Sheep Before Swine

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As Mexico reels from the swine flu panic, there’s fierce talk of the disastrous impact on that country of North American methods of intensive livestock production. In the eye of the storm have been the huge pig factories in the state of Veracruz, owned by Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of Smithfield Farms, active in North Carolina. Intensive pork production in that state in the late 1980s sponsored the emergence of the H1N1 swine flu virus.

Mexico has been on the receiving end of such disasters for almost 500 years. Soon after the Spanish conquerors overwhelmed the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521, the colonist-pastoralists began to take over agricultural lands for sheep and cattle.

Among such lands was what later became named the Valle del Mezquital, in highland central Mexico, centered on the Tula and Moctezuma river drainages in what is now the state of Hidalgo. In the early 16th century, the Valle was the site of intensive irrigation agriculture by the Otomi Indians, with such crops as maize, chiles, maguey, nopal, squash and beans. The soils were good and vegetative cover on the hills rich enough to catch the sparse rainwater and keep the water table high enough to feed the springs and irrigation systems. There were forests of oak and pine.

Old World grazing animals entered the Valle in the late 1520s, in the form of cattle, horses, pigs and goats. By the 1540s, there were 41 flocks of sheep of around a thousand head each. With them came African slaves as their shepherds. Soon, Indians were complaining about damage done by the alien stock to their lands and crops. The Spanish governor banned cattle and horses from the densely populated central regions, but with the competition for forage thus diminished, the sheep population erupted. By 1565, there were 2 million sheep in the Valle. Meanwhile the Otomi were dying. Through the century, the population fell by as much as 90 percent. The Great Cocoliste epidemic of 1576-81 was the coup de grace. Sheep began to take over from people, as the Spanish increased their stocking rates to as much as 20,000 head of sheep per station.

This profusion of animals rapidly changed the terrain. Vegetation diminished and often only bare soil remained. Fields went to pasture. Forests were chopped down for more pasture, also for use in the Spanish mines. During the last quarter of the century, semi-arid species such as mesquite, cardon, yucca, thorn scrub and lechuguilla maguey started to take over. The fallow lands of the decimated Indians and the pastures of the colonists were now covered in mesquite bush and thistles. With less and less to eat, the sheep population dropped sharply.

The weight of sheep killed for meat dropped, too. “By 1600,” Elinor Melville writes in “A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico,” published in 1994, “sheet erosion scarred the hillsides and covered the flat and sloping lands with slope-wash debris. In a final blow to irrigation agriculture, springs were dying out in many parts of the region. By the end of the sixteenth century the landscape was the eroded and gullied mesquite desert traditionally associated with the Valle de Mezquital.”

One hundred years later, the Valle finally received its modern name, “the place where mesquite grows,” and became the Mexican symbol for arid poverty, a symbolism it retains even though today the region receives Mexico City’s effluent, which renders it the site of intensive agriculture. Those who do not know the history ascribe its present fertility to modern technology and the sewage of Mexico City. But, as Melville says, it is not an indigenous landscape; it is a conquest landscape.

By 1795, nearly 112,000 cattle were grazing the ranges of Tamaulipas, along the Mexican Gulf coast. These herds—plus no less than 130,000 horses—inflicted major environmental damage on the native grasses. The grasslands began to give way to thorn bushes. By the 1930s, the pastures had been so overgrazed and degraded that 40 acres were required for each cow.

David Hamilton Wright, a biologist at the University of Georgia, once wrote that “an alien ecologist observing … earth might conclude that cattle is the dominant species in our biosphere.” The modern livestock economy and the passion for meat have radically altered the look of the planet. Today, across huge swaths of the globe, from Australia to the western plains of the United States, one sees the conquest landscapes of the European mass-meat producers and their herds of ungulates. Because of romantic ideas of “timeless landscapes,” it is hard to grasp the rapidity of this process, with spans as short as 35 years between the irruption of a herd onto virgin terrain, over-grazing, soil erosion, crash and eventual stabilization, with the plant communities finally leveling out, though reduced in richness and variety, and the land altered forever.


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