the changes in the land when the American colonist started cutting down all the forests to the west to collect lumber

would like to write about the changes in the land when the American colonist started cutting down all the forests to the west to collect lumber. I will include the impact cutting down all these trees had on the environment, animals, and Native Americans.

Cite your sources on a final slide at the end of your lecture using Chicago style citation,
preferably
• You must include at least one image and cite its source.
• In your lecture, you should address the following questions:
o How has the environment influenced society?
o How has society influenced the environment?

Only use the sources provided.

Cattle, Capital, Colonization
Tracking Creatures of the Anthropocene In and Out of Human Projects
by Rosa E. Ficek
This article considers the long-lasting ecological and social impacts of cattle introduced to the New World by Spanish
colonists. First, it shows how cattle aided European expansions by occupying spaces inhospitable to colonization and
destroying indigenous landscapes. It then turns to the role of cattle in modern projects of state-making and economic
development centered on industrialization. Finally, it moves into eastern Panama in the 1970s and 1980s, where cattle
legitimized settler land claims by converting forests into private property. Throughout, it highlights the unintended
impacts of this cattle introduction in order to argue that cattle move in and out of capitalist and colonialist projects in
ways that are never fully under human control.
Introduction
Cattle are creatures of the Anthropocene. Through the modern
meat industry they are implicated in the creation of massive
environmental disasters, from the clearing of huge extensions
of tropical forest to the large-scale emission of methane and
other greenhouse gases (Gerber at al. 2013; Goodland and Anhang 2009). This article considers the environmental consequences of human entanglements with cattle in contexts of capitalist expansion.
Just as the European history of capitalist expansion cannot
be fully understood without acknowledging its interconnections with indigenous history (Wolf 1982), human history must
be likewise understood as interconnected with the history of
animals. The links between cattle and capitalism run deep. For
Engels, livestock—domesticated, inheritable animals—were the
first private property (Engels 2010 [1884]). Marx argues that
the British enclosures of communal agricultural lands to make
way for sheep turned peasants into wage laborers, creating the
conditions for the emergence of capitalism (Marx 1992). More
recently these insights illuminate contemporary questions about
the production of wealth through interventions in nature, showing how livestock create new frontiers for capital by supporting
other extractive activities in the same location (Grandia 2012)
and by creating new opportunities for capitalization through
the technoscientific manipulation of livestock genes (Franklin
2007). If cattle enable the accumulation of wealth for some humans through the dispossession of racialized others (Robinson
1983), they do not do so as captives of state or corporate power.
As Virginia Anderson shows in Creatures of Empire (2006), domestic animals do not always act in ways that humans anticipate or desire. They make history with and without human approval and foresight.
This article draws on a selective rereading of the historical
literature on cattle that highlights the ecological relations that
emerge as cattle and capitalism expand across nonwestern places.
It argues that, more than just commodities caught up in the
machinations of industrial production, cattle actively transform
environments by entering into relations of interdependence with
humans and other species. These relations and transformations
have consequences for humans and the societies they try to
build. As they eat, digest, move, trample, and occupy space, cattle
move in and out of expansionist projects in ways that often
escape human control.
This historical retelling focuses on the Western Hemisphere
because human and cattle histories have entangled across the
region in ways that take on distinctive patterns. These patterns
emerged in the colonial encounter between Europeans and indigenous societies. As they traveled to the Caribbean and then
across North and South America, cattle introduced by Spanish
conquerors aided European expansion by occupying spaces
inhospitable to colonists, destroying native environments, supporting extractive activities, and transforming relations of property, often in advance of empire. These colonial patterns, as this
essay demonstrates, inform how cattle expand the reach of private capital and market relations in the modern world.
The middle section of this article follows colonial cattle into
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If, as Anna Tsing (2012)
argues, capitalist projects expand by replicating systems of production organized around standardized, self-contained units of
plants, animals, and people, then the industrialization of cattle
is based on the severing of their social and ecological relations.
Because the historical sources this paper engages are limited in
the extent to which they address bovine landscape ecology, the
Rosa E. Ficek is Adjunct Researcher in the Instituto de Investigaciones
Interdisciplinarias of the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey (PO Box
372230, Cayey, Puerto Rico 00737-2230, USA [rosa.ficek@upr.edu]).
This paper was submitted 27 V 18, accepted 18 I 19, and electronically
published 26 III 19.
q 2019 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2019/60S20-0007$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/702788
S260 Current Anthropology Volume 60, Supplement 20, August 2019
third section of this paper turns to Panama as a case study that
draws on ethnographic fieldwork as well as historical literature
to analyze in greater detail the landscapes made and unmade by
cattle. Here, the mutual interdependencies of cattle, peasants,
and pasture grass powered colonial and later capitalist expansion. However, as cattle expanded into Panama’s eastern frontier in the mid-twentieth century, they acquired a new ecological
relation that overturned the regional development project working to integrate this frontier into the national economy and political sphere. In Panama, as in other cattle landscapes, capitalist
expansion depends not on state policy or corporate strategy
but, rather, on the predilections of cattle and their uncontrollable ecological relations.
Colonial Cattle
The first cattle to reach the Americas landed on the Caribbean
island of Santo Domingo in 1493 after crossing the Atlantic
with Columbus on his second voyage. Of the several European
and African breeds that arrived to the Caribbean, most came
from the salty marshlands of Andalucía where cattle grazed
unenclosed across extensive areas with minimal contact with
humans (Ginja et al. 2009; Jordan 1993). The same place where
this particular form of ranching developed, the Marismas, was
also home to many of the Spaniards who participated in the
early years of conquest (Bishko 1952:495–498; Butzer:49). In
Santo Domingo, cattle found an environment so welcoming
that they grew larger in size than their Old World counterparts
(Reitz 1992). As the warfare and famine of human conquest
raged, cattle roaming unenclosed occupied the ample, grassy
savannas that Taíno hunters had maintained with fire as well
as the extensive fields where indigenous farmers planted yucca,
sweet potatoes, peanuts, squash, beans, maize, peppers, and
other crops (Sauer 1966:51–56; Whitmore and Turner 2001:
128–129). The forest had previously been kept clear in many
valleys by human activities. Now cattle kept the forest back
by eating young trees that grew in the abandoned fields and
savannas. They transformed agricultural fields into pastures
by eating the vegetation, creating favorable conditions for Old
World grasses and plants accidentally introduced by ships to
replace native species (Castilla-Beltrán et al. 2018; Hooghiemstra et al. 2018; Sauer 1966:156). Cattle modified environments
in ways that inadvertently benefited Spanish colonization.
In the postapocalyptic landscape that resulted from the
genocide of Taínos, cattle relations with humans and other
species took on a pattern that would shape colonial society on
the island of Santo Domingo and far beyond. The unenclosed
herds that concentrated on the outskirts of towns and cities
were periodically rounded up and sold, and this generated capital that the Spanish colonists used to establish sugar plantations
and import enslaved Africans for labor. Cattle living on the
Andalusian-style open range, in occasional contact with slaves
who had experience with livestock and savanna management
in Africa, became essential to this new way of organizing labor
and extracting resources (Sluyter and Duvall 2015). They provided food for slaves and labor to till the fields, transport the
sugar cane, and turn the sugar mills (Rodríguez Morel 1992).
They also made human expansion possible. From the sale of
cattle, many conqueror-ranchers were able to organize and finance expeditions to other places in the Caribbean and the continent, and cattle reached these new colonies by way of the statecontrolled haciendas in Santo Domingo (López y Sebastían and
del Río Moreno 1999:13–17, 36). The descendants of these ancestral herds would participate in the colonization of North and
South America by providing plantations, mines, military outposts, and missions with meat, fat, and hides and by occupying
native spaces to an extent that would have been impossible with
the relatively meager numbers of Spanish colonists alone, converting areas inhospitable to Europeans into livable—and exploitable—landscapes.
But cattle, so central to the expansion of colonial institutions
across the Americas, were also central to fugitive landscapes
that emerged in the “empty” interstitial spaces of empire. In a
matter of decades, massive herds of wild cattle dominated Caribbean islands depopulated by colonists who had moved on to
new frontiers (Delle 2014; Mendez Nadal and Alberts 1947;
Moya Pons 1974). In Santo Domingo the handful of plantations, towns, and cities that remained were concentrated in the
southern part of the island, where hides and sugar could be
exported through the Spanish port (Moya Pons 1974:110–111).
While colonial state power dominated the south, the lands to
the north of the island were populated by cattle and humans
only partly and occasionally complicit with the Spanish empire.
Some of these northern cattle had gone wild after wandering
away from their humans. Others became ownerless in the warfare of conquest. In any case, they multiplied in places where
indigenous inhabitants had been exterminated. They were called
ganado cimarrón by the Spanish. Cimarrón, a term possibly
derived from the Taíno word for plants that grow beyond human control, was also used to refer to native people who fled
from the cruelties of conquest, to Africans who escaped from
forced labor, and to the wild pigs, dogs, and cats that, alongside
cattle, lived in these spaces of refuge (Arrom 1983). Ganado
cimarrón supported an extracolonial society in which marginal
humans—commoners, mestizos, mulattos, and blacks—hunted
wild cattle and traded the hides with British, Dutch, French,
and Portuguese who clandestinely arrived with ships loaded with
European products like fabric, wine, shoes, and slaves (González de Peña 2014; Moya Pons 1974:110–124; Pérez Herrero
1987:796).
The lively trade in hides challenged the colonial state’s
power, not only because wealth was being redirected to competing empires but also because contraband life in the north
subverted the Spanish colonial social order through transgressions of race, class, religion, and political loyalty. From the sale
of cattle hides, free blacks were able to dress well and participate
in legitimate commerce. Moreover, island northerners’ contact
with foreigners went well beyond trade as they baptized their
children with Protestant rites and Protestant godparents (Moya
Pons 1974:118–119). To control this social unraveling, the coFicek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S261
lonial state undertook a series of scorched earth campaigns that
forcibly resettled northerners in urban areas in the south. However, the burning of homes and fields failed to remove the cattle
or eliminate contraband and instead led to the growth of wild
populations. Tame cattle joined the growing herds of ganado
cimarrón, while slaves escaped to human cimarrón communities (Moya Pons 1974:127–128). The smuggling continued and
flourished to such an extent that the sale of these hides supported the operation of plantations in the neighboring colony
of Haiti, which in the eighteenth century became the largest
sugar producer in the world (Giusti-Cordero 2014). The capital
generated from the appropriation of wild herds that thrived in
occupied indigenous landscapes could not be controlled.
Neither could human colonists control the transformations
that resulted from cattle’s insertion into New World ecologies.
By eating the fruit and pods of native shrubs and trees, which
had coevolved with Pleistocene herbivores long extinct, and
which before conquest had been controlled by Taíno fire, cattle
dispersed seeds and promoted the reforestation of savannas
(Sluyter and Duvall 2015). Guayabal and orange trees took over
pastures and grew so densely that humans were unable to capture and kill cattle from horseback, and the land, too shady for
grass, became useless for grazing (Johannessen 1963:94; López
y Sebastián and del Río Moreno 1999:33).
Cattle kept close to the route of conquest as they came to
New Spain, disembarking at Veracruz soon after the fall of
Tenochtitlan in 1521. In the coming years more would arrive at
the Gulf Coast, where colonists traded 15 enslaved Huastecans
for each Antillean bovine that sailed into port (Doolittle 1987;
Matesanz 1964). In addition to literally replacing indigenous
peoples, cattle further occupied native space through their grazing. The Spanish colonizers of the Gulf Coast lowlands found
rivers and marshes similar to the Marismas of southern Spain,
where open range cattle raising had first been practiced. Here,
in occasional contact with African vaqueros, cattle moved seasonally between wet and dry savanna in ways that resembled
transhumance in the Marismas (Butzer 1988; Sluyter 1996). Unlike the pastures made and unmade in Santo Domingo, cattle
altered the Gulf Coast landscape only moderately—the seasonal movements from wet to dry grassland reduced the ecological effects of their grazing (Aguilar-Robledo 2001; Sluyter
2012). Nevertheless, and precisely because of their movements,
cattle helped create and then thrived in places whose indigenous humans were exterminated. Unenclosed, the cattle dispersed, wrecked cornfields, and multiplied (Céspedes del Castillo
2009:180–181).
