- Cattle in the Backlands: Mato Grosso and the Evolution of Ranching in the Brazilian Tropics by Robert W. Wilcox
Brazil is one of the largest exporters of beef in the world. However, the cattle ranching industry that produces beef exports only emerged as a touchstone of the country’s massive agro-industrial economy in the mid-twentieth century. Robert Wilcox’s Cattle in the Backlands follows the slow expansion of this industry in the far western region of Mato Grosso. Once the second largest single territory in Brazil, the region now encompasses three different states and is synonymous with the country’s cattle ranching industry. Cattle in the Backlands links the slow development of the region’s cattle ranching sector to its environmental realities that so shaped the industry’s growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (6).
Wilcox’s book adds an interesting perspective on Brazil’s position as a leading agro-industrial producer. Today, the cerrado, a unique Brazilian biome of savannah land that covers a large portion of the region, is the premiere soy-and emerging sugarcane-producing region in the country. This grassy, drought-friendly biome could not have sustained such massive agricultural production only half a century ago. However, Wilcox claims that environmental manipulation, in the name of modernizing the cattle industry earlier in the twentieth century, initiated the transformations that now sustain such massive agro-industrial production (12). Cattle ranching did not immediately transform the terrain. Rather, Wilcox demonstrates how geographical, ecological, and economic restraints first shaped the industry’s slow growth in fundamental ways. Little scholarship has focused on cattle ranching history in this region, but Wilcox claims the Mato Grosso industry became the model followed in more recently development schemes, particularly in the Amazon (6). As such, this contribution illuminates the critical connection between environmental manipulation and agro-industrial production that so many scholars and policymakers—myself included—seek to understand.
Wilcox puts together an interesting history of both place and product, making great effort to draw out the connection between the cattle industry’s history and the region’s more recent agro-industrial growth since the 1970s. The book focuses on three main themes: the economic transformation of the remote region with modern technical inputs, the social changes that accompanied the industry’s expansion, and the environmental forces that shaped its development (6). Wilcox starts with an examination of the geography and ecology of the region that both promoted and limited the ranching economy’s growth. As detailed in chapter 1, Mato Grosso is covered by three very different biomes: the natural grasslands, known as campo limpo, the floodplains of the Pantanal, and the cerrado. The grasslands are ideal for cattle grazing, and the high salt content in the floodplains during the dry season make the terrain conducive for cattle feeding [End Page E7] as well. However, inherent flooding in the Pantanal and regular threat of drought and soil erosion in the cerrado presented fundamental limits on large-scale expansion (19–20, 28).
Despite these ecological challenges, it was Mato Grosso’s distance from major markets that most hampered the industry’s growth until World War I. Chapter 2 provides an economic history of the region and the industry in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The distant region limited access to faraway consumer markets incentivized ranchers to begin employing cattle drives in the mid-1850s to consumers in urban centers like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, further integrating the industry into the national economy (43). Yet, as chapter 3 reveals, it was not until World War I, when global demand for Brazilian beef jerky exports that had once been considered inferior in European markets expanded (71). This pivotal market transformation, along with the establishment of rail lines to São Paulo, finally connected Mato Grosso’s cattle industry to export regions, securing Mato Grosso’s place at the forefront of Brazilian tropical ranching by 1950 (9, 68).
Careful not to dismiss...