The country is famed for the quality of its beef and nearly every occasion is celebrated with an asado barbecue. So how is its nascent vegan movement being received?
Argentina is one of the largest beef producers in the world and the flavour of its meat is as famed as its quality footballers and Tango dancers.
Over the past decade, as in many parts of the world - especially with global warming and environmental disasters taking place - vegetarians and vegans have been gaining more and more space in the Argentinean society.
As a result an intense debate over veganism has gripped the country, even triggering some violent episodes. Many people see veganism as an “anti-Argentinian” practice as festivities and celebrations are almost always observed with an asado, or barbecue feast. From birthdays to normal Sunday gatherings, families and friends love to grill cow meat.
But vegan activists are still defying the country's meat-eating habits, which are deeply rooted in their tradition. The most recent protest they held was in late September at Expo Rural, which led to violence as Argentinian cowboys used bullwhips to chase them out of the rodeo festival.
With Argentina considered among the worst countries regarding animal protection in South America, according to The Animal Protection Index, the country's non-profits and animal rights activists 'stand alone' in their fight against widespread animal cruelty. And vegan activists play a crucial role in this small yet significant movement.
So what drives vegans to resist meat in a country that cherishes its grass-fed cows and takes pleasure in eating them?
Two years ago, 28-year-old Antonella Recanatessi became a vegan. A resident of La Pampa province, one of Argentina's cow-meat producing heartlands, she'd quit eating meat for about six years until she finally settled on veganism, a way of living that excludes, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of food, clothing and other usable items made from animals.
Before permanently becoming a vegan, she read extensively and researched the practice, examining farm footage videos, listening to TED Talks and watching full-length documentaries. The takeaway was that to save the environment one can start by fixing daily meals.
Recanatessi soon joined Córdoba Animal Save, a local abolitionist organisation that holds vigils to highlight animal cruelty in farms and slaughterhouses.
TRT World met Recanatessi and two other members of the organisation - Cintia, a 38-year-old construction business owner, and Carola, a 22-year-old nutrition student - in the rural city of Colonia Caroya, which is about 50 kilometres away from the city of Cordoba, where the three women live.
It was a sunny and hot April morning and the activists were at a hog slaughterhouse, waiting for the supply trucks to arrive.
The aim of their vigil was to ensure the arriving animals would be treated humanely prior to the butcher's knife striking them.
“The hardest thing about being a vegan is the constant state of sorrow that comes along with it,” says Recanatessi. "It’s everywhere — from a butcher shop to every single family reunion.”
Her fellow activist Cintia nods in agreement.
“People don’t know how we suffer. What happens to these animals is the first thing that I think every morning when I wake up,” she explains.
“For me it gets harder and harder to participate in traditions like the family asado. The last time I ended up crying in the bathroom all through the evening. It’s the nature and tone of those conversations--that how 'soft and tasty the meat is'. I find it very disrespectful and I've stopped going to such gatherings just to avoid confrontations,” Recanatessi says.
But for Carola, another activist sitting next to Recanatessi, such social settings offer the best opportunity to put the message of veganism across.
“When I’m asked [about veganism], and someone always asks you, I take all the time in the world to explain why I do what I do. It’s a great opportunity to share vegan food and show people how good it is," Carola says.
"But I agree that there's a whole lot of patience involved. I was once handed a pig's head with some lettuce in his mouth by an uncle as he said: “here’s your dinner.”
The activists tell TRT World that sometimes they find resistance and anger from the employees of slaughterhouses when they visit them to maintain a vigil.
But most often, like in this vigil, the employees address them kindly and cautiously. It's a given that they will not entertain cameras and say “please, no filming allowed”.
At the Colonia Caroya slaughterhouse, one woman who is about to finish her shift tells Recanatessi that she understands their point of view even though she works in a butcher shop and doesn't eat meat. "But really, do you think it serves any purpose?” she asks.
In a convincing tone, both Cintia and Antonella said: “Clearly yes, it does.”
Hugo, the butcher
Hugo Leonne, a 44-year-old butcher, entertains his clients with sarcasm. Leonne runs a butcher shop along with his father in a small town of La Granja. The majority of his clients are men.
In rural towns like La Granja 'knowing your meat' and having a trustworthy butcher is an essential qualification for becoming a 'true man'. The tradition of asado is considered 'a man thing' and it is equally important for men to sit at a dinner table full of sharp knives, bread, and wine to go along with red - grass fed - grilled cow meat.