Conflicts with indigenous agriculturalists were frequent as
cattle expanded farther into Mesoamerica. In the central plateau of what is today Mexico, colonists followed the Castilian
custom that considered grazing land common property, including the arid grasslands that were not suitable for agriculture as
well as untilled fields and stubble after harvest (Chevalier 1970:
86–87; Morrisey 1957). Despite official ordinances protecting
indigenous agriculture, cattle also grazed on what was considered the best land: the fertile, well-watered, places planted
with maize, beans, squash, and other crops (Chevalier 1970:13;
Morrisey 1951; Whitmore and Turner 2001:62–69). Conflicts
over the destruction of Nahua crops ultimately led colonial
authorities to order cattle and the humans who depended on
them to go north—but not before they transformed relations of
property. In the late sixteenth century, administrators began
granting colonists estancias, livestock resting places. Over time,
these grazing rights became rights to the land itself, and estancias became private ranches granted by the government (Chevalier 1970; Matesanz 1964). Open range cattle moved north,
leaving behind a new landscape of ranches, farms, and fences
dominated by an emerging creole landowning class.
Lands in what is today northern Mexico and the southwestern United States were considered inhospitable to the Spanish colonizers not only because of the aridity of the landscape
but also because of the hostility of indigenous societies who ate
cactus fruit and mesquite seeds and hunted deer and rabbit—
and cattle obtained by raiding Spanish settlements and convoys
(Chevalier 1970:9, 14). While colonizers and natives were at
war, cattle occupied space in ways that enabled colonists to gain
footholds in the region. Large herds of ganado cimarrón that
had gown from cattle left behind by early Spanish expeditions
greeted later sixteenth-century colonizers attracted to the region by the promise of silver (Dobie 1939:172). The same men
who established silver mines also established ranches nearby,
bringing livestock from the south and also absorbing the wild
cattle already there (Perramond 2010:110). Similar to the Caribbean cattle that made the operation of sugar plantations
possible, the cattle that overtook northern New Spain made the
operation of mines possible by providing meat for workers,
leather for working implements, and, importantly, tallow for
candles (García Martínez 1994). By occupying the vast spaces
between population centers, cattle helped secure colonial control of more and more territory, their presence acting as a buffer
against the Chichimec raids that targeted the mule trains on the
highway connecting mines (Baretta and Markoff 1978; Matesanz 1964). Conquest worked indirectly through bodies of cattle taking up more and more space.
European expansion in northern New Spain depended on
cattle, and cattle, in turn, also depended on other species for
survival and brought them into this web of relations. For cattle,
the desert was not exactly a land of abundance, but some parts
of it did provide mesquite pods, grass, and other things to eat.
To satisfy their hunger, cattle ranged over large areas (Guevara
and Lira-Noriega 2004). This occupation of large areas benefited
ranchers, who absorbed wild cattle, expanded their land claims,
and formed vast private estates out of herds and lands that had
been ambiguously communal (Chevalier 1970:42).
Colonial expansion, however, was not fully under human control. Ranches—on the precarious edge of civilization—were sites
where the reproduction of the social order could easily be overturned. The cowboys who rounded up sometimes wild cattle
were also sometimes wild men, mestizos who rejected and were
rejected by colonial society, who were hired to protect the ranch
from raids and to raid the ranches of others, and who might
S262 Current Anthropology Volume 60, Supplement 20, August 2019
have found among wild cattle at the edge of civilization a kind
of freedom (Baretta and Markoff 1978). As for the cattle themselves, the herds beyond human control continued to grow, absorbing thousands of cattle turned loose by ranches and missions
abandoned in conflicts with Apaches and Comanches and during the transition to independence from Spain in 1821 (Brand
1961; Dobie 1939).
By the mid-eighteenth century, millions of wild cattle had
taken over the southern grasslands of South America and altered their ecology. Cattle had gone to Bolivia in the sixteenth
century to support mining in Potosí and migrated to the
grasslands south when the silver boom ended. To the Pampas
of what is today central Argentina cattle arrived from Chile and
Brazil. Others dispersed from Jesuit missions and colonial haciendas attacked or destroyed by indigenous societies (Giberti
1974; Primo 1992; Rifkin 1992). In the Pampas, ganado cimarrón found grasslands occupied by needle grass, guanaco, ostrich,
deer, pumas, and gray foxes (Campetella 2008:21). They replaced native grass with weedy European plants—and altered
relations among Pampas species—by carrying seeds on limbs,
in hair, and in excrement, and softened patches of soil with their
hooves (Soyrinki 1991).
Cattle also attracted humans into the world of the Pampas
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like in northern
Mexico, the cattle released by war and abandoned by shifting
colonial extractive geographies supported conquest by occupying space where human numbers and colonial power was spread
too thin. Once captured, wild cattle populated creole ranches and
allowed them to expand. When killed by hunting expeditions,
wild cattle were converted into tallow, fat, and hides (Campetella 2006:86). Wild cattle also offered meat that was salted and
exported from Buenos Aires to Brazil and Cuba where it fed
slaves (Sluyter 2012).
If cattle fed laborers on distant plantations, in South America they were also important to the indigenous societies that
thrived on the Pampas during the nineteenth century and who
limited the expansion of the emerging Argentinean state. Like
Creole ranchers and hunters, indigenous subsistence depended
on these herds of wild cattle. But unlike the settlers, indigenous
peoples who had remained autonomous from colonial society
controlled human access to the grasslands and their resources,
like the Salinas Grandes, a salt lake with abundant grass and
water where cattle captured by indigenous humans pastured
(Davies 2016:133). They also dominated trade networks of cattle, horses, textiles, and slaves that reached the Pacific on the
other side of the Andes (Jones 1994:106). Wild cattle and horses
from the Pampas, when incorporated into these transregional
pastoral economies, allowed for the emergence of indigenous
confederacies that brought political stability and prosperity (Davies 2016).
As the population of ganado cimarrón declined and eventually expired, indigenous peoples sought out other strategies
for obtaining cattle. The leaders of these sovereign societies
negotiated peace treaties with creoles that involved the regular
payment of goods in exchange for access to lands they controlled, whether for obtaining wild cattle or salt (Jones 1994). In
other instances, the gifts and provisions—which included livestock, herbs, sugar, tobacco, alcohol, and textiles—were considered compensation for military service as allies of the creoles
(Foerster and Vezub 2011). Raids on creole ranches were another way of obtaining cattle and horses and reinforcing creole
dependency, at least for a while. Juan Manuel de Rosas, the military strongman and wealthy rancher who came to epitomize the
foundational frontier violence of the Argentinean nation through
accounts of his exploits in Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Civilization and Barbarism (1998), led a military campaign into the
periphery of Buenos Aires to occupy indigenous land and incorporate it into national territory. But the raids continued.
Among the most remembered are the 1871 attacks led by Calfucurá, the Araucanian leader who took a legendary number of
cattle to trade in Chile. Yet this was a war that would end in the
extermination of natives. Ranches continued to expand along
with European weeds, and the genocidal military campaign
known as the Conquest of the Desert ended with the annexation
of the grasslands to Argentina, the transformation of native
ecologies, and the destruction of the native social structures that
had been built on wild horses and cattle (Bonatti and Valdez
2015; Foerster and Vezub 2011; Giberti 1974; Montoya 1970;
Pérez 2007).
Industrial Cattle
Colonial cattle’s indeterminate status as both private property
and ganado cimarrón fueled the multiplication of wealth and
the expansion of territorial control for colonists, but it also
created webs of social and ecological relations that challenged
the colonial social order, from the contraband zones of Santo
Domingo to the indigenous-controlled grasslands of the Pampas. As the imperial colonization of indigenous lands gave way
to the national colonization of indigenous lands, the abundant
wild cattle in North and South America provided the raw material on which a new form of expansion emerged: the global
industrialized beef economy. Cattle’s role in human projects
changed, from supporting the extractive activities of mines and
plantations from a peripheral position characterized by the uncontrolled, heterogeneous landscapes of ganado cimarrón to
fueling capitalist expansion in landscapes standardized by the
importation of pasture grasses, new cattle breeds, antibiotics
and herbicides, barbed wire fences, and the design of rationally
managed meat processing and transport facilities. If colonial
cattle were at the vanguard of the ever-moving frontier of the
Spanish imperial state, the descendants of these cattle led lives
of confinement and ecological isolation.
The wild herds of Mexico populated what is now the southwestern United States without human intervention (Brand 1961).
As in other places in Latin America, warfare between settlers
and indigenous peoples created conditions for free-ranging
herds to multiply (Dobie 1939). Human conflict and a landscape of wild brush thickets where cattle could hide prevented
Ficek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S263
ranchers from generating profits, at least until a new group arrived (Archer 1989; Ramirez 1979:48). Anglo-Americans from
South Carolina, where open range livestock raising had been
established with sixteenth-century Caribbean cattle, traveled westward through the coastal pine barrens of the South, through
Louisiana where they learned from Mexican vaqueros how to
manage cattle on horseback, and reached East Texas in the early
decades of the nineteenth century. The “Texas system” that
emerged from this confluence of herds and the ranchers who
followed them involved interactions with cattle similar to the
old Andalusian style—leaving them alone for most of the year
on unenclosed pastures (Jordan 1993).
Through this “Texas system,” Americans who occupied the
area between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers of today’s
South Texas were able to accumulate wealth by appropriating
large numbers of cattle sometimes abandoned by Mexican
ranchers, sometimes claimed by Mexican ranchers (Ramirez
1979:89). With the emergence of Chicago as the leading provider of meat to the northeast United States after the Civil War,
ranchers in Texas began rounding up cattle for the growing beef
market (Jordan 1993:221). Millions of cattle went north to meet
the railroads that would take them to meat eaters east. Along
the way, cattle fed off of the abundant grasslands of the Great
Plains, and many invaded and eventually followed the grass to
the Canadian prairies. Their transit altered western ecologies in
ways that led to the extermination of native plants and bison
and the displacement of Native Americans onto reservations
where they were fed government beef purchased from ranchers
who occupied their land (Rifkin 1992; Tucker 2000).
The industrialized landscapes that cattle would help build
out of the destruction of indigenous landscapes were critical to
the new imperial geographies that spanned the Atlantic in the
late nineteenth century. In Victorian Britain, where cattle represented landed wealth and prosperity was tied to empire, fatlaced beef was a prized commodity and status symbol. Elites
experimented with breeding cattle for their size—the bigger, the
fatter, the better. Popular enthusiasm for enormous cattle was a
way to express patriotism, admire elite power, and accept the
imperial social order (Freidberg 2009:53–55; Ritvo 1987). To
satisfy the growing demand for beef among working classes,
British investors turned to overseas supplies. In the United
States they invested in western cattle companies and imported
British varieties to cross-breed with American cattle too lean for
English tastes, and they poured capital into the transcontinental railroads and steamers that would transport beef to England
using new refrigeration technology that would guarantee the
meat’s survival across the Atlantic (Freidberg 2009:68). In the
United States, as in Britain, the society that emerged around
modern meat was based on the domination of indigenous lands
and people. New kinds of technology and labor were accepted
because the livestock industry successfully linked these innovations to western-US ideas about beef as an important resource and symbol of settler power (Freidberg 2009:51). The
wild cattle that expanded beyond the control of the Spanish
empire entered British and later US imperial networks in ways
fundamental to the expansion of new rationalized modes of
organizing nature and labor.
The Chicago meatpacking industry is one of the best examples of these new social forms. The end of the cattle trails coincided with the relocation of feeding areas to cities with rail
connections, where cattle could fatten on corn from midwestern farms before moving on to slaughter and packing houses
that processed and sent the meat to consumers in Britain and
other places where marbled beef was increasingly valued (Lopes
and Riguzzi 2012). The American meatpacking model that
emerged emphasized efficiency in the production of beef and its
distribution to faraway consumers. The supply chain was controlled by four companies that coordinated a system of livestock purchased cheaply in large amounts, cheap labor, and
cheap transport to create a cheap product whose mass production generated enormous profits and whose social and environmental costs were obscured from consumers (López-Durán
and Moore 2018; Warren 2007). Cattle, confined and commoditized, were fundamental to twentieth-century capitalism and its
expansion. The meatpackers—especially the disassembly line
in the slaughterhouse where the cattle were transported on hooks
through different phases of production where stationary workers
performed discrete, repetitive tasks—inspired Henry Ford’s auto
assembly lines (Shukin 2009:87). The American model of meat
production also spread to new locations.
British capital and American efficiency transformed the relationship between cattle and humans and between humans
and the environment in the Pampas grasslands so that in the
southern continent as in the northern, settled farming, barbed
wire fences, and rising land values transformed the cattle landscape. In nineteenth-century Argentina as in the United States,
British companies invested in cattle ranches, railway infrastructure, and meatpacking establishments. Ranchers began crossing their cattle with European breeds and replacing pasture
with alfalfa and wheat enclosed by fences (Adelman 1994; Giberti 1974). Cattle, once hunted, raided, traded, and distributed
to family and political allies by the indigenous societies of the
Pampas, now became an altogether different beast, cut off from
the social relations they had acquired over 3 centuries.
