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  • Cattle in the Backlands: Mato Grosso and the Evolution of Ranching in the Brazilian Tropics by Robert W. Wilcox
  • Christian Brannstrom
Robert W. Wilcox
Cattle in the Backlands: Mato Grosso and the Evolution of Ranching in the Brazilian Tropics
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017. xviii + 323 pp. Tables, maps, ills., notes, glossary, index. $45 cloth (ISBN: 978-1-4733-1114-1); $45 electronic (ISBN: 978-1-4733-1116-5).

Cattle in the backlands offers historical analysis of the halting nineteenth- and twentieth-century development of the ranching economy in a Brazilian “backland” or sertão. The book focuses on ranching, labor, land, and beef products in what is today Mato Grosso do Sul state (separated from Mato Grosso in the late 1970s) and southern areas of current Mato Grosso state, such as Cuiabá. One of many Brazilian “backlands,” southern Mato Grosso included the Pantanal wetlands and Cerrado savanna formations, at the fringe of the Brazilian economy until the mid-twentieth century.

Wilcox depicts an extensive ranching system constrained by the physical environment, land tenure insecurity, poor access to credit, and long distance to markets for [End Page 276] cattle from the mid 1800s until the mid 1900s. Environmental features of the Pantanal and Cerrado were “restraints” (p. 223) that “[defined] how ranching developed” (p. 227). These environmental constraints, described as seasonal flooding, long dry season, and disease, are major themes in sources that Wilcox uses, such as an observation from the 1920s that “cattle are a mirror of the land” in Mato Grosso (p. 14). Attempts to break the constraints—by introducing European breeds, for example—failed spectacularly until the introduction of Zebu, imported from south Asia, which helped turn ranching into a “vibrant, if controversial, economic pole of development” by the early 2000s (p. 2). Wilcox frames Mato Grosso as a “paradox of tropical ranching” (p. 1) because the cattle sector was frequently criticized as backward, reliant on extensive practices, and attracting relatively little investment through the 1940s, yet southern Mato Grosso eventually became a leader in tropical ranching.

Wilcox, a historian, organizes the book thematically according to topics such as minor booms, land tenure, labor relations, and the introduction of Zebu. Several contributions will interest geographers specializing in animal geographies, historical geography, and peripheral economies. Among these is the discussion of the fate of indigenous peoples, whose access to land was reduced by the expansion of cattle ranching. For example, Wilcox describes the fate of the Kadiwéu people, who suffered under the genocidal regime of Antonio Joaquim Malheiros, who was director of the Kadiwéu reserve in the 1870s. Intervention of progressive Brazilians and formation of the Serviço de Proteção aos Indios, led by Mato Grosso native Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon in the early 1900s, protected the Kadiwéu “from complete obliteration” (p. 132).

Cattle drives, which supplied ranchers in Minas Gerais starting in the 1850s and then slaughterhouses and meatpackers in São Paulo during the early 1900s, are described in great detail. Drives lasted for months, requiring considerable skill and tenacity among drovers. Conditions of the drive were such that Zebu had distinct advantages over Pantaneiro cattle, and drovers would accept Zebu as payment when they reached their destination and drive Zebu back to Mato Grosso. Wilcox argues that railroad construction in the early 1900s from São Paulo to Corumbá did not offer more secure transport because cattle would be kept in wagons for several days without food or water, and costs were comparable between rail and trail. Wilcox also offers a useful breakdown of expenses and profit margins from cattle drives during the 1930s.

Wilcox devotes considerable analysis to foreign capital invested in Mato Grosso cattle operations. The Descalvados jerky factory, located on the Paraguay River upstream from Cáceres, is a case in point. Initially established in the 1870s by an Argentine investor, the factory was purchased by a Uruguayan in the 1880s, adding beef bouillon to jerky production, drawing on a cattle population of up to 200,000 head. A Belgian syndicate, linked to King Leopold II, purchased Descalvados in 1895 and sold it in 1911 to Percival Farquahar, a U.S...