The slaughter of donkeys in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Bahia became subject to new regulations in June 2016 as part of a deal between Brazil and China.
In China, donkeys are sought for meat but more so for their skins, which are boiled to produce ejiao, gelatine used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat everything from ageing to lack of libido in women.
The number of skins China consumes each year
China produces 1.8 million skins each year but consumes 4 million and, with demand rising, the country has been seeking deals with various developing countries.
But in November 2018 animal rights groups won a legal case to ban the slaughter of donkeys in Bahia, adding Brazil to the list of several countries to have done so.
The end of the donkey in the Northeast?
The June 2016 order regulating the slaughter of donkeys, mules and hinnies throughout Bahia, triggered a heated legal, ethical and economic battle.
On the face of it, the document was intended to solve the problem of donkeys causing traffic accidents and spreading disease.
Although an important historical symbol of Brazil’s Northeast, in recent years donkeys have been largely abandoned in favour of motorcycles. The local department of transit in Ceará state collects abandoned animals in order to prevent road accidents. Over the most recent New Year holiday, 115 donkeys had to be collected.
But the ordinance also gave the green light to the export of donkey meat and hides to China – a trade that then Minister of Agriculture, Kátia Abreu, said could reach roughly US$3 billion a year.
Though unthinkable to many in Brazil’s north-east, which has a strong cultural attachment to the animal, donkey meat is also a common ingredient in Chinese street food, consumed in burgers and other forms, as one would eat beef.
Days after the ordinance took effect, the FrigoCezar company started operations in the Bahia town of Miguel Calmon. In the first week alone, approximately 300 donkeys were slaughtered. A year later, on 26 June 2017, Bahia governor Rui Costa ceremonially opened the Frinordeste packing plant.
Frinordeste is a joint venture between a Brazilian company and two Chinese partners, Zhen Yongwei and Ran Yang, who both live in China and could not be reached for comment. The venture directly created more than 100 new jobs, and was expected to produce and export 300 tonnes of meat to the Asian market each year.
Soon after Frinordeste, two more meatpacking plants began slaughtering donkeys in Bahia: Cabra Forte in Simões Filho and Sudoeste in Itapetinga, in December 2017 and August 2018 respectively.
From an economic point of view, the emerging production chain was doing well. The three packing plants, the only ones in Brazil authorised to slaughter donkeys, were responsible for the creation of over 300 jobs, according to data from the Bahia state government. Furthermore, the production chain generated jobs and income for more than 500 rearers, ranch hands and gatherers of abandoned donkeys.
But the economic arguments did not convince those concerned about animal welfare, who organised around the world. A public case was brought against the federal government and the state of Bahia by the Bicho Feliz Animal Protection Mobilisation Network, the National Forum for Animal Protection and Defence, SOS Street Animals and the Brazilian National Donkey Defence Front.
On 30 November 2018, Judge Arali Maciel Duarte granted an injunction prohibiting the slaughter of donkeys throughout Bahia.
One particular case, which had shaken public opinion, was key to her ruling. In September 2018, over 200 animals were found dead (probably of thirst and starvation) on a farm in a rural area of Itapetinga, Bahia, where they were being held before slaughter at the Sudoeste packing house.
In her argument, the judge spoke of the animal’s mistreatment during “capture”, transport and confinement prior to slaughter. She also expressed concern that they could have become a vector for disease among humans if all the legal requirements involving slaughter were not followed.
But the judge’s main argument involved a stark statistic. The new companies plan to slaughter 200,000 animals per year.
“Considering there are 812,467 donkeys in Brazil today, and a current estimate of 600,000 animals in the Northeast, that pace of slaughter would make all the region’s donkeys extinct in the next  years”, she wrote.
The Bahia state government attempted to overturn the injunction and resume the slaughter of donkeys. The state general attorney Marcos Sampaio said the judge had overstepped her administrative powers by paralysing an important production chain, “the product of private agreements and public commitments made internationally” by the government of Bahia.
In his opinion, banning the slaughter will do nothing to head off the crisis that previously killed donkeys from thirst and hunger. “When an economic or public actor makes a mistake, the ruling cannot be to prohibit the activity that was being conducted, but rather to demand a change of attitude”.
The ruling was upheld on appeal, but the legal battle continues.
While animal protection organisations celebrate the partial victory in the federal court, businesses count their losses. It is difficult to estimate what these are as the companies are not transparent. Of the three authorised meat processing plants only the Cabra Forte plant in Simões Filho has a website and a channel for communicating with consumers.