The urban landscape changed as well, especially when the
form in which cattle were exported changed. In 1900 a massive
outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease led England to ban the
importation of live cattle for fear that the virus, which had been
introduced to Argentina by way of European immigrants and
later declared endemic to the country, would make its way back
to European herds (Sheinin 1994). However, cattle relations
with the virus did not shut down the beef industry but, rather,
prompted a reorientation from live animal exports to chilled
meat, which was thought not to carry the disease. It was not
long before the Chicago meatpacking companies arrived and
overtook the chilled beef trade by waging meat wars that gained
them distribution rights for over half the export meat, leaving
the rest of the market divided between British and Argentinean
companies (López-Durán and Moore 2018). In this rationalized and efficient system of meat production, cattle were transS264 Current Anthropology Volume 60, Supplement 20, August 2019
ferred by rail from ranches in the Pampas to city holding pens,
then through a maze of canals and ramps where they were sanitized before entering frigoríficos, the refrigerated meatpacking
plants. Inside the frigorífico cattle were converted into cuts of
meat, inspected for quality, and shipped overseas (LópezDurán and Moore 2018). Once a volatile source of wealth on
the open range, modern cattle generated new social forms that
physically confined them but unleashed great profits for Argentinean elites and overseas capitalists.
As the shift from live animal exports to the chilled beef trade
in Argentina demonstrates, modern cattle also unleashed diseases that shaped the international geography of trade. The confinement of cattle with fences may have severed their relations
with grasslands and the other landscapes they occupied, but the
industrialized landscapes built around and for cattle—stockyards, transport infrastructure, the whole setup of mass production facilities—created conditions favorable for the spread
of viruses like hoof-and-mouth disease.1 Considered one of the
most contagious viruses in the world, hoof-and-mouth disease spreads through both physical contact and the air, causing
painful lacerations on the mouths and feet of cloven-hoofed
animals that in cattle can lead to lameness, a reduced appetite,
and lower milk production. Most outbreaks have been contained by the isolation and massive slaughter of animals (Mahy
2005; Woods 2004). To protect its livestock industry from hoofand-mouth disease, which was endemic in every country south
of Panama, the United States banned the importation of South
American beef.
Up until World War II, United States cattle interests in Latin
America were limited to meat processing. As postwar beef consumption increased, cooked and packaged meat found greater
demand. The growing fast food and convenience food industries required cheap beef for hamburgers and frozen dinners.
Central American cattle, raised on grass rather than grain,
and free of hoof-and-mouth disease, produced lean beef better
suited for these industries and enabled their success. Stimulated
by the US beef quota, which became a way to reward Cold War
allies, cattle raising in Central America accelerated after 1950.
Forests that had been largely unmodified by humans since the
conquest gave way to peasant farms, which gave way to large
haciendas that used modern techniques to produce beef for
export. US Department of Agriculture sanitation regulations
as well as development-oriented credit practices encouraged
fences, improved pasture grass, vaccination, sanitation, and other
interventions that helped turn cattle into profit (Guess 1979;
Myers 1981; Parsons 1965; Williams 1986). As agents of accumulation, cattle worked through racialized relations of labor
and occupation whose patterns emerged during European colonization. These relations transformed forests across Central
America—areas that in the past had only minimal involvement
with the states that claimed them. Cattle facilitated, yet again,
expansion into new frontiers.
The fabulous multiplication of wild colonial cattle, their
appropriation as private property, and the emergence of the
international industrialized beef trade enabled the fabulous
multiplication of capital for British and US investors and for
Latin American landowners. Along the way, landscapes shaped
by diverse economies and ecologies were simplified into pastures and other feed-producing monocultures. Cattle were reduced to standardized, interchangeable commodities. Ties between consumers and producers were severed. Caught up in the
machinations of industrial capitalism that controlled how cattle moved, ate, and reproduced, modern cattle seem to signal
a definitive end to the wild, uncontrollable nature of cattle best
embodied by ganado cimarrón. The confinement, control, and
simplification of these creatures eliminated opportunities for
wild herds to generate societies that sometimes subverted human projects of colonization and capitalization. While this process may be interpreted as an affirmation of human dominance
over nature, however, the people who were invested in sustaining and expanding the meat industry were never fully in
control of how cattle could establish relations with other species. Sometimes, these social relations create landscapes that
overturn processes of capitalist expansion.
Pasture Expansion in Panama
When cattle came to Panama in the sixteenth century, they
moved from the center of the isthmus to the west. It was not
until the twentieth century that cattle and colonists began expanding into the forests of eastern Panama, a region that had
been long abandoned by the shifting geography of colonialism. The state’s political project of integration in the 1960s and
1970s, under the rule of General Omar Torrijos, sought to extend state power into the nation’s margins and transform “unproductive” land into rationally managed units of rural production. Modernization took on a distinctive ecological form: the
dream, in the words of one state planner, was to turn Panama
into one giant pasture that extended from border to border
(Heckadon Moreno 2009:148).
This enthusiasm for pastured landscapes is the result of
colonial dependency on cattle. Cattle defined which areas were
habitable for colonists beginning in 1521, when 50 cattle came
to Panama from Jamaica (Castillero Calvo 2004:170). They
went west, following the grass that grew abundantly along the
country’s Pacific lowlands and that had previously been maintained by indigenous people with fire (Bennett 1968). The same
mostly treeless savannas that made it easy for cattle to occupy
space also made it easy for colonists to stage raids into Coclé
territory in search of slaves to distribute among Spanish homes,
haciendas, and estancias (Castillero Calvo 2004:151–155). In
areas where the indigenous population decreased by the brutalities of conquest, cattle took over the work of preventing
forest from growing back through their grazing and trampling
(Illueca 1985). Herds of ganado cimarrón greeted westwardexpanding colonists, who founded towns and cities based on the
availability of pasture in the area (Heckadon Moreno 2009:76).
1. Hoof-and-mouth disease, or aftosa in Spanish, is also referred to as
foot-and-mouth disease in Europe. All three terms refer to the same disease.
Ficek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S265
Within decades, cattle occupied a stretch of land in the center
and southwest of Panama, moving and eating and digesting in
ways that helped establish Spanish territorial control (Jaén
Suárez 1985).
By the mid-sixteenth century, Panama was recognized
throughout the Indies for its abundant pastures. Cattle grazed
on what was considered communal land, where they had access
to water in rivers and streams and food in native grasses, including “pega-pega”(Pharus latifolius) and foxtail (Arundinella
deppeana), as well as legumes and browse plants like mesquite
(Prosopis juliflora). The large estates that formed on these pasture lands supplied meat, tallow, and hides to the Veraguas
mining camps in Panama and the Cauca region of Colombia,
and even the distant conquest of Peru. Some whites and mestizos left mines and towns to raise cattle, so that by the nineteenth century the savannas were occupied by large landowners
of the aristocracy as well as numerous smallholders (Henderson 1958:244–246). Rural society revolved around cattle.
The relationship among cattle, colonists, and grassland would
change with the reconfiguration of the pasture as a key site of
capitalist expansion during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Three introductions shaped this transformation: workers,
grass, and barbed wire. Thousands of laborers from the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe came to work on the Panama Railway in
the second half of the nineteenth century and later the Panama
Canal, completed in 1914, and this increased the demand for
beef (Illueca 1985). Ranchers wanting to increase production
changed how they managed pastures, which until then had been
left largely alone. Pará (Panicum purpurascens and Panicum
barbinode) and Guinea grass (Panicum maximum, also called
India grass) were introduced to Panama in the mid-nineteenth
century, and faragua (Hyparrhenia rufa) in 1914, all from Brazil
(Henderson 1958:248). The cattle who grazed on these more
nutritious African grasses were also different: new breeds, especially Zebu (Bos indicus), were imported and crossed with
criollo cattle (Heckadon Moreno 2009:110). Fences had once
been used to protect home gardens from animals, but the barbed
wire introduced the same year as Pará and Guinea grass was
used to enclose the new kinds of grass and cattle (Henderson
Fuson 1958:249).
The transformation of pastures brought about a change
in land tenure. By the time of Panama’s independence from
Colombia in 1903, municipalities had already begun to grant
licenses to enclose public land. The enclosures accelerated in
the early twentieth century when the liberal state changed
legislation to actively promote the privatization of communal
lands. Cultivated communal lands could be claimed by an individual if that person could prove that the land was cultivated.
Permanent home gardens and pastures planted with African
grass were easy to claim as cultivated and therefore to be private
property. Communal savannas were enclosed by wealthy cattle
ranchers with barbed wire who were able to claim large expanses of land for their own herds and refuse access to small
cattle-raisers and peasants (Heckadon Moreno 2009:95–130).
Grass, cattle, and fences helped mark lands as cultivated—as
showing signs of human intervention—and therefore private
property.
A distinctive landscape and identity emerged from these
changes. The enclosure of savannas with barbed wire, their
seeding with African grass, and their occupation by beefier cattle
threatened the livelihood of peasants who raised cattle for cash
and grains for subsistence. Land enclosures forced them to
migrate to remaining forests and clear them in order to continue
the practices they had followed for generations (Henderson
Fuson 1958). In this production system, peasants bred cattle that
were then purchased by ranchers (often with bank credit) who
fattened and sold them to slaughterhouses (Heckadon Moreno
2009). This peasant way of life, by the mid-twentieth century,
came to represent “national culture,” especially as their music,
attire, and rituals—all deeply infused with a love for cattle—
came to be institutionalized as folklore.
The iconic Panamanian rural landscape emerged alongside
the iconic peasant. Among the different species of plants found
in pastures, cattle found the African grasses more palatable and
nutritious, and their preferential eating of these introductions
led to their propagation until they became nationalized (Sluyter
and Duvall 2015). Faragua thrived so exceptionally that the
Panamanian geographer Omar Jaén Suárez (1981) called it a
“conquering grass.” It was the most drought-resistant of the introduced grasses, and therefore prospered in areas where waterhungry grasses were unable to grow. Despite its lower nutritional
content, faragua offered other important things to peasants and
cattle. It is called “aggressive” because it spreads easily, successfully competes with weeds, and responds especially well to
fire. It is also described as “robust,” able to withstand poor soil
and overgrazing with little human care (Heckadon Moreno
2009:228; Henderson 1958:250). It was the perfect pasture for
cattle and peasants pushed out of better lands by big ranchers.
Its ability to expand in difficult terrains allowed peasants to
continue raising cattle, which were sold to ranchers, who in
turn sold them to city buyers and invested that wealth into
acquiring more land, dispossessing more peasants, who cut
down forests and planted faragua and raised more cattle.
The beauty of faragua pastures has been celebrated in Panamanian poetry and song. But it should also be clear that this
landscape is also a wasteland. Without plant cover and trampled by hooves, soil washes away with the rain, especially in the
spaces between clumps of faragua. The annual fires peasants
use to discourage weeds and ticks further expose soils to erosion. By grazing, cattle transfer scarce minerals like phosphorous and calcium from grass to their bones, depleting nutrients
from the soil (Heckadon Moreno 1985). If faragua enabled
peasant and cattle survival, it was also an agent of environmental destruction.
When there was no more land in central Panama for peasants, beginning in the 1940s they began to migrate to the Canal
watershed, the Caribbean coast, and eastern Panama. Eastern
Panama was a land of rivers and forests inhabited by indigenous Emberá, Wounaan, and Guna, Darienitas, or the black
and mixed descendants of runaway African slaves, and black
S266 Current Anthropology Volume 60, Supplement 20, August 2019
seasonal workers from Colombia’s Pacific coast. Each in their
own these ethnic groups practiced shifting agriculture for subsistence and sold surplus for cash and hunted, fished, and raised
chickens and pigs and a few cows in some places, and were
more connected by trade and kinship to Colombia than to
Panama (Torres de Araúz 1975). To this land of wet tropical
forest the colonists attempted to transplant a way of living that
had developed in dry grassland.
Colonists trickled into the region in the 1950s but the big
wave did not come until the 1970s when the Pan-American
Highway was extended out of Panama City east into forests
where modern roads had never been built. The Panamanian
government hoped the road would support the economic and
political integration of this space of black and indigenous autonomy. From the state’s point of view, these forests were
problematic because they contained underutilized resources and
people of ambiguous nationalities, some of whom could be
subversives (Dirección General de Planificación y Administración 1972). Equally problematic, the landless savanna peasants
could themselves become subversives, as happened in Nicaragua and other places where guerilla movements emerged in
response to expanding cattle ranching (Weinberg 1991:26). Instead of redistributing land, the state imagined in eastern Panama a bonanza of “free” land where colonists would settle in
areas designated by science to be appropriate for pastures, with
access to breeding centers and demonstration ranches that
would teach people how to properly raise cattle for beef and
milk destined for the national market economy (Organization
of American States 1978).
