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December 2, 2010 – 11:09 pm |

Argentina is a country of absentee landowners who call themselves farmers and farmers without land. In many cases the landowners are thousands of miles away in other countries and depend on local …

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Home » Featured, Headline, The Farm

On Chickens and Gauchos

Submitted by on December 2, 2010 – 11:09 pmNo Comment

Orchard sprayArgentina is a country of absentee landowners who call themselves farmers and farmers without land. In many cases the landowners are thousands of miles away in other countries and depend on local management companies to keep their farms working.  We arrived in Tunuyan, Argentia to work at a fruit farm about a week ago. There to greet us was the farm manager, an American businessman who has been in Argentina for the better part of a decade, married an Argentine woman and managed countless foreign-owned farms in Mendoza province by fiat. Our interactions with the farm manager during our week as fincaneros were few, but very interesting. It can hardly be surprising that western visitors working alongside an Argentine family in the fields for 8 hot hours a day will soon identify more with the concerns of the family than the absentee management team. When those concerns were voiced at the end of the week we got what the owner himself referred to as ‘a lesson in Argentine labour’.

‘Imagine a classroom full of 5 year old children’, he told us. ‘If you give one child a gift,’ he explained to us, ‘then all the other children want what the first child has.’ On top of that, the child [farm labourer] who has received your gift will likely abuse it, in any case. Countless digital cameras have already been left out in the rain or broken in some other irresponsible way and the hand is out once again for a replacement.’ Ten years of business experience in Argentina, in other words, has made clear to him that attempting to improve the material well-being of the working class is a fruitless and naive ambition.

The chickens that were usually housed in a little coop were, at that moment, wandering freely around the finca. Not knowing if someone had mistakenly left the coop door open we tried in vain to catch some of the fugitive birds. Not to worry, we were told by our sagely host. ‘The thing about freedom,’ we were informed, ‘is that the world is full of chickenhawks just waiting to devour these defenseless creatures. It won’t be long before they’ll happily and willingly walk right back into their cage.’ It’s hard to dismiss the possibility that, for the farmowner, this lesson on chickens applied equally to human labour.

A man standing in his fincaThe founding of Argentina as a modern nation state during the late 19th century was a period filled with similar notions of civility (i.e., European culture, urban living, republicanism) and barbarism (i.e., native customs, gaucho lifestyle, caudillo law). Proponents of European ways of life were constantly frustrated, particularly in the frontier south, by Amerindian tribes and gauchos who would not submit to the yolk of land ownership and respect for private property nor were they well known for their work ethic. The cattle of pioneering ranchers, for example, were forever being stolen by so-called outlaws. One outrageous ‘solution’ to the problem was the proposal by then government minister, Aldolfo Alsina, to build a massive 600 mile trench from the Atlantic ocean to the Andes along the frontier border in southern Argentina that would physically prevent the poaching of cattle by Amerindian tribes and literally demarcate the ‘civilised’ north from the ‘barbarous’ south. An equally preposterous proposal is today gaining steam in the southern United States to build a wall across their entire shared border with Mexico. Are their reasons not in effect the same? To protect ‘civilisation’ from the ‘barbarous’ south?

The following passage written by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in the late 19th century was certainly not meant to be a celebration of the gaucho way of life. Sarmiento was, himself, a proponent of capitalism, exploiting the ‘unused space’ of the Argentine frontier and ‘reeducating’ the gaucho.  I can’t help but be inspired, however, by the picture he paints of a free and independent people wanting less and enjoying more:

“Country life, then, has developed all the physical but none of the intellectual powers of the gaucho.  His moral character is of the quality to be expected from his habit of triumphing over the obstacles and the forces of nature; it is strong, haughty, and energetic.  Without instruction, and indeed without need of any, without means of support as without wants, he is happy in the midst of his poverty and privations, which are not such to one who never knew or wished for greater pleasure than are his already.  Thus, if the disorganization of society among the gauchos deeply implants barbarism in their natures, through the impossibility and uselessness of moral and intellectual education it has, too, its attractive side to him.  The gaucho does not labor; he finds his food and raiment ready to his hand.  If he is a proprietor, his own flocks yield him both; if he possesses nothing himself, he finds them in the house of a patron or a relation.  The necessary care of the herds is reduced to excursions and pleasure parties; the branding, which like the harvesting of farmers, is a festival, the arrival of which is received with transports of joy, being the occasion of the assembling of all the men for twenty leagues around and the opportunity for displaying incredible skill with the lasso.  The gaucho arrives at the spot on his best steed, leg over his horse’s neck to enjoy the sight leisurely.  If enthusiasm seized him, he slowly dismounts, uncoils his lasso, and flings it at some bull, passing like a flash of lightning forty paces from him; he catches him by one hoof as he intended and quietly coils his leather cord again.”

— a feeling of freedom that the timid chicken gets only on a rare Sunday afternoon before again resigning herself to her cage.

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