Rainforest Action Network Boycotts Burger King

In an effort to protect tropical rain forests, the Rainforest Action Network, a U.S. environmental group, organized a boycott of Burger King restaurants to bring pressure to end imports of tropical beef.

Summary of Event

On July 24, 1987, the Tico Times, an English-language newspaper in Costa Rica, published a short article titled “United States-Costa Rica ’Hamburger Connection’ Broken.” This article heralded the end of a boycott of Burger King, the second-largest chain of fast-food restaurants Fast-food industry[Fast food industry] in the United States, that had begun more than three years earlier, on April 14, 1984. In 1985, the Rainforest Action Network, a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, was spun off from the Earth Island Institute, Earth Island Institute an environmental group founded by David Brower. Brower, who had been the director of the Sierra Club before leaving that organization to found Friends of the Earth, Friends of the Earth was an advocate of “direct action” in environmental causes. The Rainforest Action Network seized on the Burger King boycott as its primary focus of direct political action. Using mailing lists provided by Brower’s previous contacts, the network organized a base of support through numerous reports and press briefs mailed from its headquarters in San Francisco. The network also provided information on how to organize demonstrations, sold directories listing hundreds of other organizations around the world working on rain-forest issues, and marketed videos for use in elementary schools. Rainforest Action Network
Burger King;boycott
Environmental activism
Rain forests
[kw]Rainforest Action Network Boycotts Burger King (1985-1987)
[kw]Boycotts Burger King, Rainforest Action Network (1985-1987)
[kw]Burger King, Rainforest Action Network Boycotts (1985-1987)
Rainforest Action Network
Burger King;boycott
Environmental activism
Rain forests
[g]North America;1985-1987: Rainforest Action Network Boycotts Burger King[05660]
[g]United States;1985-1987: Rainforest Action Network Boycotts Burger King[05660]
[c]Environmental issues;1985-1987: Rainforest Action Network Boycotts Burger King[05660]
[c]Trade and commerce;1985-1987: Rainforest Action Network Boycotts Burger King[05660]
[c]Agriculture;1985-1987: Rainforest Action Network Boycotts Burger King[05660]
Brower, David
Hayes, Randall
Olcott, Charles
Alvarez, Antonio
La Penha, Guilherme de

Utilizing its many contacts with local newspapers and television stations, the Rainforest Action Network began to apply political and economic pressure to Burger King to end its practice of importing beef from Costa Rica, Honduras, Brazil, and other Latin American countries. A high point in the campaign was reached on January 22, 1986, when the Rainforest Action Network bought a full-page advertisement in The New York Times in which the organization asked sympathizers to send letters to Charles Olcott, president of Burger King, at his office in Miami, Florida. Randall Hayes, director of the Rainforest Action Network, later claimed that the advertisement “sent thousands of outraged letters pouring into Burger King’s main office,” although the San Francisco Chronicle placed the number of letters in the hundreds. Neither estimate compared to the nearly 2.5 billion customer visits Burger King enjoyed in the United States alone in 1986. Nevertheless, the pressure of frequent adverse publicity was overwhelming. Faced with the possibility of losing a part of its share in the competitive U.S. fast-food market, Burger King eventually agreed to end the purchase of beef from many of its earlier sources in Latin America.

According to the Rainforest Action Network, the importation of Latin American beef was promoting the clearing and conversion into cattle pasture of vast areas of tropical rain forest in Central and South America. Deforestation;rain forests Representatives of Burger King disputed these claims, as did scientists and government officials in several Latin American countries. Antonio Alvarez, Costa Rica’s minister of agriculture, pointed out that it would be too expensive for most Central American countries to fight an extended war of publicity with environmental groups in the United States. In Brazil, Guilherme de La Penha, director of the Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belem do Para, an old city at the mouth of the Amazon, also lamented the financial power of organizations such as the Rainforest Action Network. While acknowledging the serious problems of deforestation in the tropics, de La Penha noted that he would have preferred that environmental groups in the United States spend some of their money in Brazil, where it was desperately needed, rather than on lobbying in Washington.