It is only fitting that the American construction company
hired to build the highway installed its base camp in one of the
few pastures in the region. Winston Bryan was among the men
hired to do construction work. Like many other workers, he
claimed land adjacent to the route well in advance of the colonists who came in great numbers once the highway opened.
But unlike other workers, and unlike colonists, Bryan was a
black Anglophone from the Caribbean side of Panama. He
farmed the land he claimed with his wife, who was from a local
town. But they were forced to move. They had problems with
cattle.
Bryan’s neighbors had a pasture next to his farm. Many
colonists hoped to acquire or expand their herds. Cattle needed
space—about 1 hectare per animal—and they needed water.
Because the neighbors’ stream dried up every summer, Bryan
had to give them access to his water. This went on for years.
Then, as Bryan tells it, they waited until he was far away on a
job operating a tractor and tried to take his land. They had a
relative who worked at the Agrarian Reform, the agency that
kept track of land claims, and with this person’s help they
measured 9 hectares of his farm and titled it in their name.
When Bryan returned and learned what had happened, he ran
to the Agrarian Reform office, but they told him there was
nothing they could do.
But Bryan had already registered his land, not at the local
Agrarian Reform office but at the central office in central Panama. It took him 2 days to get there, but at the central office
he obtained a letter certifying his claim. The engineers at the
central office told him the date they would visit. And they really
did visit, Bryan told me. They showed up at his house at 5:00 in
the morning, and he ran to the river and bathed, and then they
all went to the Agrarian Reform office. The local official did not
know what to do. The secretary said she felt sick and went
home.“From that day on up to this date,” Bryan said,“[the local
official] never called me Bryan ever again. Ever since that day,
he says Mister Bryan.”
Despite the victory, trouble with the neighbors continued.
On another occasion Bryan left his wife two buckets of rice to
plant while he was away, deep in the forest, cutting down trees.
While the money he earned as a lumberjack was important,
the rice he grew as a farmer was what would feed his family.
But this livelihood was threatened by four-legged invaders. As
soon as the rice was ready for harvest, 50 cows invaded from
the neighboring pasture. His wife shot two of the cows, but she
felt sorry for them and could not shoot any more. Bryan, on the
other hand, affirms that had he been present he would have
shot each of those 50 cows, and then his neighbors would have
killed him, or he would have been forced to kill somebody in
self-defense. “She told me: negro, we better sell and go to another place.”
People like Bryan and other eastern Panamanians did not
fit into dominant constructions of the nation. Their swidden
agriculture and resistance to notions of private property were
at odds with the expansion of agro-industry. Colonists, on the
other hand, brought about new relationships to land and new
ecologies through their dependence on cattle. Clearing forest
and planting—whether corn or pasture grass—allowed colonists to claim use rights. Those who wanted to title their land
proceeded to have it measured, though use rights were frequently bought and sold to avoid paying the agronomist and the
bureaucracy. Ranchers accumulated large tracts of land by being the first to claim them, and they often demonstrated their
productivity by planting Indiana and Guinea grass (even if
they had not purchased the cattle yet). They also pushed out
and bought out smallholders like Winston Bryan. Pastures expanded, along with market relations and racial conflict. Cattle
colonized by taking up space where (the right kind of ) humans
were too few, and by helping turn land into private property,
in the process destroying enormous extensions of forest (see fig. 1).
This human project of capitalist expansion depended on
cattle and the social-ecological relations they had established
in the open savannas of central Panama. Even though cattle
inadvertently aligned with the project of turning Panama into
a giant pasture from border to border, in eastern Panama cattle
overturned human designs by acquiring a new ecological relation. Hoof-and-mouth disease, the highly contagious virus
that had shaped the global beef industry, was present in Colombia and the rest of South America. Panama, despite sharing
a border with Colombia, was protected from hoof-and-mouth
disease by the forest in eastern Panama—the same forest that
in the 1970s was being colonized and converted into pastures.
Ficek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S267
If road construction continued and colonists and cattle were
able to reach the border, the disease could easily travel through
Central and North America, spreading through contact with
infected equipment, vehicles, and clothing. Keeping the forest intact was critical to protecting the US livestock industry,
and to keep the forest intact, highway construction had to be
stopped.
This, at least, was the argument presented by the Sierra
Club in its 1975 lawsuit against the US Department of Transportation, which was funding two-thirds of the highway that
Winston Bryan was helping to build. While the Sierra Club’s
ultimate goal was to protect the wildlife and indigenous Emberá, Wounaan, and Guna who depended on the forest that
was being destroyed by cattle and colonists, the environmental organization obtained the support of the National Cattlemen’s Association and the Foreign Animal Disease Advisory
Committee to pressure the US government against completing the highway.2 The lawsuit succeeded in suspending further
road construction on the grounds that the project lacked an
environmental impact statement and thus had not complied
with the National Environmental Policy Act (Comptroller General of the United States 1978).
The environmental impact statement prepared by the Federal Highway Administration in 1976 claimed that hoof-andmouth disease would not be a problem—as long as the local
control programs were effective. Panama and Colombia had
already prohibited the breeding, fattening, sale, or purchase of
cattle in a 20-mile fringe along the international border in 1966.
Bilateral agreements between both countries and the United
States made in the 1970s further limited the expansion of cattle by establishing a quarantine zone along the border, where
no cattle were allowed, and a control zone where existing cattle
were allowed to remain but could not leave the zone (Organization of American States 1978).
The Sierra Club criticized the environmental impact assessment as superficial.3 The court, however, accepted the assessment and in 1977 allowed highway construction to continue—
but not in Colombia until the US Department of Agriculture
had certified that the hoof-and-mouth control program in the
country complied with its standards, and this took decades.4
Even though construction could proceed at least on the PanaFigure 1. Laso competition on colonist ranch in eastern Panama, 2008. (Photo by Rosa Elena Ficek.) A color version of this figure is
available online.
2. Untitled document, Sierra Club International Program Records,
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 71/103C, container
103, folder 14.
3. Leonard Meeker to Eugene Coan and others, June 16, 1976, Sierra
Club International Program Records, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 71/290C, container 103, folder 13.
4. Leonard Meeker to Eugene Coan, April 4, 1978, Sierra Club International Program Records, Bancroft Library, University of California,
Berkeley, 71/290C, container 103, folder 25.
S268 Current Anthropology Volume 60, Supplement 20, August 2019
manian side, the US Congress never approved further funding. The Panamanian government abandoned the expensive
project in the 1980s. Cattle, though confined and controlled by
industrial technology, interrupted the project of capitalist expansion in eastern Panama through their relation with hoofand-mouth disease.
Winston Bryan abandoned his original farm and purchased
land on another location on the unfinished highway. He continued to plant and to work as a lumberjack and even owned
some cattle at one point. Colonists continued to arrive, though
many were deeply disappointed that their ranching dreams
would not come true because of the quarantine. Many cleared
forest and planted pasture grass anyway. Grass was an “improvement” to the land, after all, and justified claims to use
rights. Yet the landscape and society that emerged from cattle
quarantine generated land arrangements that complicate and
undermine the expansion of state power and capitalist relations. Emberá and Wounaan, who previously lived in dispersed
households at considerable distances from each other, began to
settle into villages around the same time that colonists began to
arrive and the Pan-American Highway was being constructed.
Motivated by the threat of newcomers, by the desire to send
their children to schools, and the influence of missionaries, and
with the support of the Panamanian government, Emberá and
Wounaan created a Comarca in 1983—a semiautonomous reserve with a hierarchical political structure that accepted state
power but also created communally controlled land (Herlihy
1986). More boundaries against cattle colonization emerged
with the creation of national parks on both sides of the border by
1980, their primary purpose to buffer against hoof-and-mouth
disease. Safeguarding cattle inadvertently called for safeguarding
the forest, and this called for limiting the resource extractions
that would destroy it.
The quarantine landscape likewise generated noncapitalist
modes of exchange and reciprocity. Cattle under quarantine
could be purchased or raised, fattened, and sold locally, but
never at a scale that would sustain cycles of massive accumulation and dispossession; they were unable to reach the markets
in Panama City and instead were confined to local networks,
where the beef-eating population was significantly lower. In
this context of isolation from the national market, the labor
economy relied on kinship and reciprocity. Most colonists complement their subsistence activities with wage labor on ranches,
plantations, in commercial establishments, or local government offices. But when they work a medias, landless colonists
temporarily raise cattle on another’s land and, in exchange,
promise half of the profits from the sale. When a family has to
complete a task that requires more workers than the family
can provide, kin and neighbors come together in a peonada in
which they work collectively to fix a fence, for example, with
the understanding that the help will be reciprocated at a future
time.
The dream of a thoroughly national territory neatly organized into individually owned, rationally managed cattle-raising
farms that would continue to expand state power and market
relations is quite removed from the landscape that emerged
with the hoof-and-mouth problem: an incommensurable jumble of quarantine and control zones, protected areas, indigenous collective lands, and colonization fronts. Cattle in this
savanna-less tropical forest did not go wild or fabulously multiply like in other places and times. But their relationship with
hoof-and-mouth disease, and their centrality to Panamanian
ways of life, made it difficult for humans to control what could
happen in a pasture and what shape the consequences could
take.
Conclusion
As the case of cattle in Panama demonstrates, particular configurations of soil, climate, and vegetation—as well as particular
differentiations between humans—shape how nature, property,
and labor come to be organized in cattle landscapes. Attention
to the specificities of more-than-human ecological relations as
well as the specificities of human culture and society are essential to understanding how creatures of the Anthropocene
create unsustainable environments in a given place and time.
Whether grazing on faragua on a pasture in central Panama or
eating corn in a midwestern feedlot, the environmental—and
political and social—problems of livestock in the Anthropocene are the result of human actions and cattle actions shaping
each other and shaping the places where these interactions
occur. If the problems of the Anthropocene are not the result of
premeditated human action but, rather, the result of complex
webs of more-than-human interdependencies, then the solutions to these problems must necessarily account for how interventions carried out in the name of sustainability affect not
only humans and cattle but also other species that constitute
these ecologies—including how relations of interdependency
may be severed or reconfigured.
By centering animals in processes of environmental destruction, the goal of this article is not to erase indigenous knowledges but, rather, to push forward a framework for thinking
about the connections between environmental change and colonialism in its many forms. As this history of cattle in the
Americas makes evident, the landscapes that emerged from cattle expansion benefited some humans at the expense of others.
Cattle show how the destruction and dispossession of nonwhite
peoples is, in part, the unintended consequence of animals eating, moving, taking up space, and doing other things that modify their environment. Cattle, when considered in relation to humans in all of their racial and ethnic diversity, decenter notions
of homogenous humanity that undergird policy-driven accounts
of the Anthropocene while also bringing the violent encounters
between colonizers and natives into a frame that considers the
role of nonwestern and nonhuman agencies in processes of environmental change.
Attention to history beyond the twentieth century is essential
because it shows how cattle and their landscape-making activities align with colonial expansion in ways that shaped and
continue to shape the modern world. At the regional level,
Ficek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S269
moreover, the history of cattle in the Americas allows us to look
beyond particular case studies to see not only change over time
but also how heterogeneous landscapes are interconnected. This
kind of perspective brings into focus that, although cattle remake landscapes in ways supportive of capitalist expansion, they
can also alter these ecological relations in ways that get in the way
of expansion. Sometimes cattle create landscapes that threaten
to tip the balance of imperial powers, as in the contraband society of sixteenth-century Santo Domingo. Sometimes they prevent state expansion by facilitating the consolidation of indigenous power, as in the Pampas of Argentina. Sometimes their
involvement in one project can interrupt another project of expansion, such as when the US cattle industry intervened in the
Panamanian state’s pasture-making project in the 1970s. Tracking cattle over the long term shows how cattle move in and out
of human projects.
This double movement of cattle in relation to human projects—in and out—signals processes of great environmental
change but also transformative possibility. Of course, situations
where cattle do not support expansionist projects can always
potentially become situations into which capitalism extends.
But the opposite can also be said: capitalist relations are always
potentially noncapitalist. The terrible worlds humans have made
along with cattle can also be unmade, with and without human intervention. Human efforts to unmake these worlds could
look to these instances of more-than-human environmental
change—these situations of transformative possibility—to better account for the landscape-shaping power of cattle and other
creatures of the Anthropocene in order to build less terrible ways
of multispecies and multiracial living together.
