The Americas 58.3 (2002) 473-474
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"No revolution on this pampa," Stephen Bell might have called his book. While slyly good humored, Bell is never so flip about his topic, but he is immensely informed about it, and his lively exposition of it accomplishes the remarkable feat of being valuable to specialist and non-specialist alike.
For non-specialists, James Scobie's 1964 classic Revolution on the Pampa: A Social History of Argentine Wheat, 1860-1910 constitutes a convenient historiographical landmark from which to assess Bell's Campanha Gaúcha. Both books examine a portion of the grassy plains around the Río de la Plata, plains probably associated by most readers with nineteenth-century Argentine estancias and gauchos. Scobie's book describes vast changes that swept the pampa in the late nineteenth century: an invasion of sheep, fencing, fancy breeds, and alfalfa fodder, and then, in some places, immigrants who made the biggest change of all, the shift from ranching to farming wheat. These transformations drove the gauchos off the estancias and into the army, putting an end to the idyllic traditional life recalled by [End Page 473] the literary gaucho Martín Fierro. Bell asks why these changes did not happen--or rather, happened so much more slowly--in his part of the plains. His part is the campanha, the southern edge of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state, an area quite similar to the adjoining pasture lands of Uruguay.
The campanha of Rio Grande do Sul did undergo most of the changes that occurred in Argentina (and Uruguay) but always later. Sometimes the lag was only a few years (in the case of wire fencing), sometimes many decades. The crucial benchmark was the establishment of refrigerated meat packing plants that opened the European market to South American beef. Argentina's first frigorífico began exporting in 1882, Rio Grande do Sul's in 1917. Bell's archival digging detected improved cattle breeds in only three of many hundreds of probate inventories before 1889. Why? Contemporaries loudly blamed conservative ranchers' fond attachment to "routine," by which they meant traditional methods and materials.
Bell is too good a scholar to accept so simple an answer. His explanation is judiciously balanced and multi-causal. The campanha lagged in infrastructure, such as railroads and port facilities, partly because Rio Grande do Sul was peripheral in the Brazilian context. Adjoining regions of Uruguay and Argentina, in contrast, got more attention from their national governments. In Argentina and Uruguay, rancher associations formed nationally powerful interest groups pushing for legal reforms to encourage fencing and facilitate credit. In addition, international commerce and capital flowed preferentially to Buenos Aires and Montevideo because of these cities' advantageous location at the mouth of the Río de la Plata--a river transportation network reaching into the heart of the South American continent. Other problems were functions of the natural environment: alfalfa, for example, grows poorly in the campanha because of its relatively impermeable subsoils. (On the other hand, Bell is also too good a scholar to ignore the strong evidence that tradition-minded campanha ranchers often did resist new methods. By taking that resistance seriously, he contributes to a long-overdue reintegration of cultural variables into discussions of social and economic change.)
Campanha Gaúcha is richly endowed with tables, illustrations, and especially, maps. (The abundance of excellent maps and the overall treatment of place-as-protagonist reveal the author's training in historical geography.) Bell's research is extensive, his judgments measured, his bibliography exhaustive. This is a scholarly book, one that maintains dialogues with dozens of other works in the field. And yet, Campanha Gaúcha manages to be accessible to the non-specialist reader as well. The full scholarly apparatus and tables never encumber the pithy, strongly argued text, and Bell's comparative framework (which keeps Argentine and Uruguayan developments always in view) infuses...