Managing Pasturelands for Racial Improvement: The Formation of Colombia’s National Livestock Department

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM
Room 605 (Colorado Convention Center)
Shawn Van Ausdal, Universidad de los Andes
In the 1930s and 40s, the Colombian state recognized the urgency of better managing the environment. Amelioration was the watchword. By the late 1920s, faith in the untapped fecundity of the Colombian countryside had begun to dissipate. Rather than a source of promise, officials increasingly viewed the tropics as an obstacle. The future of the nation depended on sanitizing this environment through scientific management. Given the poor “preparation of the human element,” lamented Washington Bernal, the state needed to direct this transformation.

Officials within the National Livestock Department were especially mindful of this burden. Just a decade prior they and the minister of agriculture and commerce had proclaimed that beef exports would propel Colombia along the road to riches. The failure of the country’s first modern meat-packing plant upended their dreams. Native breeds might tolerate the rigors of the tropics, but they grew slowly, producing relatively expensive, tough meat. The high price of beef in domestic markets also stymied racial improvement and modernization. Whether rooted in discourses of degeneration, biological inferiority, or environmental influences, Colombian elites believed that a better diet, especially greater protein intake, could revitalize Colombian workers. Raising the productivity of the cattle industry, therefore, was an essential, though challenging, goal.

To become a second Argentina, Colombian ranchers needed to upgrade their herds with European stock, which matured faster and produced better quality meat. Since these imports tended to waste away in the Colombian lowlands, producing a viable export industry and a robust working class required remaking the tropics. Through tick eradication campaigns, vaccination controls, forage improvement, veterinary extension services, propaganda campaigns, and prohibiting the import of zebu cattle, livestock officials hoped to render Colombia’s environment safe and more productive. While these efforts had mixed results, they were central to growing presence of the state in the countryside.

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