According to environmental activists, the conversion of tropical rain forests to cattle pastures followed a regular pattern. The first stage was the entry into the rain forest by timber companies seeking to harvest tropical hardwood for the export market. Before this timber could be harvested, roads needed to be built so that loggers could gain access to the forests to fell the trees and remove the logs for transport to local sawmills or to docking facilities for direct export to Europe, Japan, or the United States. Once such roads were in place, the landless poor of the Latin American countries would enter the forests to clear and burn small parcels of lands to grow crops such as corn, rice, manioc, and beans to feed their families. Sometimes these people would also grow cash crops for sale, such as coffee, bananas, chili peppers, and cacao, which is used to make chocolate.

Such forms of agriculture had been practiced by the Indians of Central and South America for millennia. With so much experience behind them, the Indians could grow food, fiber, and medicinal crops for five or ten years without damaging the soil before they abandoned the cleared areas to permit the forest to reclaim the land and restore the soil’s fertility. Unlike the region’s Indians, however, most of the people who squatted on the land to grow crops following the building of logging roads had little or no experience with this type of slash-and-burn cultivation. For the first year or two, their crops produced satisfactory yields, but soon the hot, humid climate leached the soil of its nutrients, erosion led to soil loss, and insect pests and the encroaching forest made their meager harvests barely worth the effort.

At that point, the farmers, if they were lucky, would sell the land to speculators seeking to consolidate several such small parcels into a single larger holding for the exclusive purpose of raising cattle for the export beef market. Like the farming families who had first cleared the forest, these ranchers quickly encountered a declining return from their efforts. In most of tropical Latin America, two or three acres of newly cleared rain forest are needed to raise one steer for beef; after five to ten years in grass pasture, however, ten to twenty acres of that same soil is necessary to support one steer. By the time soil productivity had fallen to such a level, most ranchers, like the slash-and-burn farmers before them, abandoned the land to the aggressively invading woody vegetation.

The combined result of large and growing numbers of poor, landless people in Central and South America and the need for nations in that part of the world to earn hard currency from the sale of beef, timber, and other commodities was undeniable. Since the mid-1940’s, the clearing and burning of tropical rain forest had plainly accelerated and, in the process, the niches and habitats of many species of plants and animals had been lost.


The impact of the Rainforest Action Network’s boycott of Burger King proved much greater in the realm of domestic social psychology and politics than in the area of tropical rain-forest conservation. Despite Burger King’s agreement in 1987 to cease its purchase of rain-forest beef, deforestation did not slow in Central America. Beef that those countries had earlier sold to the United States began to be sold to customers in Europe and East Asia. The rate of conversion of rain forest to cattle pasture dropped by more than 40 percent in Brazil, but the cause was a combination of greater-than-normal rainfall and the end of government subsidies for such conversion.

Burger King’s business felt little impact from the boycott. The price of its hamburgers possibly increased a few pennies as a result of its exclusion of the leaner tropical beef, but even that effect is not certain. Moreover, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Burger King, like many of its competitors, expanded its chain of restaurants beyond the United States at a rapid pace, especially in Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, and other Latin American countries where such beef is produced.

After its success with Burger King, the Rainforest Action Network turned its attention to other rain-forest issues. The organization called for boycotts of Mitsubishi and other Japanese corporations and staged demonstrations against the World Bank World Bank to protest their roles in deforestation in Brazil and Southeast Asia, but met with only mixed success. Although the World Bank delayed, but ultimately furnished, loans needed to support Brazil’s construction of the Trans-Amazon Highway, Japanese corporations involved in the construction all but ignored the protests.

The impact of the Burger King boycott on American social psychology and politics was much more definite. The Rainforest Action Network’s bulk-mailed alerts, sheets, and press briefs, along with paid advertisements in newspapers and magazines, sowed the idea in many American minds that the world’s tropical rain forests were in imminent danger of disappearance. According to this literature, with “50,000 acres a day” of tropical rain forests being lost, “the last traces of original, irreplaceable paradise will vanish in a single human life span” to be “replaced by desert.” Although such claims apparently contributed to the success of the Burger King boycott, they were not well supported by the facts. According to 1980’s data from the World Resources Institute, the world’s closed tropical forest covered almost 4 million square miles, or 2.5 billion acres of the earth’s surface. A simple calculation reveals that more than 135 years certainly more than a single human life span would be needed at the then-current rates of deforestation to eliminate the world’s rain forests.