Data from the Ministry of Agriculture collected by the Correio da Bahia newspaper indicate that in 2018 the three meatpackers exported over 25,000 tonnes of meat and skins from “horses, asses and mules” to Vietnam and Hong Kong, with revenues approaching US$40 million.
Reginaldo Filho is the owner of the Cabra Forte plant. When the ban took effect, the plant was slaughtering roughly 200 donkeys per day from Monday to Friday, with capacity to expand to 500. Reginaldo had 180 employees, 120 of whom lost their jobs after the court ruling. He says the total investment in the project was worth around US$1.5 million.
Reginaldo’s business had only been running for a year, and was not yet turning a profit. He said the average estimated income from exporting meat and hides was R$ 370 (US$95) per animal. Because of “bureaucracy” (some certificates were lacking), Cabra Forte had to export to Hong Kong and Vietnam, to intermediary companies. If Reginaldo could export directly to China, like the packing plant in Amargosa, Bahia, his revenue would have soared to R$ 870 (US$225) per head. “There was a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Chinese importers are more interested in the hides than the meat because ejiao has continued to rise in popularity and price in recent years. Today, 250 grammes of ejiao cost around US$180.
Health companies practising traditional Chinese medicine claim ejiao has many benefits, including “enriching the blood”. Some even offer advice on dosages.
Reginaldo disagrees with the slaughter ban but prefers to avoid controversy. “It’s all there in the legal case”. But he emphasises that he is in compliance with all norms and is paying for the mistakes of others. “Only the person who did something wrong should be punished.”
If it’s bad for the main businesses, it’s even worse for the small businesses and workers around the slaughterhouses.
Twenty-three-year-old Lucas Oliveira had found his first officially contracted job as a deboning assistant in the Amargosa packing plant. During the year and a half he worked there his partner had a child and they made plans for the future. For four months now he has been living off odd jobs and unemployment benefits. “I’m the only one who can tell you the impact [the ban] is having. But we hope that [the industry] will come back.”
The donkey, our brother
Though the judge’s ruling was controversial no one questioned her emphasis on the donkey’s importance to the Northeast.
“The Brazilian and especially the Northeastern population respect and recognise the historical and social importance of the donkey”, she wrote. “Donkeys have historically made an incalculable contribution to the development of the country, especially the Northeast.”
She called attention to statues of donkeys in the Northeast, and music honouring the animal, which includes a song by Luiz Gonzaga: “Apology to the Donkey (The Donkey is our Brother)”.
Of the dozens of people we spoke to, everyone except those directly involved in the production chain opposed slaughter.
The donkey originated in northern Africa, and its strength and resilience suited it to the predominantly arid climate of the Brazilian Northeast. People in the region have viewed the animal that “bore Jesus on its back” as an ally in their work ploughing the land, hauling water and pulling carts.
Kátia Lopes of the Nature and Animal Defence NGO summed up the sentiment: “Many people maintain that the Northeastern nation was born from the back of a donkey. It symbolises the resistance of our region.”
In stressing the companionship between donkeys and workers in the region, Judge Duarte included a barbed comment on Chinese culture:
“We went hungry together, but we never considered putting them on the menu.”
The war in Canudos
The ban on slaughter has not ended the ill treatment of donkeys in Bahia. Two months after it, on 1 February 2019, Bahia government officials arrived at the Santa Rita Farm in Canudos, Sertão, and found around 200 dead donkeys. Another 800 animals were illegally confined in the space and appeared to be malnourished and dehydrated.
The animals were to have been slaughtered at Itapetinga and Amargosa, according to the inspection report. But the ban had caught two Chinese workers responsible for confining and transporting the donkeys by surprise. With no place to go, the animals were abandoned.
Donkeys continue to die on the Santa Rita Farm. Today only around 420 are still alive. Biologist Patrícia Tatemoto, the only representative in Brazil of the British NGO The Donkey Sanctuary, said that more animals may die from a metabolic syndrome called hyperlipaemia, caused by the treatment they have received.
The Donkey Sanctuary is part of the Brazilian National Donkey Defence Front, a group of animal welfare organisations granted guardianship of the animals by the legal ruling. This job requires an investment of money and resources that they do not have.
For example, to feed the survivors costs R$ 890 (US$230) every day, and this combines with other expenses (veterinary care and medications, for example) to hit roughly R$ 50,000 (US$13,000) per month. A crowdfunding campaign on the Catarse platform has so far only reached 10% of its goal.