The future of South American Gauchos with modern farming systems

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Gauchos helped defeat Spanish troops and win independence in the 19th century, but the cowboys of lore are no match for today’s soybean boom and factory farms.

“The classic gaucho is disappearing,” Lisandro Floral, a 30-year-old who manages a farm of 3,800 hectares (9,400 acres) deep in the Pampas, told AFP.

Floral has forsaken the horse and the boleadoras — the traditional rope and leather ball sling used by gauchos to capture running cattle or game — in favor of a 4×4 equipped with a satellite positioning system.

Even on the smaller, more traditional ranching properties, signs of “real” gauchos, as painted romantically in the epic poem “Martin Fierro” by Jose Hernandez, are few and far between.

Floral wears the trademark bolero hat but has exchanged the gaucho’s baggy bombachos for jeans and made-in-China sneakers.

More threatening to gaucho herders than attire or the advent of All-Terrain Vehicles are the combined advances of soybeans and intensive livestock farming.

Feedlots make gauchos expendable because cattle are confined and fed specific diets in preparation for slaughter, instead of being allowed to graze freely and eating grass.

Cattle penned in Argentina’s 15,000 feedlots represent half the beef consumed in the country and it is estimated that within five years intensive livestock farms will easily surpass production on traditional farms.

Soybean has meanwhile become the driving force of the Argentine economy, occupying 18 million hectares (44 million acres) and bringing in six billion dollars (4.4 billion euro) to the country annually.

Argentina is the world’s largest exporter of soybean oil and large soy farmers are snapping up property even in hilly rural provinces where land is cheap but conditions less than ideal for soy growing.

Most of Argentina’s soy production goes to China: Argentina supplies 70 percent of China’s soybean oil imports, representing some two billion dollars a year.

Soy farmers often evict local farmers and shepherds, many of whom have lived on the land for generations but have no ownership documents, and some think there will be a backlash.

“People will ask for meat from traditional livestock and not from feedlots,” Pablo Arena, owner of a ranch near San Antonio de Areco, told AFP, adding they could charge more for what is becoming a rare commodity.

San Antonio de Areco provided the setting for “Don Segundo Sombra,” a famous book by Ricardo Guiraldes that examines the gaucho way of life and its impact on the Argentine psyche.

Patricio Santos Ortega, director of tourism in San Antonio de Areco, 112 kilometers (70 miles) northwest of Buenos Aires, said foreign tourists often ask where they can see a gaucho.

“The gaucho, the rebel character, is adapting to modern times: as if he has finally decided to give up,” Santos Ortega told AFP.

If anywhere is capable of resisting the modern clamor for change, it would be San Antonio de Areco, which is home to a gaucho museum named after Guiraldes.

A nightclub that opened in the town soon went bankrupt because people preferred the traditional music taverns in which gauchos play guitars.

But tourists wanting to see the gauchos of old should really travel far from their traditional Pampas heartland into provinces farther north where this dying breed now lives on the periphery of society.

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