Acknowledgments
I thank the people in eastern Panama who contributed to this
research; the participants of the Wenner-Gren symposium
“Patchy Anthropocene,” where an earlier version of this paper
was presented; the guest editors of the supplementary issue;
and the two anonymous reviewers for Current Anthropology.
Research and writing was made possible with the support of the
Social Science Research Council and the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
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Ficek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S271

 

Cattle, Capital, Colonization
Tracking Creatures of the Anthropocene In and Out of Human Projects
by Rosa E. Ficek
This article considers the long-lasting ecological and social impacts of cattle introduced to the New World by Spanish
colonists. First, it shows how cattle aided European expansions by occupying spaces inhospitable to colonization and
destroying indigenous landscapes. It then turns to the role of cattle in modern projects of state-making and economic
development centered on industrialization. Finally, it moves into eastern Panama in the 1970s and 1980s, where cattle
legitimized settler land claims by converting forests into private property. Throughout, it highlights the unintended
impacts of this cattle introduction in order to argue that cattle move in and out of capitalist and colonialist projects in
ways that are never fully under human control.
Introduction
Cattle are creatures of the Anthropocene. Through the modern
meat industry they are implicated in the creation of massive
environmental disasters, from the clearing of huge extensions
of tropical forest to the large-scale emission of methane and
other greenhouse gases (Gerber at al. 2013; Goodland and Anhang 2009). This article considers the environmental consequences of human entanglements with cattle in contexts of capitalist expansion.
Just as the European history of capitalist expansion cannot
be fully understood without acknowledging its interconnections with indigenous history (Wolf 1982), human history must
be likewise understood as interconnected with the history of
animals. The links between cattle and capitalism run deep. For
Engels, livestock—domesticated, inheritable animals—were the
first private property (Engels 2010 [1884]). Marx argues that
the British enclosures of communal agricultural lands to make
way for sheep turned peasants into wage laborers, creating the
conditions for the emergence of capitalism (Marx 1992). More
recently these insights illuminate contemporary questions about
the production of wealth through interventions in nature, showing how livestock create new frontiers for capital by supporting
other extractive activities in the same location (Grandia 2012)
and by creating new opportunities for capitalization through
the technoscientific manipulation of livestock genes (Franklin
2007). If cattle enable the accumulation of wealth for some humans through the dispossession of racialized others (Robinson
1983), they do not do so as captives of state or corporate power.
As Virginia Anderson shows in Creatures of Empire (2006), domestic animals do not always act in ways that humans anticipate or desire. They make history with and without human approval and foresight.
This article draws on a selective rereading of the historical
literature on cattle that highlights the ecological relations that
emerge as cattle and capitalism expand across nonwestern places.
It argues that, more than just commodities caught up in the
machinations of industrial production, cattle actively transform
environments by entering into relations of interdependence with
humans and other species. These relations and transformations
have consequences for humans and the societies they try to
build. As they eat, digest, move, trample, and occupy space, cattle
move in and out of expansionist projects in ways that often
escape human control.
This historical retelling focuses on the Western Hemisphere
because human and cattle histories have entangled across the
region in ways that take on distinctive patterns. These patterns
emerged in the colonial encounter between Europeans and indigenous societies. As they traveled to the Caribbean and then
across North and South America, cattle introduced by Spanish
conquerors aided European expansion by occupying spaces
inhospitable to colonists, destroying native environments, supporting extractive activities, and transforming relations of property, often in advance of empire. These colonial patterns, as this
essay demonstrates, inform how cattle expand the reach of private capital and market relations in the modern world.
The middle section of this article follows colonial cattle into
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If, as Anna Tsing (2012)
argues, capitalist projects expand by replicating systems of production organized around standardized, self-contained units of
plants, animals, and people, then the industrialization of cattle
is based on the severing of their social and ecological relations.
Because the historical sources this paper engages are limited in
the extent to which they address bovine landscape ecology, the
Rosa E. Ficek is Adjunct Researcher in the Instituto de Investigaciones
Interdisciplinarias of the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey (PO Box
372230, Cayey, Puerto Rico 00737-2230, USA [rosa.ficek@upr.edu]).
This paper was submitted 27 V 18, accepted 18 I 19, and electronically
published 26 III 19.
q 2019 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2019/60S20-0007$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/702788
S260 Current Anthropology Volume 60, Supplement 20, August 2019
third section of this paper turns to Panama as a case study that
draws on ethnographic fieldwork as well as historical literature
to analyze in greater detail the landscapes made and unmade by
cattle. Here, the mutual interdependencies of cattle, peasants,
and pasture grass powered colonial and later capitalist expansion. However, as cattle expanded into Panama’s eastern frontier in the mid-twentieth century, they acquired a new ecological
relation that overturned the regional development project working to integrate this frontier into the national economy and political sphere. In Panama, as in other cattle landscapes, capitalist
expansion depends not on state policy or corporate strategy
but, rather, on the predilections of cattle and their uncontrollable ecological relations.
Colonial Cattle
The first cattle to reach the Americas landed on the Caribbean
island of Santo Domingo in 1493 after crossing the Atlantic
with Columbus on his second voyage. Of the several European
and African breeds that arrived to the Caribbean, most came
from the salty marshlands of Andalucía where cattle grazed
unenclosed across extensive areas with minimal contact with
humans (Ginja et al. 2009; Jordan 1993). The same place where
this particular form of ranching developed, the Marismas, was
also home to many of the Spaniards who participated in the
early years of conquest (Bishko 1952:495–498; Butzer:49). In
Santo Domingo, cattle found an environment so welcoming
that they grew larger in size than their Old World counterparts
(Reitz 1992). As the warfare and famine of human conquest
raged, cattle roaming unenclosed occupied the ample, grassy
savannas that Taíno hunters had maintained with fire as well
as the extensive fields where indigenous farmers planted yucca,
sweet potatoes, peanuts, squash, beans, maize, peppers, and
other crops (Sauer 1966:51–56; Whitmore and Turner 2001:
128–129). The forest had previously been kept clear in many
valleys by human activities. Now cattle kept the forest back
by eating young trees that grew in the abandoned fields and
savannas. They transformed agricultural fields into pastures
by eating the vegetation, creating favorable conditions for Old
World grasses and plants accidentally introduced by ships to
replace native species (Castilla-Beltrán et al. 2018; Hooghiemstra et al. 2018; Sauer 1966:156). Cattle modified environments
in ways that inadvertently benefited Spanish colonization.
In the postapocalyptic landscape that resulted from the
genocide of Taínos, cattle relations with humans and other
species took on a pattern that would shape colonial society on
the island of Santo Domingo and far beyond. The unenclosed
herds that concentrated on the outskirts of towns and cities
were periodically rounded up and sold, and this generated capital that the Spanish colonists used to establish sugar plantations
and import enslaved Africans for labor. Cattle living on the
Andalusian-style open range, in occasional contact with slaves
who had experience with livestock and savanna management
in Africa, became essential to this new way of organizing labor
and extracting resources (Sluyter and Duvall 2015). They provided food for slaves and labor to till the fields, transport the
sugar cane, and turn the sugar mills (Rodríguez Morel 1992).
They also made human expansion possible. From the sale of
cattle, many conqueror-ranchers were able to organize and finance expeditions to other places in the Caribbean and the continent, and cattle reached these new colonies by way of the statecontrolled haciendas in Santo Domingo (López y Sebastían and
del Río Moreno 1999:13–17, 36). The descendants of these ancestral herds would participate in the colonization of North and
South America by providing plantations, mines, military outposts, and missions with meat, fat, and hides and by occupying
native spaces to an extent that would have been impossible with
the relatively meager numbers of Spanish colonists alone, converting areas inhospitable to Europeans into livable—and exploitable—landscapes.
But cattle, so central to the expansion of colonial institutions
across the Americas, were also central to fugitive landscapes
that emerged in the “empty” interstitial spaces of empire. In a
matter of decades, massive herds of wild cattle dominated Caribbean islands depopulated by colonists who had moved on to
new frontiers (Delle 2014; Mendez Nadal and Alberts 1947;
Moya Pons 1974). In Santo Domingo the handful of plantations, towns, and cities that remained were concentrated in the
southern part of the island, where hides and sugar could be
exported through the Spanish port (Moya Pons 1974:110–111).
While colonial state power dominated the south, the lands to
the north of the island were populated by cattle and humans
only partly and occasionally complicit with the Spanish empire.
Some of these northern cattle had gone wild after wandering
away from their humans. Others became ownerless in the warfare of conquest. In any case, they multiplied in places where
indigenous inhabitants had been exterminated. They were called
ganado cimarrón by the Spanish. Cimarrón, a term possibly
derived from the Taíno word for plants that grow beyond human control, was also used to refer to native people who fled
from the cruelties of conquest, to Africans who escaped from
forced labor, and to the wild pigs, dogs, and cats that, alongside
cattle, lived in these spaces of refuge (Arrom 1983). Ganado
cimarrón supported an extracolonial society in which marginal
humans—commoners, mestizos, mulattos, and blacks—hunted
wild cattle and traded the hides with British, Dutch, French,
and Portuguese who clandestinely arrived with ships loaded with
European products like fabric, wine, shoes, and slaves (González de Peña 2014; Moya Pons 1974:110–124; Pérez Herrero
1987:796).
The lively trade in hides challenged the colonial state’s
power, not only because wealth was being redirected to competing empires but also because contraband life in the north
subverted the Spanish colonial social order through transgressions of race, class, religion, and political loyalty. From the sale
of cattle hides, free blacks were able to dress well and participate
in legitimate commerce. Moreover, island northerners’ contact
with foreigners went well beyond trade as they baptized their
children with Protestant rites and Protestant godparents (Moya
Pons 1974:118–119). To control this social unraveling, the coFicek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S261
lonial state undertook a series of scorched earth campaigns that
forcibly resettled northerners in urban areas in the south. However, the burning of homes and fields failed to remove the cattle
or eliminate contraband and instead led to the growth of wild
populations. Tame cattle joined the growing herds of ganado
cimarrón, while slaves escaped to human cimarrón communities (Moya Pons 1974:127–128). The smuggling continued and
flourished to such an extent that the sale of these hides supported the operation of plantations in the neighboring colony
of Haiti, which in the eighteenth century became the largest
sugar producer in the world (Giusti-Cordero 2014). The capital
generated from the appropriation of wild herds that thrived in
occupied indigenous landscapes could not be controlled.
Neither could human colonists control the transformations
that resulted from cattle’s insertion into New World ecologies.
By eating the fruit and pods of native shrubs and trees, which
had coevolved with Pleistocene herbivores long extinct, and
which before conquest had been controlled by Taíno fire, cattle
dispersed seeds and promoted the reforestation of savannas
(Sluyter and Duvall 2015). Guayabal and orange trees took over
pastures and grew so densely that humans were unable to capture and kill cattle from horseback, and the land, too shady for
grass, became useless for grazing (Johannessen 1963:94; López
y Sebastián and del Río Moreno 1999:33).
Cattle kept close to the route of conquest as they came to
New Spain, disembarking at Veracruz soon after the fall of
Tenochtitlan in 1521. In the coming years more would arrive at
the Gulf Coast, where colonists traded 15 enslaved Huastecans
for each Antillean bovine that sailed into port (Doolittle 1987;
Matesanz 1964). In addition to literally replacing indigenous
peoples, cattle further occupied native space through their grazing. The Spanish colonizers of the Gulf Coast lowlands found
rivers and marshes similar to the Marismas of southern Spain,
where open range cattle raising had first been practiced. Here,
in occasional contact with African vaqueros, cattle moved seasonally between wet and dry savanna in ways that resembled
transhumance in the Marismas (Butzer 1988; Sluyter 1996). Unlike the pastures made and unmade in Santo Domingo, cattle
altered the Gulf Coast landscape only moderately—the seasonal movements from wet to dry grassland reduced the ecological effects of their grazing (Aguilar-Robledo 2001; Sluyter
2012). Nevertheless, and precisely because of their movements,
cattle helped create and then thrived in places whose indigenous humans were exterminated. Unenclosed, the cattle dispersed, wrecked cornfields, and multiplied (Céspedes del Castillo
2009:180–181).
Conflicts with indigenous agriculturalists were frequent as
cattle expanded farther into Mesoamerica. In the central plateau of what is today Mexico, colonists followed the Castilian
custom that considered grazing land common property, including the arid grasslands that were not suitable for agriculture as
well as untilled fields and stubble after harvest (Chevalier 1970:
86–87; Morrisey 1957). Despite official ordinances protecting
indigenous agriculture, cattle also grazed on what was considered the best land: the fertile, well-watered, places planted
with maize, beans, squash, and other crops (Chevalier 1970:13;
Morrisey 1951; Whitmore and Turner 2001:62–69). Conflicts
over the destruction of Nahua crops ultimately led colonial
authorities to order cattle and the humans who depended on
them to go north—but not before they transformed relations of
property. In the late sixteenth century, administrators began
granting colonists estancias, livestock resting places. Over time,
these grazing rights became rights to the land itself, and estancias became private ranches granted by the government (Chevalier 1970; Matesanz 1964). Open range cattle moved north,
leaving behind a new landscape of ranches, farms, and fences
dominated by an emerging creole landowning class.
