Livestock in the Time of Foot-and-Mouth Disease
By Marcelo Jelen*
''It was agony. To go out to the pastures and not see even one animal… it was dreadful, it was as if a hurricane had struck,'' said a rancher in Uruguay, a nation at war against a disease that is threatening one of its crucial economic resources.
MONTEVIDEO - A terrible week began Monday, Apr 23, for rancher Raúl Martínez Fonseca. That day, Uruguayan authorities discovered cattle ill with foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) just 1,500 meters from his farm in the department of Soriano, bordering Argentina.
Three days later, officials from the Livestock Ministry appraised Martínez Fonseca's 900 head of cattle, 30 sheep and three pigs in order to calculate the compensation he would be paid for the obligatory killing of the animals, a preventive measure known in Uruguay as 'rifle sanitario' (sanitary rifle).
His livestock were herded Friday, Apr 27, to the slaughter site. The next day, government officials began digging a pit where the animals would be shot, burned and buried in order to eliminate the virus that afflicts cloven-hoofed animals, though only rarely affects humans.
Then, on Sunday, Apr 29, when the slaughter was imminent, the government changed its strategy: the 'rifle sanitario' approach did not stop the spread of the virus, so was cast aside, opening the way for vaccinating the animals.
In just two weeks, FMD spread to nearly every department in Uruguay. The country was placed on war footing and beef exports halted. Foreign sales of meat total 500 million dollars annually, one-fourth of Uruguay's exports, a volume higher than the beef sales of Britain, where livestock slaughter has been ongoing since February.
But in Uruguay, ranching represents more than just a source of income. With 3.3 million inhabitants who consume an average of 1.2 kilos of beef each week, Uruguay is home to 10 million head of cattle, 13 million sheep, and a rich history of ‘gaucho’ traditions.
Though Martínez Fonseca was able to save his herd, that week in Soriano, 2,000 animals were slaughtered. ''It was agony. To go out to the pastures and not see even one animal… it was dreadful, it was as if a hurricane had struck,'' the rancher told Tierramérica.
Uruguay is proud of producing ''the best beef in the world,'' as President Jorge Batlle stated before his fellow leaders at the Summit of the Americas last month in Canada, and the country had been officially FMD-free, following four years without detecting even one case of the illness.
Last October, an FMD outbreak in the northern department of Artigas, bordering Brazil, was resolved in just a few weeks with the slaughter of 21,000 animals.
That was the price of maintaining the certification of country free of FMD without vaccination, granted by the Paris-based International Epizootics Organization, a status that opens the doors to the lucrative markets of the industrialized North.
But economic activity in Artigas is grinding to a halt. More than half of the department's 40,000 residents depend directly on the 2,080 ranches, Sergio Araujo, president of the local Agricultural Association, told Tierramérica.
''The ranches are selling almost nothing. And in Artigas, if the countryside isn't working, there is no work for the carpenter, the baker, nobody,'' Araujo pointed out.
Now, with the reappearance of FMD, 6,500 meat packers have been left without work. Some are taking early vacations, while others are receiving unemployment subsidies, like many Uruguayan workers who have been laid off in recent years due to the country’s economic recession.
Government authorities have banned ranchers from moving their cattle, and the beef originally destined for export has been returned to cold storage at the meat packing plants to be sold on the domestic market.
The outbreak in Artigas was attributed to livestock smuggling from Brazil, and the crisis that began in April has been blamed on contagion from Argentine ranches near the border.
The FMD virus is transmitted between animals, including wild boars and spotted deer, which can be found throughout Uruguay. The virus can also be carried by clothing, vehicle tires, birds, and even by rivers or the wind.
The Uruguayan military has been called out to manage roadblocks where troops spray vehicles with a solution of citric or acetic acid, sodium carbonate, iodine or formol. Some towns have been quarantined.
In the department of Cerro Largo, also bordering Brazil, ranchers set up roadblocks and paid for disinfection measures out of their own pockets in a bid to prevent the spread of the disease, Raquel Saravia, president of FUCREA - an organization of small and medium ranchers -, told Tierramérica.
The authorities have also temporarily shut down schools near the outbreaks, meaning that thousands of children have lost the source of their principal daily meal.
In the FMD-affected zones, all sporting events, livestock competitions and fairs have been called off, and sanitizing rugs have begun to appear even at the doors of some dance clubs for people to disinfect their shoes.
Meanwhile, immunization of the country's livestock continues. The vaccines have been imported because national production was interrupted eight years ago, as required by the FMD-free certification.
The victory won against foot-and-mouth in 1994, after a decades-long battle, has been completely erased. At least four more years are needed to renew Uruguay's herds - and to recover lost markets.
* Marcelo Jelen is an IPS editor