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In the Wild South

The Brazilian state of Santa Catarina is too cold for bikinis. That's why real men like it there.

By Martin Wittmann

In the sunlight that penetrates through the slits in the wooden walls, the dust swirls as the cattle dawdle into the otherwise gloomy barn. Only the leisurely stomping of the four animals can be heard, which are now being chased in circles in here. The men who do this wear leather boots and wide trousers that they have tucked into their boots. At first they stand calmly and ponderously in the middle of the stable. But then a rope snaps through the air, Hernani, one of the three Macari brothers, has thrown it. His white shirt is transparently sweaty, he wears a beret on his head and a worn leather apron on his hips. The rope has wrapped around the hind legs of a young black bull. The animal keeps its balance for fractions of a second until its front legs buckle and it now falls loudly to its side into the dust, as if mooing for help.
Every weekend, the Macari brothers - besides Hernani, these are Karim and André - meet here at the 1400-meter-high Fazenda Passo Velho, which their great-grandfather bought more than 100 years ago. They grew up here before they moved out to lead a middle-class life. Their father, a regional politician, can no longer manage the farm; he has been in a wheelchair since a car accident. So during the week a cousin has to take care of the work. On Saturday, however, the brothers, who are in the office five days a week, return to their home country. From Monday to Friday Karim may be a lawyer, André an environmental engineer and Hernani a landscape engineer - on weekends they are gaúchos: cattle-breeding cowboys. They are the ones who dedicate themselves to traditional quality in the country of factory modern quantity - Brazil is one of the biggest beef exporters. Here, in the green and otherwise flourishing state of Santa Catarina, this means that the brothers have 150 cattle. The cattle have 250 hectares.
Thus, in the cool south of the country and there in the dark barn, two South American myths come together that one would only think of in films or commercials: proud gauchos and cattle roaming around the countryside. Down here, Brazil is not the land of heat and beach girls with bikinis as it is marketed worldwide one year before the World Cup. Down here the country is dominated by hands-on men. Here Brazil does not shine, it smells. And here in the mountains of Santa Catarina it's cold: next door, in the city of Sao Joaquim, the temperatures in winter regularly drop to double-digit minus degrees Celsius. On this mild day, however, André is content with his normal, airy gaucho uniform.
He stands in the stable behind the gate and wears a knitted vest over his shirt, the Bombacha, the wide trousers of the Gaúchos, and the boots. What actually makes a gaucho, apart from the trousers and the shoes, a scarf and a knife on his belt? André Macari squeezes a huge syringe into a plastic container with pink liquid and pulls it open. He ponders the question. He doesn't ask himself questions like that, for him it is a matter of course to be gaucho. "The love of nature, of freedom?" he puzzles. Crioulos, maybe? Anyway, they have 30 of these horses from Tierra del Fuego. Land? They've got enough - here the cattle are given extra space so that they don't trample too much grass in the summer or eat away from a place and make the pastures inhospitable for the next winter. Tradition? Yes, definitely, he says and nods in the middle of the barn: "Elsewhere, this is done fully automatically."
A helper of the brothers kneels behind the head of the fallen bull and keeps it in the dust. Karim leans against the wooden pillar in the middle of the stable and presses one of the hind legs of the animal to the ground with his right boot. Suddenly the bull strikes out, Karim retreats, only the helper continues to hold the head of the fighting cattle. The bull manages to wriggle to the other side on his back, and while the helper is still holding the animal's ears, it stands up and pulls the man up with it. Now they wrestle until the helper pulls the animal down again. This time he lies with his body on the bull. The other men, who have followed the spectacle calmly, almost disinterestedly, now laugh - the helper's pants are torn open during the fight, he lies bare-bottomed on the opponent. Only when Karim and Hernani Macari kneel on the bull does the helper get up and leave the arena through the gate, his hands holding the shreds of his trousers together.