Moreover, the claim that tropical rain forests are being replaced by desert would come as a surprise to both farmers and ranchers in Latin America. Those who argue against such claims point to examples of renewed rain-forest areas such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica. This popular tourist and educational destination allows visitors to see the impressive biological diversity of a tropical rain forest. Much of this habitat for jaguars, quetzals, orchids, and other species indicative of a healthy rain-forest ecosystem was itself in cattle pasture as recently as 1965. In addition, as some observers have noted, although deforestation reduces biological diversity in the short term, extinction is the mechanism that nature uses to open niches for continued evolution of plants and animals as well as of ecosystems such as tropical rain forests.

Despite their continued efforts, environmental groups that work to preserve tropical rain forests have met with firm resistance in some quarters. During the 1992 Earth Summit Earth Summit (1992) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for example, although the participating nations reached general agreements on a broad array of issues, those nations of the developing world with tropical rain forests refused to discuss the question of deforestation. From their point of view, the disposition of those forest resources is a matter of domestic sovereignty, and these nations strongly resent efforts to infringe on that sovereignty, whether those efforts are mounted by foreign governments or by foreign environmental groups such as the Rainforest Action Network. Rainforest Action Network
Burger King;boycott
Environmental activism
Rain forests

Further Reading

  • Barzetti, Valerie, and Yanina Rovinski, eds. Toward a Green Central America: Integrating Conservation and Development. West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1993. Collection of essays highlights success stories in conservation in Central America. Includes accounts from local people on forest conservation, ecotourism, pollution control, sustainable livelihoods, and other topics.
  • Meyers, Norman. “The Hamburger Connection: How Central America’s Forests Become North America’s Hamburgers.” AMBIO 10, no. 1 (January, 1981): 3-8. The article in the popular scientific press that brought the question of rain-forest conversion for export beef production to the attention of most Americans. Abstracted from an earlier report commissioned by the National Research Council.
  • Nations, James D., and Daniel I. Kromer. “Tropical Rain-Forests and the ’Hamburger Society.’” Environment 25, no. 3 (April, 1983): 12-20. One of the earliest and most complete accounts of the so-called hamburger connection in Central America. Although the brief description of the intermediate agricultural stages of rain-forest conversion is inaccurate, the historical, political, and economic aspects of rain-forest conversion are well covered.
  • Pariser, Harry S. Adventure Guide to Costa Rica. 3d ed. Edison, N.J.: Hunter, 1996. Useful guide for the ecologically minded tourist to one of the most accessible tropical countries in the world. Includes historical, ecological, and cultural information as well as extremely thorough coverage of a wide variety of destinations for all types of travelers. Features maps and color photographs.
  • Peters, William J., and Leon F. Neuenschwander. Slash and Burn: Farming in the Third World Forest. Moscow: University Press of Idaho, 1988. Examines the way of life of the peoples who inhabit the world’s tropical forests. Summarizes scientific information on the distribution of slash-and-burn agriculture, the effects of fire on tropical forests, the vegetation in tropical forests, and the social, cultural, economic, and political effects of this ancient system of farming.
  • Place, Susan E., ed. Tropical Rainforests: Latin American Nature and Society in Transition. Rev. ed. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2001. Collection of essays on Latin America’s rain forests includes a wide variety of works, from travel narratives to scientific articles and anthropological studies. Includes discussion of the complexities of tropical deforestation.
  • Rifkin, Jeremy. Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Popular book argues that export beef production is responsible for much of the tropical deforestation in the world. Makes selective use of the available facts. Includes selected bibliography and index.
  • Shane, Douglas. Hoofprints in the Forest: The Beef Cattle Industry in Tropical Latin America. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 1980. Early, fact-filled account of the conversion of tropical rain forest to pasturage for export cattle production. Includes statistics on exports and conversion rates and summaries of the situations in Brazil, Honduras, Costa Rica, and other countries.

McToxics Campaign Begins

Brazilian President Announces Plans to Protect Rain Forests

Global ReLeaf Program Is Initiated

“An Anti-Environmentalist Manifesto” Signals a Backlash

Earth Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro