Living Cattle, Struggling Farmers

Eliza Bicego on the quiet recipients of your temporary outrage.

No one (unless you’re truly fucked) wants to see docile, innocent animals being tortured.

In 2011, a shaky Blair Witch-esque video brought Australia’s attention to the abuse that was said to have occurred during the export of live cattle to Indonesia. The majority of the public, after seeing these images splashed across every news outlet in Australia were, understandably, horrified. Animals Australia, and then Four Corner’s, highlighted some brutal practices said to have been occurring within various Indonesian abattoirs, such as tendon slashing, whipping and eye gouging. Not pleasant stuff at all, and didn’t the public let the government know about it.

The backlash after the Four Corner’s expose was one of the largest in Australian history—within one week over 200,000 people had signed an online petition and over 100,000 had written to the Prime Minister about the issue. Many politicians also threw their weight behind the crowd, applying additional pressure to the government to try and force their hand, and after eight days of this tremendous pressure the Gillard government announced an immediate suspension of the live cattle trade to Indonesia. Animals Australia and the general public, who had watched the video on Sunrise then written an impassioned letter about it, rejoiced.

The ban became effective almost immediately after the announcement in June, which is also, unfortunately, the peak of the cattle season. At the time of the announcement there were roughly 40,000 head of cattle on the road, in holding depots or on their way to Indonesia. Farmers were forced to face massive losses as the Australian beef industry screeched to a stand-still. Reports of farmers shooting heifers and steers in the paddock because they couldn’t afford to feed them filtered through and the government was faced with a compensation figure of a low-ball $700 million. One they ostentatiously ignored.

Greg Stuart, a truck driver responsible for transporting cattle for live export, experienced this hardship first hand when he was put out of work when the live export ban came into practice. “I had it tough for a bit there. Driving the cattle was a good job and I was shocked at first, it was so sudden… but I got on my feet soon enough, there’s always work for a truckie. It was the farmer’s though, they suffered.”

To anyone from a rural area, as I am, this kind of story is not new. Anyone who derived their income in any way from the beef industry felt the ramifications of the trade ban in 2011, and is probably still feeling them.

The official ban was lifted only a month later but its effects on the beef industry can still be felt today. So much so that industries and individuals who were affected by the 2011 ban announced last year that they were launching a massive class action against the Federal Government.

And it wasn’t just the beef farmers that exported their cattle to Indonesia that felt the pinch from this issue. As all the cattle that couldn’t be sold to Indonesia flooded the market, the already low price on cattle plummeted further. All the farmers I know live on a wire, betting on the profits to come for their day to day expenses. When the ban came into effect profits were lost and debt was gained. I, personally, cannot think of a farmer I know of today who isn’t heavily in debt.

One of the largest industries in Australia, employing tens of thousands of people and contributing significantly to Australian economic growth, is also an industry intertwined and sprinkled with the inhumane treatment of animals. Only last month Australian exporters themselves expressed concern about the abuse of Australian cattle in Vietnam. How can we counter-balance the livelihoods of the people who work in the industry against the reality that in 2015 animal welfare and sustainable practices should really be much more of a guarantee?   

Knee-jerk reactions don’t work—just ask the farmers in Northern Queensland to show you their scars—but doing nothing and being silent is also making Australia compliant in the unnecessary abuse of animals.

I don’t have the answer, but I know it’s definitely not under the rug that this issue has been swept under.

Art by Stephanie Barahona