form as manure decomposes. One of these gasses — hydrogen sulfide — is released by the lagoons where this manure is held and is dangerous to humans even at low levels. Its effects — some of which are irreversible — range from sore throat to seizures, comas and even death.
Industrialized farms can have particularly detrimental effects on Indigenous resources, by polluting the air, water and land. Pollution can poison fish and other animals, disrupting entire ecosystems.
Industrialized Farming vs. Indigeneity
The ways of industrialized farming are far removed from the ways of Indigenous traditions. Much like colonialism, industrialized farming and slaughter are built upon supremacy and violence — a colonial creation that goes against the beliefs of Indigenous peoples — which include respecting animals, causing the least harm and only hunting enough to survive.
The majority of humanity has turned a blind eye to the suffering of animals and the planet caused by industrialized farming, much as they have turned a blind eye to the suffering of Indigenous peoples. It is time for the collective to open our eyes and witness the suffering of both.
Sentient Media’s Indigenous Voices for Saving Animals and Earth is a collection of essays illuminating important perspectives from Indigenous peoples, including traditional knowledge from the past and proposed solutions for the future. Edited by Jessica Scott-Reid, this project tackles land and water sovereignty, factory farming, food systems, veganism, colonialism, reconciliation and more, through a variety of Indigenous lenses.
Ashley Chisholm is Red River Metis and Anishinaabe. As a vegan and animal activist for over 10 years, Chisholm works in social media management for conscious entrepreneurs and small businesses.