Lands in what is today northern Mexico and the southwestern United States were considered inhospitable to the Spanish colonizers not only because of the aridity of the landscape
but also because of the hostility of indigenous societies who ate
cactus fruit and mesquite seeds and hunted deer and rabbit—
and cattle obtained by raiding Spanish settlements and convoys
(Chevalier 1970:9, 14). While colonizers and natives were at
war, cattle occupied space in ways that enabled colonists to gain
footholds in the region. Large herds of ganado cimarrón that
had gown from cattle left behind by early Spanish expeditions
greeted later sixteenth-century colonizers attracted to the region by the promise of silver (Dobie 1939:172). The same men
who established silver mines also established ranches nearby,
bringing livestock from the south and also absorbing the wild
cattle already there (Perramond 2010:110). Similar to the Caribbean cattle that made the operation of sugar plantations
possible, the cattle that overtook northern New Spain made the
operation of mines possible by providing meat for workers,
leather for working implements, and, importantly, tallow for
candles (García Martínez 1994). By occupying the vast spaces
between population centers, cattle helped secure colonial control of more and more territory, their presence acting as a buffer
against the Chichimec raids that targeted the mule trains on the
highway connecting mines (Baretta and Markoff 1978; Matesanz 1964). Conquest worked indirectly through bodies of cattle taking up more and more space.
European expansion in northern New Spain depended on
cattle, and cattle, in turn, also depended on other species for
survival and brought them into this web of relations. For cattle,
the desert was not exactly a land of abundance, but some parts
of it did provide mesquite pods, grass, and other things to eat.
To satisfy their hunger, cattle ranged over large areas (Guevara
and Lira-Noriega 2004). This occupation of large areas benefited
ranchers, who absorbed wild cattle, expanded their land claims,
and formed vast private estates out of herds and lands that had
been ambiguously communal (Chevalier 1970:42).
Colonial expansion, however, was not fully under human control. Ranches—on the precarious edge of civilization—were sites
where the reproduction of the social order could easily be overturned. The cowboys who rounded up sometimes wild cattle
were also sometimes wild men, mestizos who rejected and were
rejected by colonial society, who were hired to protect the ranch
from raids and to raid the ranches of others, and who might
S262 Current Anthropology Volume 60, Supplement 20, August 2019
have found among wild cattle at the edge of civilization a kind
of freedom (Baretta and Markoff 1978). As for the cattle themselves, the herds beyond human control continued to grow, absorbing thousands of cattle turned loose by ranches and missions
abandoned in conflicts with Apaches and Comanches and during the transition to independence from Spain in 1821 (Brand
1961; Dobie 1939).
By the mid-eighteenth century, millions of wild cattle had
taken over the southern grasslands of South America and altered their ecology. Cattle had gone to Bolivia in the sixteenth
century to support mining in Potosí and migrated to the
grasslands south when the silver boom ended. To the Pampas
of what is today central Argentina cattle arrived from Chile and
Brazil. Others dispersed from Jesuit missions and colonial haciendas attacked or destroyed by indigenous societies (Giberti
1974; Primo 1992; Rifkin 1992). In the Pampas, ganado cimarrón found grasslands occupied by needle grass, guanaco, ostrich,
deer, pumas, and gray foxes (Campetella 2008:21). They replaced native grass with weedy European plants—and altered
relations among Pampas species—by carrying seeds on limbs,
in hair, and in excrement, and softened patches of soil with their
hooves (Soyrinki 1991).
Cattle also attracted humans into the world of the Pampas
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like in northern
Mexico, the cattle released by war and abandoned by shifting
colonial extractive geographies supported conquest by occupying space where human numbers and colonial power was spread
too thin. Once captured, wild cattle populated creole ranches and
allowed them to expand. When killed by hunting expeditions,
wild cattle were converted into tallow, fat, and hides (Campetella 2006:86). Wild cattle also offered meat that was salted and
exported from Buenos Aires to Brazil and Cuba where it fed
slaves (Sluyter 2012).
If cattle fed laborers on distant plantations, in South America they were also important to the indigenous societies that
thrived on the Pampas during the nineteenth century and who
limited the expansion of the emerging Argentinean state. Like
Creole ranchers and hunters, indigenous subsistence depended
on these herds of wild cattle. But unlike the settlers, indigenous
peoples who had remained autonomous from colonial society
controlled human access to the grasslands and their resources,
like the Salinas Grandes, a salt lake with abundant grass and
water where cattle captured by indigenous humans pastured
(Davies 2016:133). They also dominated trade networks of cattle, horses, textiles, and slaves that reached the Pacific on the
other side of the Andes (Jones 1994:106). Wild cattle and horses
from the Pampas, when incorporated into these transregional
pastoral economies, allowed for the emergence of indigenous
confederacies that brought political stability and prosperity (Davies 2016).
As the population of ganado cimarrón declined and eventually expired, indigenous peoples sought out other strategies
for obtaining cattle. The leaders of these sovereign societies
negotiated peace treaties with creoles that involved the regular
payment of goods in exchange for access to lands they controlled, whether for obtaining wild cattle or salt (Jones 1994). In
other instances, the gifts and provisions—which included livestock, herbs, sugar, tobacco, alcohol, and textiles—were considered compensation for military service as allies of the creoles
(Foerster and Vezub 2011). Raids on creole ranches were another way of obtaining cattle and horses and reinforcing creole
dependency, at least for a while. Juan Manuel de Rosas, the military strongman and wealthy rancher who came to epitomize the
foundational frontier violence of the Argentinean nation through
accounts of his exploits in Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Civilization and Barbarism (1998), led a military campaign into the
periphery of Buenos Aires to occupy indigenous land and incorporate it into national territory. But the raids continued.
Among the most remembered are the 1871 attacks led by Calfucurá, the Araucanian leader who took a legendary number of
cattle to trade in Chile. Yet this was a war that would end in the
extermination of natives. Ranches continued to expand along
with European weeds, and the genocidal military campaign
known as the Conquest of the Desert ended with the annexation
of the grasslands to Argentina, the transformation of native
ecologies, and the destruction of the native social structures that
had been built on wild horses and cattle (Bonatti and Valdez
2015; Foerster and Vezub 2011; Giberti 1974; Montoya 1970;
Pérez 2007).
Industrial Cattle
Colonial cattle’s indeterminate status as both private property
and ganado cimarrón fueled the multiplication of wealth and
the expansion of territorial control for colonists, but it also
created webs of social and ecological relations that challenged
the colonial social order, from the contraband zones of Santo
Domingo to the indigenous-controlled grasslands of the Pampas. As the imperial colonization of indigenous lands gave way
to the national colonization of indigenous lands, the abundant
wild cattle in North and South America provided the raw material on which a new form of expansion emerged: the global
industrialized beef economy. Cattle’s role in human projects
changed, from supporting the extractive activities of mines and
plantations from a peripheral position characterized by the uncontrolled, heterogeneous landscapes of ganado cimarrón to
fueling capitalist expansion in landscapes standardized by the
importation of pasture grasses, new cattle breeds, antibiotics
and herbicides, barbed wire fences, and the design of rationally
managed meat processing and transport facilities. If colonial
cattle were at the vanguard of the ever-moving frontier of the
Spanish imperial state, the descendants of these cattle led lives
of confinement and ecological isolation.
The wild herds of Mexico populated what is now the southwestern United States without human intervention (Brand 1961).
As in other places in Latin America, warfare between settlers
and indigenous peoples created conditions for free-ranging
herds to multiply (Dobie 1939). Human conflict and a landscape of wild brush thickets where cattle could hide prevented
Ficek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S263
ranchers from generating profits, at least until a new group arrived (Archer 1989; Ramirez 1979:48). Anglo-Americans from
South Carolina, where open range livestock raising had been
established with sixteenth-century Caribbean cattle, traveled westward through the coastal pine barrens of the South, through
Louisiana where they learned from Mexican vaqueros how to
manage cattle on horseback, and reached East Texas in the early
decades of the nineteenth century. The “Texas system” that
emerged from this confluence of herds and the ranchers who
followed them involved interactions with cattle similar to the
old Andalusian style—leaving them alone for most of the year
on unenclosed pastures (Jordan 1993).
Through this “Texas system,” Americans who occupied the
area between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers of today’s
South Texas were able to accumulate wealth by appropriating
large numbers of cattle sometimes abandoned by Mexican
ranchers, sometimes claimed by Mexican ranchers (Ramirez
1979:89). With the emergence of Chicago as the leading provider of meat to the northeast United States after the Civil War,
ranchers in Texas began rounding up cattle for the growing beef
market (Jordan 1993:221). Millions of cattle went north to meet
the railroads that would take them to meat eaters east. Along
the way, cattle fed off of the abundant grasslands of the Great
Plains, and many invaded and eventually followed the grass to
the Canadian prairies. Their transit altered western ecologies in
ways that led to the extermination of native plants and bison
and the displacement of Native Americans onto reservations
where they were fed government beef purchased from ranchers
who occupied their land (Rifkin 1992; Tucker 2000).
The industrialized landscapes that cattle would help build
out of the destruction of indigenous landscapes were critical to
the new imperial geographies that spanned the Atlantic in the
late nineteenth century. In Victorian Britain, where cattle represented landed wealth and prosperity was tied to empire, fatlaced beef was a prized commodity and status symbol. Elites
experimented with breeding cattle for their size—the bigger, the
fatter, the better. Popular enthusiasm for enormous cattle was a
way to express patriotism, admire elite power, and accept the
imperial social order (Freidberg 2009:53–55; Ritvo 1987). To
satisfy the growing demand for beef among working classes,
British investors turned to overseas supplies. In the United
States they invested in western cattle companies and imported
British varieties to cross-breed with American cattle too lean for
English tastes, and they poured capital into the transcontinental railroads and steamers that would transport beef to England
using new refrigeration technology that would guarantee the
meat’s survival across the Atlantic (Freidberg 2009:68). In the
United States, as in Britain, the society that emerged around
modern meat was based on the domination of indigenous lands
and people. New kinds of technology and labor were accepted
because the livestock industry successfully linked these innovations to western-US ideas about beef as an important resource and symbol of settler power (Freidberg 2009:51). The
wild cattle that expanded beyond the control of the Spanish
empire entered British and later US imperial networks in ways
fundamental to the expansion of new rationalized modes of
organizing nature and labor.
The Chicago meatpacking industry is one of the best examples of these new social forms. The end of the cattle trails coincided with the relocation of feeding areas to cities with rail
connections, where cattle could fatten on corn from midwestern farms before moving on to slaughter and packing houses
that processed and sent the meat to consumers in Britain and
other places where marbled beef was increasingly valued (Lopes
and Riguzzi 2012). The American meatpacking model that
emerged emphasized efficiency in the production of beef and its
distribution to faraway consumers. The supply chain was controlled by four companies that coordinated a system of livestock purchased cheaply in large amounts, cheap labor, and
cheap transport to create a cheap product whose mass production generated enormous profits and whose social and environmental costs were obscured from consumers (López-Durán
and Moore 2018; Warren 2007). Cattle, confined and commoditized, were fundamental to twentieth-century capitalism and its
expansion. The meatpackers—especially the disassembly line
in the slaughterhouse where the cattle were transported on hooks
through different phases of production where stationary workers
performed discrete, repetitive tasks—inspired Henry Ford’s auto
assembly lines (Shukin 2009:87). The American model of meat
production also spread to new locations.
British capital and American efficiency transformed the relationship between cattle and humans and between humans
and the environment in the Pampas grasslands so that in the
southern continent as in the northern, settled farming, barbed
wire fences, and rising land values transformed the cattle landscape. In nineteenth-century Argentina as in the United States,
British companies invested in cattle ranches, railway infrastructure, and meatpacking establishments. Ranchers began crossing their cattle with European breeds and replacing pasture
with alfalfa and wheat enclosed by fences (Adelman 1994; Giberti 1974). Cattle, once hunted, raided, traded, and distributed
to family and political allies by the indigenous societies of the
Pampas, now became an altogether different beast, cut off from
the social relations they had acquired over 3 centuries.
