End of an era

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) – Arriving on horseback and wearing the typical gaucho beret and boots, Argentines young and old spend the night bringing bulls, cows and calves to their respective pens.

It’s an age-old tradition at the Buenos Aires cattle market that dates back to 1889 when the southern Mataderos neighbourhood was still fields.

But a page is turning as by the end of the year, the 33-hectare Liniers cattle market will leave Buenos Aires for a new, modern installation 60 kilometres away in Canuelas.

“My great-grandfather Carlos brought the cows, herding them from the La Tablada roundabout” 20 kilometres away, said Ezequiel Martinez, 27.

“I’ll cry a lot because there are a lot of memories.”

He was 12 when his father first brought him to the Liniers market. Martinez is now the fourth generation from his family working as a gaucho – a role that has become part of Argentine legend.

People attend an auction of cows at the Liniers Cattle Market in Buenos Aires. PHOTOS: AFP
Aerial view of cows at the Liniers Cattle Market

The presence of the market in the centre of Buenos Aires has become an environmental problem due to animal faeces polluting water sources, as well as traffic congestion generated by huge trucks transporting cattle into the town.

But the move, which has already been postponed several times, has created uncertainty for gauchos attached to their traditions.

“The old foremen started at eight or nine years old and they never imagined having to leave,” said Martinez.

“Even when retired, they keep doing something here.”

Agustin Lalor inherited from his father a job auctioning cattle to the cold storage companies that transport the beasts to abattoirs.

At 8am a bell rings and the auction begins.

Speaking into a megaphone, Lalor describes each cattle up for sale before selling to the highest bidder.

“This place is unique in the world,” he said.

The prices negotiated in Liniers serve as a reference for beef throughout the country and are published in specialist press.

Traditionally, the market is open from Monday to Friday until 8pm, but the pandemic saw it restricted to Tuesdays, Wednesday and Fridays, while sales are down by half.

The market, which used to have a slaughterhouse attached to it, has left an indelible mark on the local neighbourhood – a place of abattoirs, butchers and cold meat factories.

The neighbourhood will change once the market has left.

“There needs to be a conversion plan for the area to avoid it falling into urban deterioration,” said Silvia Fajre, a planner and heritage expert.

Although she considers the market to be “absolutely anachronistic” and inefficient from an economic perspective, Fajre believes its historic identity and value can be rescued by preserving the buildings.

“It could become a tourist attraction and be turned into a museum. You need to generate employment opportunities,” she said.

That’s important in a neighbourhood with poor salaries and education levels.

For the last 30 years, there has been a handicrafts and Argentine traditions market close to both Liniers and the El Resero (the Herdsman) statue that pays homage to gauchos.

Until the pandemic struck, it was a place to buy ponchos and mate gourds.

It was also a place to sample the native cuisine and marvel at the skills of horsemen and field workers. Cristian Nahuel Agrei, 21, has worked at Liniers as a day labourer for the last four years. It is a place he calls home.

“It won’t be the same in Canuelas. We won’t be able to stay there. This is a different home, I have my room, by bed, my things,” he lamented.