“You can't put on record what I think about vegans,” says Leonne. “I can understand that some people are worried about the conditions that some animals are forced into, but from there into banning meat, that is what vegans want, it’s something that makes no sense at all. It's not only against our tradition, but also against mankind. It's like telling the lion not to hunt."
Leonne says he doesn't feel anything when he cuts an animal.
"I’m totally fine with it," he affirms. "Life without meat makes no sense at all. It's absolute stupidity.”
An expert's view
Ezequiel Arrieta, a 31-year-old researcher at the prestigious IMBV Institute of the National University of Córdoba and author of the book Vegetarianism in the political debate,
is part of a movement trying to change the country’s food guide recommendations. These are not only full of meat, but also include processed meat, which according to the World Health Organization are as carcinogenic as uranium.
“The Argentinian normal diet is way too rich in animal origin food, with cow meat in first place, following chicken, many processed meats, refined cereals, and very poor in legumes, fruit, and raw vegetables...the basic food basket, that subsidises processed foods, could be changed for a healthier and cheaper version, if only the recommendation guides would catch up with the past 30 years of research,” says Arrieta.
“I think it’s a hard challenge to become vegan in Argentina, because access to a great deal of of options is very limited. But done properly, it can be a completely healthy diet, and one that I think we will see grow more in time, because the environment and health aside, which are already very strong reasons not to eat animals, the ethical aspect will only see growth...newer generations are more sensible to the suffering of these farm animals, and give very little for traditions like asados.”
From an environmental point of view the consequences of having more than 50 million cows in the country are big, no matter how you see it. The argument that because cows in Argentina are mainly pasture fed animals, and that the same environment consumes the methane that cows emanate is a very pretty idea, but according to Arrieta, as far as the science goes, it's never been proven correct in any conditions.
Before leaving, Arrieta gives TRT World a flipside of the idea that not eating meat is a ‘bourgeois luxury’ reserved only for those who can afford to question their consumption based on information that isn't accessible to all: “In current conditions the case could be made that in some senses not eating meat is a luxury reserved for those who have guaranteed their four daily meals.
“But seen as a matter of public health, and that is what my work aims to do, the real luxury - when you take in the health, environmental, and resources consumption conditions that involve eating meat - is there. Eating meat, especially cow meat is the true luxury, and one that for many reasons we can't continue consuming as we do.”
Gabriel, a cattle rancher
Until very recently Gabriel Bracamonte had two jobs, the first taking care of almost everything at a cattle ranch near Jesus Maria, and the second in a dog rescue shelter where he was in charge of almost 40 dogs in the nearby Colonia Caroya. In the shelter, where he also lived, he formed what he thought was a friendship with his boss, a woman in her 40s with whom Gabriel would share daily vegetarian meals for over half a decade, as his boss didn’t eat meat for ethical reasons.
A month ago Gabriel confessed to his boss at the shelter that one night his dogs had chased a wild hog on the ranch and caught it. Instead of helping the hog escape, Gabriel said he killed and cooked the animal.
Immediately afterwards, and despite seven years of work, Gabriel was fired, with no legal indemnisation. His former boss even took away his personal companion at the shelter, the dog that had caught the wild hog, named Rocky.
“I couldn't understand anything, I told her because I wanted to be honest about a situation which I don’t think was wrong on my behalf, and she fired me with no further chance...but when she took my dog away, that’s what really broke my heart, for me and for the dog...imagine being the special one, to being one more out of 40… where’s the compassion there?” says Gabriel with tears in his eyes.
“I truly and totally understand the vegan point of view; I could even imagine becoming vegetarian with no problem, but I think that some people take this too far, they forget that humans are many times victims too, that some traditions are important; that sometimes in real life an animal has to die in order for others to live,” says the 34-year-old gaucho
From half a kilometre away Gabriel calls out to the cows so they come in for a picture. The 500-kilogramme animals trust Gabriel and no fear can be seen in their gestures, until they see this reporter with a camera in hand.
“The hard part of my job is when we take the calves away, that never comes easy… because you know what these calves are soon destined for [slaughter] and because many times the mothers wander for days searching, not finding… it’s hard to watch that, but it’s what my boss decides, not me,” says Gabriel.