The urban landscape changed as well, especially when the
form in which cattle were exported changed. In 1900 a massive
outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease led England to ban the
importation of live cattle for fear that the virus, which had been
introduced to Argentina by way of European immigrants and
later declared endemic to the country, would make its way back
to European herds (Sheinin 1994). However, cattle relations
with the virus did not shut down the beef industry but, rather,
prompted a reorientation from live animal exports to chilled
meat, which was thought not to carry the disease. It was not
long before the Chicago meatpacking companies arrived and
overtook the chilled beef trade by waging meat wars that gained
them distribution rights for over half the export meat, leaving
the rest of the market divided between British and Argentinean
companies (López-Durán and Moore 2018). In this rationalized and efficient system of meat production, cattle were transS264 Current Anthropology Volume 60, Supplement 20, August 2019
ferred by rail from ranches in the Pampas to city holding pens,
then through a maze of canals and ramps where they were sanitized before entering frigoríficos, the refrigerated meatpacking
plants. Inside the frigorífico cattle were converted into cuts of
meat, inspected for quality, and shipped overseas (LópezDurán and Moore 2018). Once a volatile source of wealth on
the open range, modern cattle generated new social forms that
physically confined them but unleashed great profits for Argentinean elites and overseas capitalists.
As the shift from live animal exports to the chilled beef trade
in Argentina demonstrates, modern cattle also unleashed diseases that shaped the international geography of trade. The confinement of cattle with fences may have severed their relations
with grasslands and the other landscapes they occupied, but the
industrialized landscapes built around and for cattle—stockyards, transport infrastructure, the whole setup of mass production facilities—created conditions favorable for the spread
of viruses like hoof-and-mouth disease.1 Considered one of the
most contagious viruses in the world, hoof-and-mouth disease spreads through both physical contact and the air, causing
painful lacerations on the mouths and feet of cloven-hoofed
animals that in cattle can lead to lameness, a reduced appetite,
and lower milk production. Most outbreaks have been contained by the isolation and massive slaughter of animals (Mahy
2005; Woods 2004). To protect its livestock industry from hoofand-mouth disease, which was endemic in every country south
of Panama, the United States banned the importation of South
American beef.
Up until World War II, United States cattle interests in Latin
America were limited to meat processing. As postwar beef consumption increased, cooked and packaged meat found greater
demand. The growing fast food and convenience food industries required cheap beef for hamburgers and frozen dinners.
Central American cattle, raised on grass rather than grain,
and free of hoof-and-mouth disease, produced lean beef better
suited for these industries and enabled their success. Stimulated
by the US beef quota, which became a way to reward Cold War
allies, cattle raising in Central America accelerated after 1950.
Forests that had been largely unmodified by humans since the
conquest gave way to peasant farms, which gave way to large
haciendas that used modern techniques to produce beef for
export. US Department of Agriculture sanitation regulations
as well as development-oriented credit practices encouraged
fences, improved pasture grass, vaccination, sanitation, and other
interventions that helped turn cattle into profit (Guess 1979;
Myers 1981; Parsons 1965; Williams 1986). As agents of accumulation, cattle worked through racialized relations of labor
and occupation whose patterns emerged during European colonization. These relations transformed forests across Central
America—areas that in the past had only minimal involvement
with the states that claimed them. Cattle facilitated, yet again,
expansion into new frontiers.
The fabulous multiplication of wild colonial cattle, their
appropriation as private property, and the emergence of the
international industrialized beef trade enabled the fabulous
multiplication of capital for British and US investors and for
Latin American landowners. Along the way, landscapes shaped
by diverse economies and ecologies were simplified into pastures and other feed-producing monocultures. Cattle were reduced to standardized, interchangeable commodities. Ties between consumers and producers were severed. Caught up in the
machinations of industrial capitalism that controlled how cattle moved, ate, and reproduced, modern cattle seem to signal
a definitive end to the wild, uncontrollable nature of cattle best
embodied by ganado cimarrón. The confinement, control, and
simplification of these creatures eliminated opportunities for
wild herds to generate societies that sometimes subverted human projects of colonization and capitalization. While this process may be interpreted as an affirmation of human dominance
over nature, however, the people who were invested in sustaining and expanding the meat industry were never fully in
control of how cattle could establish relations with other species. Sometimes, these social relations create landscapes that
overturn processes of capitalist expansion.
Pasture Expansion in Panama
When cattle came to Panama in the sixteenth century, they
moved from the center of the isthmus to the west. It was not
until the twentieth century that cattle and colonists began expanding into the forests of eastern Panama, a region that had
been long abandoned by the shifting geography of colonialism. The state’s political project of integration in the 1960s and
1970s, under the rule of General Omar Torrijos, sought to extend state power into the nation’s margins and transform “unproductive” land into rationally managed units of rural production. Modernization took on a distinctive ecological form: the
dream, in the words of one state planner, was to turn Panama
into one giant pasture that extended from border to border
(Heckadon Moreno 2009:148).
This enthusiasm for pastured landscapes is the result of
colonial dependency on cattle. Cattle defined which areas were
habitable for colonists beginning in 1521, when 50 cattle came
to Panama from Jamaica (Castillero Calvo 2004:170). They
went west, following the grass that grew abundantly along the
country’s Pacific lowlands and that had previously been maintained by indigenous people with fire (Bennett 1968). The same
mostly treeless savannas that made it easy for cattle to occupy
space also made it easy for colonists to stage raids into Coclé
territory in search of slaves to distribute among Spanish homes,
haciendas, and estancias (Castillero Calvo 2004:151–155). In
areas where the indigenous population decreased by the brutalities of conquest, cattle took over the work of preventing
forest from growing back through their grazing and trampling
(Illueca 1985). Herds of ganado cimarrón greeted westwardexpanding colonists, who founded towns and cities based on the
availability of pasture in the area (Heckadon Moreno 2009:76).
1. Hoof-and-mouth disease, or aftosa in Spanish, is also referred to as
foot-and-mouth disease in Europe. All three terms refer to the same disease.
Ficek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S265
Within decades, cattle occupied a stretch of land in the center
and southwest of Panama, moving and eating and digesting in
ways that helped establish Spanish territorial control (Jaén
Suárez 1985).
By the mid-sixteenth century, Panama was recognized
throughout the Indies for its abundant pastures. Cattle grazed
on what was considered communal land, where they had access
to water in rivers and streams and food in native grasses, including “pega-pega”(Pharus latifolius) and foxtail (Arundinella
deppeana), as well as legumes and browse plants like mesquite
(Prosopis juliflora). The large estates that formed on these pasture lands supplied meat, tallow, and hides to the Veraguas
mining camps in Panama and the Cauca region of Colombia,
and even the distant conquest of Peru. Some whites and mestizos left mines and towns to raise cattle, so that by the nineteenth century the savannas were occupied by large landowners
of the aristocracy as well as numerous smallholders (Henderson 1958:244–246). Rural society revolved around cattle.
The relationship among cattle, colonists, and grassland would
change with the reconfiguration of the pasture as a key site of
capitalist expansion during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Three introductions shaped this transformation: workers,
grass, and barbed wire. Thousands of laborers from the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe came to work on the Panama Railway in
the second half of the nineteenth century and later the Panama
Canal, completed in 1914, and this increased the demand for
beef (Illueca 1985). Ranchers wanting to increase production
changed how they managed pastures, which until then had been
left largely alone. Pará (Panicum purpurascens and Panicum
barbinode) and Guinea grass (Panicum maximum, also called
India grass) were introduced to Panama in the mid-nineteenth
century, and faragua (Hyparrhenia rufa) in 1914, all from Brazil
(Henderson 1958:248). The cattle who grazed on these more
nutritious African grasses were also different: new breeds, especially Zebu (Bos indicus), were imported and crossed with
criollo cattle (Heckadon Moreno 2009:110). Fences had once
been used to protect home gardens from animals, but the barbed
wire introduced the same year as Pará and Guinea grass was
used to enclose the new kinds of grass and cattle (Henderson
Fuson 1958:249).
The transformation of pastures brought about a change
in land tenure. By the time of Panama’s independence from
Colombia in 1903, municipalities had already begun to grant
licenses to enclose public land. The enclosures accelerated in
the early twentieth century when the liberal state changed
legislation to actively promote the privatization of communal
lands. Cultivated communal lands could be claimed by an individual if that person could prove that the land was cultivated.
Permanent home gardens and pastures planted with African
grass were easy to claim as cultivated and therefore to be private
property. Communal savannas were enclosed by wealthy cattle
ranchers with barbed wire who were able to claim large expanses of land for their own herds and refuse access to small
cattle-raisers and peasants (Heckadon Moreno 2009:95–130).
Grass, cattle, and fences helped mark lands as cultivated—as
showing signs of human intervention—and therefore private
property.
A distinctive landscape and identity emerged from these
changes. The enclosure of savannas with barbed wire, their
seeding with African grass, and their occupation by beefier cattle
threatened the livelihood of peasants who raised cattle for cash
and grains for subsistence. Land enclosures forced them to
migrate to remaining forests and clear them in order to continue
the practices they had followed for generations (Henderson
Fuson 1958). In this production system, peasants bred cattle that
were then purchased by ranchers (often with bank credit) who
fattened and sold them to slaughterhouses (Heckadon Moreno
2009). This peasant way of life, by the mid-twentieth century,
came to represent “national culture,” especially as their music,
attire, and rituals—all deeply infused with a love for cattle—
came to be institutionalized as folklore.
The iconic Panamanian rural landscape emerged alongside
the iconic peasant. Among the different species of plants found
in pastures, cattle found the African grasses more palatable and
nutritious, and their preferential eating of these introductions
led to their propagation until they became nationalized (Sluyter
and Duvall 2015). Faragua thrived so exceptionally that the
Panamanian geographer Omar Jaén Suárez (1981) called it a
“conquering grass.” It was the most drought-resistant of the introduced grasses, and therefore prospered in areas where waterhungry grasses were unable to grow. Despite its lower nutritional
content, faragua offered other important things to peasants and
cattle. It is called “aggressive” because it spreads easily, successfully competes with weeds, and responds especially well to
fire. It is also described as “robust,” able to withstand poor soil
and overgrazing with little human care (Heckadon Moreno
2009:228; Henderson 1958:250). It was the perfect pasture for
cattle and peasants pushed out of better lands by big ranchers.
Its ability to expand in difficult terrains allowed peasants to
continue raising cattle, which were sold to ranchers, who in
turn sold them to city buyers and invested that wealth into
acquiring more land, dispossessing more peasants, who cut
down forests and planted faragua and raised more cattle.
The beauty of faragua pastures has been celebrated in Panamanian poetry and song. But it should also be clear that this
landscape is also a wasteland. Without plant cover and trampled by hooves, soil washes away with the rain, especially in the
spaces between clumps of faragua. The annual fires peasants
use to discourage weeds and ticks further expose soils to erosion. By grazing, cattle transfer scarce minerals like phosphorous and calcium from grass to their bones, depleting nutrients
from the soil (Heckadon Moreno 1985). If faragua enabled
peasant and cattle survival, it was also an agent of environmental destruction.
When there was no more land in central Panama for peasants, beginning in the 1940s they began to migrate to the Canal
watershed, the Caribbean coast, and eastern Panama. Eastern
Panama was a land of rivers and forests inhabited by indigenous Emberá, Wounaan, and Guna, Darienitas, or the black
and mixed descendants of runaway African slaves, and black
S266 Current Anthropology Volume 60, Supplement 20, August 2019
seasonal workers from Colombia’s Pacific coast. Each in their
own these ethnic groups practiced shifting agriculture for subsistence and sold surplus for cash and hunted, fished, and raised
chickens and pigs and a few cows in some places, and were
more connected by trade and kinship to Colombia than to
Panama (Torres de Araúz 1975). To this land of wet tropical
forest the colonists attempted to transplant a way of living that
had developed in dry grassland.
Colonists trickled into the region in the 1950s but the big
wave did not come until the 1970s when the Pan-American
Highway was extended out of Panama City east into forests
where modern roads had never been built. The Panamanian
government hoped the road would support the economic and
political integration of this space of black and indigenous autonomy. From the state’s point of view, these forests were
problematic because they contained underutilized resources and
people of ambiguous nationalities, some of whom could be
subversives (Dirección General de Planificación y Administración 1972). Equally problematic, the landless savanna peasants
could themselves become subversives, as happened in Nicaragua and other places where guerilla movements emerged in
response to expanding cattle ranching (Weinberg 1991:26). Instead of redistributing land, the state imagined in eastern Panama a bonanza of “free” land where colonists would settle in
areas designated by science to be appropriate for pastures, with
access to breeding centers and demonstration ranches that
would teach people how to properly raise cattle for beef and
milk destined for the national market economy (Organization
of American States 1978).
