Saladillo, Argentina: Walking across a sun-soaked field, I’m being eaten alive by mosquitoes! I’m With Daniel Rugeroni; he’s in his 60s and is dressed in khaki. He’s a civil servant for the Department of Justice in Buenos Aires. Today, he’s returned to the land that’s been in his family for three generations. Daniel grew up here; played in these fields; watched ducks on the nearby pond. He points out a beautiful vista. This is where he planned to build his dream home; to retire on familiar ground with a sunset view.
He beckons me up a grassy slope. We clamber our way through vegetation that’s taller than either of us. We watch for hidden burrowing animal holes. A couple of times, we go crashing over, dust ourselves down and press on. The mosquitoes are mercifully behind us. Birds like I’ve never seen flush up from dense habitat. Then we reach a fence. The contrast the other side couldn’t be starker… Cattle everywhere; crowded into small muddy pens stretching out as far as we could see. The tranquil pond where Daniel recalled seeing ducks is now surrounded on three sides by cattle. He remembers when this “monster” was created. How he abandoned his dream and became resigned to life in Buenos Aires.
Daniel tells me that investors bought the land, flattened the hills and fenced it in. Then came the cattle; a few hundred at first; then thousands. He estimates 5,000 head here at any one time. I later find it can hold 8,000. With them came the flies and the smell. I’m struck by the noise from so many bellowing bovines; “You get used to it,” he tells me, “but not the smell.”
I was later invited to see the feedlot. I watch as a gaucho, a Spanish cowboy with black Basque-style beret, rides a painted black horse, swirling a lasso above his head. Young cattle run round the pen trying to escape. Amid the dust cloud, I see a calf plunge to the ground, halted by the rope in the gaucho’s grasp. Two more gauchos sit on it, jab a syringe in its suede-brown hide, then release. The calf runs feverishly back to the herd which is pressed as far as they can get in the corner of the pen.
The cattle stand in a well-trodden mud-like mix of sand and excrement. It’s like a cattle market scene from a Western movie; only the cows are here for life. There’s no shade from the relentless sun. The pens are crowded and barren, so much so that there’s little more to say. A group of cows face me; the scene coloured by silver strands of slobber picked out by the low afternoon sun. They’ll be fattened on cereals, not a blade of grass. They’ll be slaughtered in Buenos Aires.
This is the new reality for Argentina’s beef. As the vast monocultures of soya – the ‘green deserts’ – spread across the country, the cattle that once grazed on rich pastures are divorced from the land; forced into feedlots. There are still some to be seen grazing as nature intended. But it’s becoming less frequent.
Daniel laments how this place so familiar, now feels like a much-loved past. He tells me of feeling sadness akin to divorce; of feeling driven from his family’s land; of a dream destroyed.
My journey through Argentina has shown me anew the true cost of factory farming. Daniel’s story is but one of many testimonies that I’ve collected in Argentina and elsewhere. The details vary but the theme’s the same; factory farming damages people’s lives, as well as animal welfare and the planet.