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On the hoof in Patagonia

The Neuquén Criollo goats of Patagonia have thrived in the region's harsh conditions for centuries (M Lanari)
The Neuquén Criollo goats of Patagonia have thrived in the region's harsh conditions for centuries
M Lanari

It's spring in the Neuquén Province of Argentinean Patagonia, and a goat herder drives his animals to the summer rangelands high in the mountains. It's a route his ancestors have taken since the goats were introduced by Spanish settlers in the 17th century. But this traditional transhumant system is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in modern-day Argentina, threatening the survival of the goats and the families that depend on them.

Neuquén Criollo goats are not a formally-recognised breed in Argentina, but their owners, the crianceros, know them well: the hardy animals have consistently provided generations of crianceros and their families with high quality meat. Able to graze comfortably at 2,500m above sea level, walk long distances, withstand the bitterly cold winters in the lowlands and semi-arid summers in the highlands, the 300,000-or-so Neuquén Criollos have adapted well to life in Patagonia.

Maria Rosa Lanari of the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) in Argentina, has spent ten years studying the animals. "They're so well adapted it is unbelievable," she enthuses. She is also full of praise for the herders who have resisted the lure of modernity and continued their traditional farming methods. "The crianceros' traditional, local knowledge is huge - they know each plant, each insect; the stars in the sky. They have seen how the goats survive in the region and rely on them totally; they know they are valuable, despite what many scientists and other outsiders tell them," she explains.

Two worlds collide

Able to walk for long distances and graze at high altitude, the goats are integral to the transhumant system (M Lanari)
Able to walk for long distances and graze at high altitude, the goats are integral to the transhumant system
M Lanari

While the goats themselves are not specifically endangered, the system in which they thrive is. The sale of public land to the private sector has placed serious restrictions on the movement of the animals, with large, fenced areas diverting age-old herding routes, which can take up to a month to negotiate at the best of times. There is also growing competition for the grazing lands from forestry and mining companies. Losses of farm labour due to urban migration and the growing preference of some herding families to settle in one place to take advantage of social services such as schooling and housing is also destabilising the system.

Some well-meaning livelihood projects have not helped either. The introduction of Angora and Anglo-Nubian goats in the 1980s to encourage fibre and milk production failed miserably as the environment proved too extreme for the new stock. Despite this, indiscriminate crossbreeding left its mark, weakening the genetic base of some Neuquén Criollo herds.

Competition from cheaper meat, such as lamb, produced by more intensive methods, consistently undercuts Neuquén Criollo kid meat at market, meaning crianceros remain extremely poor. But INTA's work has hit upon an ingenious marketing solution, based on the meat's exquisite taste. Lanari believes this is partly due to the farming system being inherently organic: initially the kids drink only mother's milk and then graze on the rangelands. But crucially, while animals grazing at lower altitudes routinely eat a shrub called neneo, renowned for giving their meat a bad taste, the shrub does not grow at the high altitude of the summer grazing lands of the Neuquén Criollos. Perhaps then, this meat could be marketed as a premium product? When INTA presented the idea to members of the market chain for Neuquén Criollo kid meat, which includes some 1,200 stock keepers, researchers undertook painstaking analysis to establish whether the meat is actually tastier. "While taste is subjective, we needed an objective assessment," explains Lanari. "We have many laboratory tools for this - even a mechanical 'nose' to assess the quality!" The findings were overwhelmingly positive.

Happy steak-holders

Neuquén Criollo meat is now being marketed as 'gourmet' (M Lanari)
Neuquén Criollo meat is now being marketed as 'gourmet'
M Lanari

Central to marketing the meat as 'gourmet' has been an application for exclusive Designation of Origin status. Just as Champagne can only come from the Champagne wine region of France and Parma ham can only be produced in the area around Parma city in Italy, Lanari hopes Neuquén Criollo kid meat will be exclusively produced by the crianceros of Neuquén Province. Regulatory approval is expected this year (2009).

The nearby Los Lagos region, which attracts wealthy tourists throughout the year, is one of the target markets for the meat. INTA's studies have shown that the majority of tourists there are happy to pay a premium for better tasting meat. "It's contradictory because these animals are raised by very poor people, but wealthier people from the cities will pay more for the product," she says.

While crianceros hope to receive higher incomes from Neuquén Criollo meat, it will remain very difficult for them to survive the larger social and economic forces that threaten the survival of their farming system. But now at least policymakers are listening: "Some people think that the idea of progress and technology is to introduce new breeds, but in this case it's not," concludes Lanari. "Ten years ago they thought the solution was to change the breed, now nobody believes that."

Date published: March 2009

 

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