It is only fitting that the American construction company
hired to build the highway installed its base camp in one of the
few pastures in the region. Winston Bryan was among the men
hired to do construction work. Like many other workers, he
claimed land adjacent to the route well in advance of the colonists who came in great numbers once the highway opened.
But unlike other workers, and unlike colonists, Bryan was a
black Anglophone from the Caribbean side of Panama. He
farmed the land he claimed with his wife, who was from a local
town. But they were forced to move. They had problems with
cattle.
Bryan’s neighbors had a pasture next to his farm. Many
colonists hoped to acquire or expand their herds. Cattle needed
space—about 1 hectare per animal—and they needed water.
Because the neighbors’ stream dried up every summer, Bryan
had to give them access to his water. This went on for years.
Then, as Bryan tells it, they waited until he was far away on a
job operating a tractor and tried to take his land. They had a
relative who worked at the Agrarian Reform, the agency that
kept track of land claims, and with this person’s help they
measured 9 hectares of his farm and titled it in their name.
When Bryan returned and learned what had happened, he ran
to the Agrarian Reform office, but they told him there was
nothing they could do.
But Bryan had already registered his land, not at the local
Agrarian Reform office but at the central office in central Panama. It took him 2 days to get there, but at the central office
he obtained a letter certifying his claim. The engineers at the
central office told him the date they would visit. And they really
did visit, Bryan told me. They showed up at his house at 5:00 in
the morning, and he ran to the river and bathed, and then they
all went to the Agrarian Reform office. The local official did not
know what to do. The secretary said she felt sick and went
home.“From that day on up to this date,” Bryan said,“[the local
official] never called me Bryan ever again. Ever since that day,
he says Mister Bryan.”
Despite the victory, trouble with the neighbors continued.
On another occasion Bryan left his wife two buckets of rice to
plant while he was away, deep in the forest, cutting down trees.
While the money he earned as a lumberjack was important,
the rice he grew as a farmer was what would feed his family.
But this livelihood was threatened by four-legged invaders. As
soon as the rice was ready for harvest, 50 cows invaded from
the neighboring pasture. His wife shot two of the cows, but she
felt sorry for them and could not shoot any more. Bryan, on the
other hand, affirms that had he been present he would have
shot each of those 50 cows, and then his neighbors would have
killed him, or he would have been forced to kill somebody in
self-defense. “She told me: negro, we better sell and go to another place.”
People like Bryan and other eastern Panamanians did not
fit into dominant constructions of the nation. Their swidden
agriculture and resistance to notions of private property were
at odds with the expansion of agro-industry. Colonists, on the
other hand, brought about new relationships to land and new
ecologies through their dependence on cattle. Clearing forest
and planting—whether corn or pasture grass—allowed colonists to claim use rights. Those who wanted to title their land
proceeded to have it measured, though use rights were frequently bought and sold to avoid paying the agronomist and the
bureaucracy. Ranchers accumulated large tracts of land by being the first to claim them, and they often demonstrated their
productivity by planting Indiana and Guinea grass (even if
they had not purchased the cattle yet). They also pushed out
and bought out smallholders like Winston Bryan. Pastures expanded, along with market relations and racial conflict. Cattle
colonized by taking up space where (the right kind of ) humans
were too few, and by helping turn land into private property,
in the process destroying enormous extensions of forest (see fig. 1).
This human project of capitalist expansion depended on
cattle and the social-ecological relations they had established
in the open savannas of central Panama. Even though cattle
inadvertently aligned with the project of turning Panama into
a giant pasture from border to border, in eastern Panama cattle
overturned human designs by acquiring a new ecological relation. Hoof-and-mouth disease, the highly contagious virus
that had shaped the global beef industry, was present in Colombia and the rest of South America. Panama, despite sharing
a border with Colombia, was protected from hoof-and-mouth
disease by the forest in eastern Panama—the same forest that
in the 1970s was being colonized and converted into pastures.
Ficek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S267
If road construction continued and colonists and cattle were
able to reach the border, the disease could easily travel through
Central and North America, spreading through contact with
infected equipment, vehicles, and clothing. Keeping the forest intact was critical to protecting the US livestock industry,
and to keep the forest intact, highway construction had to be
stopped.
This, at least, was the argument presented by the Sierra
Club in its 1975 lawsuit against the US Department of Transportation, which was funding two-thirds of the highway that
Winston Bryan was helping to build. While the Sierra Club’s
ultimate goal was to protect the wildlife and indigenous Emberá, Wounaan, and Guna who depended on the forest that
was being destroyed by cattle and colonists, the environmental organization obtained the support of the National Cattlemen’s Association and the Foreign Animal Disease Advisory
Committee to pressure the US government against completing the highway.2 The lawsuit succeeded in suspending further
road construction on the grounds that the project lacked an
environmental impact statement and thus had not complied
with the National Environmental Policy Act (Comptroller General of the United States 1978).
The environmental impact statement prepared by the Federal Highway Administration in 1976 claimed that hoof-andmouth disease would not be a problem—as long as the local
control programs were effective. Panama and Colombia had
already prohibited the breeding, fattening, sale, or purchase of
cattle in a 20-mile fringe along the international border in 1966.
Bilateral agreements between both countries and the United
States made in the 1970s further limited the expansion of cattle by establishing a quarantine zone along the border, where
no cattle were allowed, and a control zone where existing cattle
were allowed to remain but could not leave the zone (Organization of American States 1978).
The Sierra Club criticized the environmental impact assessment as superficial.3 The court, however, accepted the assessment and in 1977 allowed highway construction to continue—
but not in Colombia until the US Department of Agriculture
had certified that the hoof-and-mouth control program in the
country complied with its standards, and this took decades.4
Even though construction could proceed at least on the PanaFigure 1. Laso competition on colonist ranch in eastern Panama, 2008. (Photo by Rosa Elena Ficek.) A color version of this figure is
available online.
2. Untitled document, Sierra Club International Program Records,
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 71/103C, container
103, folder 14.
3. Leonard Meeker to Eugene Coan and others, June 16, 1976, Sierra
Club International Program Records, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 71/290C, container 103, folder 13.
4. Leonard Meeker to Eugene Coan, April 4, 1978, Sierra Club International Program Records, Bancroft Library, University of California,
Berkeley, 71/290C, container 103, folder 25.
S268 Current Anthropology Volume 60, Supplement 20, August 2019
manian side, the US Congress never approved further funding. The Panamanian government abandoned the expensive
project in the 1980s. Cattle, though confined and controlled by
industrial technology, interrupted the project of capitalist expansion in eastern Panama through their relation with hoofand-mouth disease.
Winston Bryan abandoned his original farm and purchased
land on another location on the unfinished highway. He continued to plant and to work as a lumberjack and even owned
some cattle at one point. Colonists continued to arrive, though
many were deeply disappointed that their ranching dreams
would not come true because of the quarantine. Many cleared
forest and planted pasture grass anyway. Grass was an “improvement” to the land, after all, and justified claims to use
rights. Yet the landscape and society that emerged from cattle
quarantine generated land arrangements that complicate and
undermine the expansion of state power and capitalist relations. Emberá and Wounaan, who previously lived in dispersed
households at considerable distances from each other, began to
settle into villages around the same time that colonists began to
arrive and the Pan-American Highway was being constructed.
Motivated by the threat of newcomers, by the desire to send
their children to schools, and the influence of missionaries, and
with the support of the Panamanian government, Emberá and
Wounaan created a Comarca in 1983—a semiautonomous reserve with a hierarchical political structure that accepted state
power but also created communally controlled land (Herlihy
1986). More boundaries against cattle colonization emerged
with the creation of national parks on both sides of the border by
1980, their primary purpose to buffer against hoof-and-mouth
disease. Safeguarding cattle inadvertently called for safeguarding
the forest, and this called for limiting the resource extractions
that would destroy it.
The quarantine landscape likewise generated noncapitalist
modes of exchange and reciprocity. Cattle under quarantine
could be purchased or raised, fattened, and sold locally, but
never at a scale that would sustain cycles of massive accumulation and dispossession; they were unable to reach the markets
in Panama City and instead were confined to local networks,
where the beef-eating population was significantly lower. In
this context of isolation from the national market, the labor
economy relied on kinship and reciprocity. Most colonists complement their subsistence activities with wage labor on ranches,
plantations, in commercial establishments, or local government offices. But when they work a medias, landless colonists
temporarily raise cattle on another’s land and, in exchange,
promise half of the profits from the sale. When a family has to
complete a task that requires more workers than the family
can provide, kin and neighbors come together in a peonada in
which they work collectively to fix a fence, for example, with
the understanding that the help will be reciprocated at a future
time.
The dream of a thoroughly national territory neatly organized into individually owned, rationally managed cattle-raising
farms that would continue to expand state power and market
relations is quite removed from the landscape that emerged
with the hoof-and-mouth problem: an incommensurable jumble of quarantine and control zones, protected areas, indigenous collective lands, and colonization fronts. Cattle in this
savanna-less tropical forest did not go wild or fabulously multiply like in other places and times. But their relationship with
hoof-and-mouth disease, and their centrality to Panamanian
ways of life, made it difficult for humans to control what could
happen in a pasture and what shape the consequences could
take.
Conclusion
As the case of cattle in Panama demonstrates, particular configurations of soil, climate, and vegetation—as well as particular
differentiations between humans—shape how nature, property,
and labor come to be organized in cattle landscapes. Attention
to the specificities of more-than-human ecological relations as
well as the specificities of human culture and society are essential to understanding how creatures of the Anthropocene
create unsustainable environments in a given place and time.
Whether grazing on faragua on a pasture in central Panama or
eating corn in a midwestern feedlot, the environmental—and
political and social—problems of livestock in the Anthropocene are the result of human actions and cattle actions shaping
each other and shaping the places where these interactions
occur. If the problems of the Anthropocene are not the result of
premeditated human action but, rather, the result of complex
webs of more-than-human interdependencies, then the solutions to these problems must necessarily account for how interventions carried out in the name of sustainability affect not
only humans and cattle but also other species that constitute
these ecologies—including how relations of interdependency
may be severed or reconfigured.
By centering animals in processes of environmental destruction, the goal of this article is not to erase indigenous knowledges but, rather, to push forward a framework for thinking
about the connections between environmental change and colonialism in its many forms. As this history of cattle in the
Americas makes evident, the landscapes that emerged from cattle expansion benefited some humans at the expense of others.
Cattle show how the destruction and dispossession of nonwhite
peoples is, in part, the unintended consequence of animals eating, moving, taking up space, and doing other things that modify their environment. Cattle, when considered in relation to humans in all of their racial and ethnic diversity, decenter notions
of homogenous humanity that undergird policy-driven accounts
of the Anthropocene while also bringing the violent encounters
between colonizers and natives into a frame that considers the
role of nonwestern and nonhuman agencies in processes of environmental change.
Attention to history beyond the twentieth century is essential
because it shows how cattle and their landscape-making activities align with colonial expansion in ways that shaped and
continue to shape the modern world. At the regional level,
Ficek Cattle, Capital, Colonization S269
moreover, the history of cattle in the Americas allows us to look
beyond particular case studies to see not only change over time
but also how heterogeneous landscapes are interconnected. This
kind of perspective brings into focus that, although cattle remake landscapes in ways supportive of capitalist expansion, they
can also alter these ecological relations in ways that get in the way
of expansion. Sometimes cattle create landscapes that threaten
to tip the balance of imperial powers, as in the contraband society of sixteenth-century Santo Domingo. Sometimes they prevent state expansion by facilitating the consolidation of indigenous power, as in the Pampas of Argentina. Sometimes their
involvement in one project can interrupt another project of expansion, such as when the US cattle industry intervened in the
Panamanian state’s pasture-making project in the 1970s. Tracking cattle over the long term shows how cattle move in and out
of human projects.
This double movement of cattle in relation to human projects—in and out—signals processes of great environmental
change but also transformative possibility. Of course, situations
where cattle do not support expansionist projects can always
potentially become situations into which capitalism extends.
But the opposite can also be said: capitalist relations are always
potentially noncapitalist. The terrible worlds humans have made
along with cattle can also be unmade, with and without human intervention. Human efforts to unmake these worlds could
look to these instances of more-than-human environmental
change—these situations of transformative possibility—to better account for the landscape-shaping power of cattle and other
creatures of the Anthropocene in order to build less terrible ways
of multispecies and multiracial living together.
Acknowledgments
I thank the people in eastern Panama who contributed to this
research; the participants of the Wenner-Gren symposium
“Patchy Anthropocene,” where an earlier version of this paper
was presented; the guest editors of the supplementary issue;
and the two anonymous reviewers for Current Anthropology.
Research and writing was made possible with the support of the
Social Science Research Council and the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
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