Every three months the brothers get helpers when there is a lot of work with the herd. "We used to give the animals water with salt and herbs as medicine," says André. Today everything is regulated. He does not regret this, because: "Santa Catarina is the only state in Brazil that has never had major problems with foot-and-mouth disease. So this weekend the animals are lassoed, vaccinated, without anesthesia a small piece of their tail is cut off so they can be identified, and for the safety of the other animals their horns are cut off. The bulls will be castrated. On a wooden bench there is a light blue bowl with half a dozen testicles cut off. Next to it: Two cases of Ambev beer.
On this Sunday morning the brothers must be tired, because the night before they were working until eleven o'clock and had drunk so much with their helpers that they decided on the phone that the coming day would be better suited for the planned visit. They do not seem to be hungover now. Instead, they look elegant in their exhaustion this morning (unless one of their pants tears). And what they do seems to be rude to the animals - but not disrespectful. Anyone who has ever been to a slaughterhouse and seen the countless anonymous dead animals, sawn in half and hanging on hooks, and the employees standing on assembly lines in sterile plastic suits, will almost recognize something like style here, in this stable. And yet: as romantic and wild as it is here, it is also brutal. A helper approaches the bull, he has the big syringe in his hand. As he puts it on the back of the bull, the bull writhes again, until Karim grabs his head and turns it so far up, until it looks as if he is blocking the bull's view of his own body. With his knee he fixes his head again, the bull lying on the ground scratches in the air a little with his front foot before the helper pumps the contents of the syringe into his body. The rope around the hind legs is tightened once more. Karim is now standing next to the tied up bull, knife in hand.
During the castration there is a knocking at the stable door. A horse is standing in front of it, with the brothers' uncle on his back. The uncle is riding through the prairie with tourists lately. "Times have changed," says André, and he doesn't just mean his relative, who has recognized the demand from tourists for western romance, peace and wilderness. Rather, it is the eternal question of how tradition can be distinguished from the outdated and progress from the new-fashioned.
In their case, the cattle still spend a long time out on the pasture, where they feed on 36 types of plants, and there is no stable food at all, says André. These conditions are a luxury in a country whose agricultural productivity has been rising by three to four percent annually since the mid-1980s, twice as fast as in other agricultural nations. Brazil is now the world leader in cattle breeding, even though most of Brazil is actually too hot and dry for European cattle breeds.
Founded in the 17th century by colonial masters from Portugal, cattle breeding in Brazil did not become a successful branch of industry until the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, Brazil sent envoys to India and Africa to crossbreed cattle species suitable for the tropics. About 5000 bumpy Zebu cattle, a strong and robust species, were imported from India until the 1930s. Thanks to genetic engineering and efficiency improvements, animal husbandry finally became a huge industry - which is increasingly attracting criticism in Brazil. Most are less concerned with animal welfare; ecological concerns have generally come to the fore since large-scale deforestation for cattle grazing in the Amazon region. Greenpeace, for example, calls cattle breeding in the north the main cause of the destruction of the rainforest.
On the Fazenda Passo Velho, too, wood is destroyed for cattle breeding, albeit in a completely different way: In the barn, behind the gate, a campfire is burning. Three branding irons glow between the wood, Karim grabs the "K". He goes back to the animal, which is now an ox, and presses the iron on its backside. One last time the animal mooed loudly before it stopped moving, tired and mute. A white cloud of smoke rises. The helper disinfects the castration wound with a spray before Hernani lets go of the bull's head and asks him to stand up with a gentle kick. The treatment is over. The ox picks itself up and runs into the corner to the other animals, all purebred English cattle, who enjoy the cool temperatures here in Santa Catarina.
André will return to his family that evening; he lives 90 kilometres from the farm on the coast. His son is 16 years old. Will he continue the gaucho tradition? "He has long hair and plays drums in a hard rock band," says André. The meat at the Churrasco, the typical Brazilian barbecue, tastes good to him, says André. But he doesn't want to know anything about the ranch yet, says the gaucho, while it's snapping again at the back of the stable.
Travel arrangements: the German-speaking tour operator Aventura do Brasil offers round trips for groups in southern Brazil, www.aventuradobrasil.de
Süddeutsche Zeitung No. 20, 24 January 2013[/b]