South American Cowboys Cook Up Bird-Friendly Beef

Photograph by Fernanda Preto

South American Cowboys Cook Up Bird-Friendly Beef

Legendary gauchos are teaming up with grassland conservationists to maintain a way of life and help save millions of grassland birds. 

By Bruce Barcott/Photography by Fernanda Preto
Published: November-December 2012

During the first week of August, as the full heat of summer ripples across North America, tens of thousands of upland sandpipers abandon their ground nests on U.S. prairies and begin the long flight south for winter. Their goal: survive a 4,000-mile journey to the land of the South American gaucho. 

Traveling by night, the mottled cinnamon birds fly over Texas and Mexico, move down the crooked arm of Central America, and cross the Andes in Ecuador. In late September these terrestrial shorebirds finally reach their destination: the Southern Cone, a sea of grass sweeping 600 miles from the Atlantic coast to the Andean foothills. Known as las pampas, this vast green prairie covers an area about the size of Texas and California combined, and encompasses parts of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

If they're fortunate, some of those birds will find their way to Jacques de Souza's estancia in southern Brazil. Here the grasses take on a cricket-green hue in October, during the austral spring. The sandpipers' bright-orange legs flash among the vegetation as they forage for insects in the same sprawling expanses that de Souza's cattle graze.  

During a visit last year, de Souza adjusted his beret and called out to two of his hired men watching over a herd of Hereford cattle. "Bring them over--we want a good look at them," de Souza shouted. With clicking sounds and soft Portuguese commands, they moved the cows toward the fence. Like a gaucho from central casting, de Souza wore bombachas (baggy trousers), high leather boots, and a white silk kerchief tied at the neck. His family has been ranching these 2,500 acres for nearly two centuries. "Like many other ranchers in this area, we're breeding cattle nearly year-round in native grasslands, with the use of some cultivated [non-native grass] areas for wintertime feeding," said de Souza. "It's good for the health of the cattle and for the biodiversity of the grasslands as well."

A small crowd gathered around him. These were ranchers from across the Southern Cone attending a meeting of the Alianza del Pastizales (the Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance), a grand experiment involving strange bedfellows, mutual interests, and market forces. Ranchers and conservationists throughout the pampas are taking part. The idea is to establish a brand of bird-friendly, grass-fed beef that will command a premium price in South America, the way grass-fed beef or organic produce does in the United States. The Alliance hopes that profit, rather than political pressure, will convince ranchers across the region to conserve their native grasslands.

After inspecting de Souza's thick, healthy cows, the ranchers followed him up a grassy knoll from which they could see his land stretch nearly to the horizon. The emerald fields fell away for miles, with no cars, roads, or buildings in sight. It looked like an early 19th century J.M.W. Turner painting of the English countryside.

A visiting rancher spotted a brown field way off in the distance. "What's happening over there?" he asked. 

"That is my neighbor's field," de Souza said. "He's growing soybeans there." 

The gauchos nodded their heads. Soybeans: the temptation and the competition. Soybeans fetch a good price right now, and many of de Souza's neighbors are growing Monsanto's genetically modified Roundup Ready soybeans. 

Thus, one of the powerful motivators of the Alliance: The ranchers here want to be ranchers. Gauchos traditionally don't grow soybeans. 

 

The gaucho culture traces its lineage back to the 16th century, when horsemen from Spain's Andalusia region emigrated to the Southern Cone. There they found an equestrian paradise of verdant rolling grasslands. The newcomers first survived by hunting wild cattle that had escaped from Jesuit missionaries' farms or that had been left behind by explorers. Over time they established their own ranches and nurtured a rich culture of music, folklore, fashion, and pastoral stewardship. They called themselves gauchos, derived from huacha, the Quechua Indian word for orphans. The term codified their defiant, independent spirit. Gauchos were skilled horsemen, crafty and brave, libertines, dandies, inveterate gamblers, and deadly knife fighters. Today their cattle control the grasses, doing the job the region's original herbivores--now long gone--once performed, somewhat like cattle grazing lands that bison once roamed in the United States. Gauchos know and love their land, relying on the grasslands as a fisherman relies on the sea. 

For these South American cowboys, every acre of grasslands lost to soybeans isn't just bird habitat lost. It's gaucho culture lost. "We're showing cattle producers that they can make profits while preserving biodiversity," says Fernando Adauto, a rancher from southern Brazil and a founding member of the Alliance. "Both are imperative, because the most sensitive part of a rancher is his wallet. He won't do anything if it doesn't make money." 

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