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The Logic of Livestock: An Historical Geography of Cattle Ranching in Colombia, 1850-1950
  • Shawn Van Ausdal, Universidad de Los Andes - Colombia

This dissertation examines a significant yet little understood economic activity in modern Colombian history: cattle ranching. The importance of cattle stem from their role in the settlement of the country’s lowlands, the conflicts around property rights, and the proportion of capital dedicated to ranching. Because scholars have paid it little heed, most reproduce a common misconception about the logic of livestock: that it was principally driven by a range of ulterior motives – from satisfying cultural status to a source of political power; and from establishing territorial control to either a speculative investment or a hedge against risk – rather than the search for profits. This study questions these deeply-entrenched views. I challenge the notion that cattle were an easy way to make territorial claims and argue that ranching was fundamentally a business endeavor. As a result, the colonization of the Colombian lowlands and the transformation of its forests, the territorial monopolization of much of the country, and the dominance of ranching need to be understood in light of the difficulty yet ultimate success of growing grass in the lowland tropics and the advantages of raising cattle over other forms of land use. This dissertation, therefore, contributes to a deeper understanding of the practices, rationales, and challenges to Colombian ranching over a key century of expansion (1850-1950).

Based on a range of primary sources, including the correspondence of Pedro Nel Ospina & Compañía, an important ranching operation in northern Colombia, this historical geography is organized thematically. Each of the six chapters examines a different facet of ranching: the transformation of the Colombia’s lowland forests; the territorial origins of cattle estates and the development of property markets; the sweaty work and social relations of stock raising; the beef commodity chain and the economic logic of ranching; the slow yet difficult improvements to productivity; and the power and the politics of ranching.

  • Cattle ranching,
  • deforestation,
  • agrarian capitalism,
  • landed elites,
  • indebted labor,
  • Colombia
Publication Date
Citation Information
Shawn Van Ausdal. "The Logic of Livestock: An Historical Geography of Cattle Ranching in Colombia, 1850-1950" (2009)
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