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ECONOMY | 10-10-2021 09:30

Argentina’s 120-year-old cattle auction is leaving Buenos Aires

In late December, the Mercado de Liniers, a sprawling open-air cattle market built in 1901, is slated to hold its final auction in front of what is certain to be a teary-eyed crowd.

Argentina’s ranchers, cattle traders and gauchos, iconic figures in a country where grilling beef has long been a sacred ritual, are getting kicked out of Buenos Aires.

In late December, the Mercado de Liniers, a sprawling open-air cattle market built in 1901, is slated to hold its final auction in front of what is certain to be a teary-eyed crowd. A brand-new facility, erected on the windswept pampas southwest of the city, will replace it, marking the end of an era. “It’s all very emotional,” says Ismael Frechero, a livestock buyer who’s been roaming the corrals at Liniers for five decades.

In fairness, the market’s time in the city was up. 

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Herdsman Ángel González oversees cattle on horseback. 'More than one of us will shed a tear' when Liniers shuts, said González, 62, who's worked at the market for four decades and whose sons also have jobs there.

Between the massive compost heaps and the harrowing incidents triggered by cattle-hauling trucks weaving through narrow streets, tensions with city dwellers have been mounting. They came to a boil one recent evening, when a hungry mob forced a driver to let out a cow and proceeded to slaughter it right there on the street.

“We’ve ended up in a place that we’re not supposed to be,” says Pablo Blasco, a 45-year-old cattle broker.

Liniers farewell cattle market city
Livestock hustle for space in one of 2,000 timber pens at the Mercado de Liniers. The golden era of Argentine ranching saw more than 30,000 cattle a day traded at Liniers; today, the number is closer to 8,000.

Liniers was never actually supposed to be in Buenos Aires. At the time of construction, it was well outside city limits. But urban sprawl soon engulfed it.

Calls to close it down first arose in the 1990s, kicking off a slow and winding process marred by one setback after another.

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The wheels fell off a previously planned move in 2006 when a protectionist government intervened heavily in Argentina's beef trade. But in 2017, the mayor of Buenos Aires put a deadline on kicking out the stockyards.

Officials running the market are hopeful that the move to the town of Cañuelas will help jump-start business. Many ranchers have begun cutting deals directly with slaughterhouses to avoid paying the exorbitant fees required to send their cattle all the way into the city. Still, even today, Liniers is the dominant cattle market in a country that, despite recent declines, remains both a top consumer and exporter of beef. Some 8,000 cows go through its auction ring on a typical day.

The new facility, a gleaming monument of modern-day ranching built at a cost of US$20 million, feels a world apart from the old one.

cattle market 6
The Canadian-designed architecture at the new Cañuelas market is a shrine to symmetry, with a 10–acre roof that’ll eventually provide all of the market’s energy and water needs by supporting solar panels and channeling rainfall.

At Liniers, the cattle pens were hewed from timber and the floors made of dirt; at Cañuelas, it’s all steel and brick. At Liniers, transactions were scribbled down on pen and paper; at Cañuelas, they’ll be documented digitally. There are even new safety guidelines at Cañuelas for the traders and gauchos on horseback: Out are the traditional cotton boina hats and soft alpargata slip-on shoes; helmets and heavy-duty boots are strongly encouraged instead.

Frechero, 70, is steeling himself for the move. “Just imagine it: People have come as boys, done military service, returned to the market, got married while working here and had families.” But, he says, “we have to adapt.”

Cañuelas cattle market 7
At ground level, several details are inspired by Temple Grandin, a US scientist who developed methods for more humane treatment of livestock.


by Jonathan Gilbert, Bloomberg

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