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Belonging in the Pampas: Ecologies of Conquest and Survival in Argentina's Heartland


What happens when the love story that changes the world is not between humans? Based in the Pampas of Argentina, where cattle are an outsized symbol of prestige as well as an everyday meal, Belonging in the Pampas traces the love men have for cattle, and what they do when the world cattle create is threatened. It begins in 1996, when a representative from Monsanto visits David Murray’s farm on the edge of the western pampas with a bag of genetically modified soybeans. The soybeans, according to the representative, could be sprayed with glyphosate – a potent and lethal herbicide that causes quick death in plants – and survive. David was skeptical, but he planted the seeds. They did so well that the next year he planted more. And he was not alone.

Within two decades farmers and multinational companies had planted over twenty million hectares of Pampas farmland with genetically modified soybeans, ushering in an astonishing and rapid landscape change. But David and other ranchers, aware of the possibility of immense profits in comparison to cattle, were faced with a dilemma. What would they do with their herd? Many ranchers culled their cattle herds to make room for soybeans in the plains, while others like David decided to lease ranches in the western forests, moving their cattle to the semi-arid savannas that were too dry to grow soy.

Tracing the arc of environmental change brought by European settler species to Argentina, the dissertation tacks back and forth between the current moment and poignant historical flashpoints that changed the social and ecological worlds of the Pampas. Soy, the dissertation shows, expands and develops a historical ecological conquest through its displacements as well as through its destinations. Rather than being a crop that feeds the hungry world, it is a crop that creates astonishing opportunities for concentrating more animals into smaller spaces. And so, even as the men sought to come to grips with the world they themselves were bringing into being, so too were they able to accumulate more cattle in feedlots, and to hang on to the part of themselves that had fallen in love, first with cattle. It was with cattle, and especially on the frontier in the forests, that they could be reminded of who they were. They sought out the forests as a refuge for masculinity and freedom, even as women in the plains retreated to the cities, estancias fell into disrepair, workers were made more marginal than ever, and in the forests a movement for Indigenous recognition was born.

Expansive in its scope, Belonging in the Pampas traces a century of environmental change, with special focus on the past two decades, and in so doing makes a case that this epoch we have entered due to human modification of the earth’s environment cannot be thought without affect. And, the dissertation argues, it is the love between species, the love men have for cattle because of who cattle make them, that brings into being the Anthropocene.

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