OPINION: Animal activists stop the boats with game-changing Brazilian court ruling

Animals Australia's role in bringing about a temporary ban on live exports from Brazil shows that animal activism, like the supply chains it targets, is going global.

OPINION: By DR PETER CHEN -- SENIOR LECTURER IN MEDIA AND POLITICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY'S DEPARTMENT OF GOVERNMENT AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS on FEB 7, 2018 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.

The decision by a Brazilian court to suspend a shipment of 27,000 cows to Turkey, citing concerns about slaughter practices in that country, shows that animal activism, like the supply chains it targets, is going global.

This decision came on the back of a sustained campaign highlighting cruel practices in destination countries, including reports that Brazilian cattle were stabbed in the eyes, ears, and legs in Egypt.

Tendon slashing and eye stabbing is sometimes used to make animals more pliant before processing in poor nations, and the practice has been of concern to animal welfare professionals and activists for many decades. In Brazil, pre-slaughter stunning is required by law.

The Brazilian government rapidly appealed the case, having the ban overturned on Tuesday. The superior court found that export practices met national laws. (The previous ruling had suspended all exports until they were aligned with Brazilian standards.)

Unlike in Australia, records of animal deaths in transit (approximately 30 days by sea to the Middle-East from South America), are not routinely kept, irrespective that transportation is known to place considerable stress on animals, and that poor transportation practices can lead to deaths from heat stress and communicable disease.

While Brazil is not currently a significant competitor with Australia, the case is of interest to our beef producers and exporters for a number of reasons.

A tale of two bans

The first is because of broad parallels with the temporary suspension of Australian live exports in 2011.

This suspension, lasting six months, followed a dramatic 4 Corners program that aired footage collected by Australian activists of Indonesian slaughter practices. The quantity and intensity of public reaction to the footage surprised many in the Gillard government, and Labor came very close to an outright prohibition on exporting animals for slaughter as New Zealand had done in 2003, before pulling back in favour of increased regulation in the form of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS).

What is different in the Brazilian case was the effectiveness of this particular litigation strategy.

In Australia, activists have often relied on mobilising public opinion over using the law, finding legal strategies costly and difficult to win.

At times, Australian activists have sued governments for failing to act on their responsibilities to enforce animal welfare, accusing government regulators of being "captured" by industry and unwilling to fulfil their full legal responsibilities when welfare and commerce clash.

Animal welfare laws in Australia follow a model laid down in Britain over 180 years ago: a focus on limited protections, with broad exemptions to ensure commercial production is privileged. In some parts of Australia, species we now know to have complex mental states are excluded from statutory definitions of what an "animal" is for legal purposes; making fish, reptiles, and cephalopods not-animals in some parts of Australia and therefore effectively beyond anti-cruelty laws.

Brazil is a different and interesting case.

Laws from the early 20th century gave animal protection lawyers a standing in court, removing the first hurdle of litigation.

Further, the 1988 Brazilian Constitution requires the government protect flora and fauna, prevent species extinction, and prohibit animal cruelty.

This makes the issue solely the responsibility of the national government.

In Australian federalism, responsibilities are divided between the Commonwealth and States, with responsibility shifting when animals are put on ships for export. This situation prompted the West Australian Agriculture Minister, Alannah MacTiernan, to last year accuse the Commonwealth of "shirking its responsibilities" after the death of 3,000 sheep bound for the Middle East in 2016.

This followed on from the abolition of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy Advisory Committee by the incoming Abbott government in 2013, a move that gave credence to the argument that the Commonwealth lacked commitment to developing high-quality, harmonised welfare standards for animals across Australia.

But similarities remain. Brazilian law is ambiguous about animals used for commercial purposes, mirroring the paradox we have in Australia that the same species of animal can be subject to completely different regulatory regimes if it is deemed wild, a pet, or a farmed animal.

Government sides with agriculture

Further, both nations are responsive to the concerns of agricultural interests.

Brazil's Minister for Agriculture, Livestock, and Supply, Blairo Maggi declared the recent legal reversal a victory for farming in his country.

Last year the constitutional anti-cruelty provision was amended to legalise some cruel practices if they form part of the "intangible cultural heritage" of Brazilians.

Mr Maggi himself has a personal background in farming, and particularly soybean production.

While soy might encourage thoughts of vegan-friendly tofu and soy milk, Brazilian beans are primarily produced for export as animal feedstock, making the Minister part of the massive global animal agricultural supply chain of which live export is but a small part.

In Australia, industry is calling for winding-back of ESCAS regulations and calling for more "regulatory parity" with competitor nations. This might mean a return to the days of unregulated animal slaughter for exported cattle.

Activists' global reach

Another reason for Australian interest in the Brazilian case is the role Animals Australia may have played in it.

The group that brought the specific case leading to the temporary ban is the Forum Nacional de Protecao e Defesa Animal. The Forum is the peak body of animal protection organisations in Brazil, representing over 130 organisations.

However, in the lead up to this case, Animals Australia was active, through its international arm Animals International, in highlighting misconduct in the Brazilian live export industry and promoting legal changes: an ESCAS-type model if not a complete ban.

This follows the organisation's expertise in conducting in-country investigations, capturing footage of mistreatment, and producing high-quality and media-friendly campaigns targeting producers.

Just as animal agriculture is now a global network of supply and production, where soybeans grown in Brazil can feed US cattle that are exported to China for reprocessing for further export, animal activism has become an interlocked global practice.

Over the last few decades many countries have seen a proliferation of animal protectionist organisations, leading to some very large and increasingly well-resourced campaigning organisations. These in-turn have partnered with international collaborators to provide information, resources, and expertise.

Thus, the Brazilian case represents only a small skirmish in an ongoing global conflict between international activism and global capital.

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