In the preface to this history of the ranching industry in the interior, tropical Mato Grosso region of Brazil, Robert Wilcox evokes Frederick Jackson Turner and the frontier before rejecting that model for something far more complex, contingent, and specific to the region. The Brazilian government and entrepreneurs saw ranching as key to the economic development of Mato Grosso, but as Wilcox demonstrates, a variety of environmental, economic, social, and political challenges hindered the growth of ranching in the region. Overall, Wilcox tells a detailed and compelling story about the successes and failures of the cattle industry in Mato Grosso. Wilcox begins with a helpful and detailed explanation of the local geography and climate in Mato Grosso. The region consists of three zones, each presenting its own unique set of biological conditions. The next two chapters narrate the history of ranching in Mato Grosso up to 1950. The region was contested until the Paraguayan War ended in 1870 with both Brazil and Paraguay using cattle as a tool to assert sovereignty. Ranching remained marginally profitable until the growth of Rio de Janeiro, road construction, and foreign investment gave it a boost in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Railroads and world wars further increased the extent and profitability of ranching in Mato Grosso, although heavy taxation led to widespread smuggling. The proliferation of charqueadas, or jerky plants, stimulated the industry in the twentieth century, although it still lagged behind promoters’ expectations, especially with the establishment of meatpacking plants in São Paulo as a potential market. The following chapters focus on land and labor. In familiar Latin American stories, land consolidation led to the domination of larger estates (latifundia), and debt servitude created by high-priced ranch stores allowed landowners to exploit the labor force. The mobility of cowboy labor and low wages also led to periodic labor crises at times. It is here that Wilcox gives the most attention to the indigenous peoples of Mato Grosso. Ranchers exploited or encouraged violence to expropriate Indian land and some indigenous groups joined the labor force. These developments might have benefited from more focused treatment, perhaps their own chapter. The chapter on “everyday ranching” contains some of the most interesting material in the book as it examines the conflicts between traditional ranching practices and attempts at modernization. Wilcox also provides here some of his best explorations of the region’s environmental challenges. Some of the tropical pastures required frequent burning to produce palatable grass, but this firing could also encourage the establishment of invasive weeds. Fencing led to overgrazing and pasture degradation in many regions. Jaguars preyed on stock. Burrowing flies caused berne, which irritated the animals, and an endemic disease, mal das cadeiras, killed horses. In numerous attempts to rationalize and modernize Mato Grosso ranching, officials called for ranchers to take greater control of stocking rates, plant forage to battle weeds and unpalatable native grasses, increase veterinary care, and import new breeding stock. Wilcox repeatedly makes it clear that local people understood the techniques promoted internationally to rationalize ranching and make it tenable in the tropics, but actual implementation of those techniques was often undermined and frustrated by local conditions. The most influential and successful innovation was the introduction of zebu cattle (Bos indicus) that were better suited to the region’s tropical environment. While zebu cattle faced opposition as an exotic breed and a leaner beef, they came to thrive in Mato Grosso. Overall, the rich details make this a strong work that would be of great use to any scholar working on tropical ranching or on the development of Brazil’s interior. The very specificity that is this book’s greatest strength may also prevent it from being as useful to more generalized practitioners of environmental history because it lacks a straightforward theoretical framework to apply to other circumstances. However, it is still a valuable model for cognizance of the importance of local conditions even amid the globalizing economy of the twentieth century. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 8, 2018
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