By now the credentials of Brazil’s beef industry are known well enough. The South American powerhouse is the second largest producer of beef in the world as well as its largest exporter. In March alone, it exported as much as 200,000 tonnes of the commodity, earning more than $1.12 billion from the sales. What is less known, though, is the role Indian cattle played in the industry’s development.

In the late 19th century, European settlers encroached on the lands of the indigenous people in the central-west state of Mato Grosso to set up cattle ranches. The hitch was the tropical climate of the state. Hot and muggy, it was not suited for Northern European cattle breeds accustomed to cooler climes. Determined to succeed, innovative ranchers in the region introduced special grasses and decided to import cows from distant India, a country which had similar climatic conditions.

Their cattle of choice was the zebu (Bos indicus), a sub-species indigenous to the Indian subcontinent that is characterised by a fatty hump on its shoulders. Historical records indicate that zebu cattle were transported to South America as early as the beginning of the 19th century. But Brazil began to import zebu cattle from India in the 1890s, with the first batch from Nellore heading to the Triângulo Mineiro region in Minas Gerais state that borders Mato Grosso.

“The first regular imports of zebu were the Nellore variety, called Ongole in India,” wrote Robert Wilcox, associate professor of history at Northern Kentucky University, in his 2017 book Cattle in the Backlands: Mato Grosso and the Evolution of Ranching in the Brazilian Tropics. “The animal, from the region around Madras, has a distinctive predominantly white hair colour. It is the most predominant zebu breed in South America today, particularly central Brazil.”

Also imported in large numbers were the Gir and Kankrej, which is called Guzerá in Brazil and is known for its resistance to parasites.

“Why these three breeds were chosen is not entirely clear, but it seems to have had something to do with breeding in India, their dominance in that country and their ability to satisfy the fundamental criterion of Brazilian buyers: durability, docility and adaptability to a variety of purposes,” Wilcox wrote. When Brazilian businessmen came to India to buy cattle from Indian herders, they had unscientific criteria in mind, such as the colour of the cattle and the length of their ears. This amused Indian traders so much that they jocularly referred to the Brazilians as the “buyers of cattle ears,” Wilcox said.

The Indian breeds became renowned in Brazil for their sturdiness and ability to withstand harsh weather, floods and droughts. The zebu cattle could endure long marches to the best pastures in the country, which added to their popularity.

One of the biggest proponents of Indian cattle imports was a rich landowner named Colonel José Caetano Borges, who founded the Borges & Irmãos import company. In 1905, Borges sent his employee Angelo Costa to India to buy Nellore, Gir and Kankrej cattle. Accounts of his travel reveal that the Brazilian buyer travelled from Bombay to various parts of the country in search of strong cattle that would survive the long journey from India to Brazil. Finally, Costa took back 49 heads of cattle to Uberaba in Minas Gerais state, where they were lapped up by local ranchers. This encouraged him to go back to India in 1907 and import cattle on a much larger scale. By the early 1920s, over 3,000 cattle from India found their way to Brazil.

Indu-Brasil breed

The vast majority of cattle imported from India were bulls. “While some females were included in shipments, most imported animals were males, which were mated to native Bos taurus cows originating in the Iberian Peninsula,” a group of Brazilian scientists led by Flavio V Meirelles and Artur JM Rosa wrote in a 1999 paper titled ‘Is the American zebu really the Bos indicus?’.

Unhappy with the result of breeding the Indian bulls with cows of Iberian origin, the ranchers in Triângulo Mineiro, under the leadership of Borges, decided in the early 1920s to create a Brazilian zebu breed, which was mainly a cross between the Gir and the Guzerá. Borges wanted to name the new breed Indu-Uberaba after his hometown, but he faced resistance from farmers from other parts of the country. Finally named Indu-Brasil, the breed was almost immediately popular. That an adult bull can weigh over 1,200 kg and an adult cow over 750 kg probably contributed to its acceptance.

“A pure zebu breed, with no input from Bos taurus, it was mainly a cross between Gir and Guzerá, although other zebu stock was not entirely absent,” Wilcox wrote. “The creators of the Indu-Brasil succeeded in obtaining a much greater quantity of meat per animal than provided by zebu, crossed with European breeds, and by 1930 it was being touted as the saviour of the Brazilian cattle industry.”

The Indu-Brasil cattle with the longest ears fetched the highest price in the market. Not surprisingly, the demand for it skyrocketed. “By the late 1930s it had become clear that the stocks of purebred Indian cattle were precariously low in Brazil,” Wilcox wrote. “That prompted the federal government to stimulate the breeding of pure-blooded stock and to guarantee genealogical lines through herd and studbooks.”

The breed remained popular for decades, although there were concerns about the degree of human intervention required to ensure newborn calves drank their mother’s milk. In the 1950s, there were calls to bring in new cattle from India, but a government ban on imports forced ranchers to smuggle zebu cattle from somewhere closer – Bolivia. Left with little choice, the government lifted its ban and, in 1962, Brazil once again began to import bulls from India. As many as 318 Nellore cattle heads were brought to the country to “inject blood back into Brazilian herds,” as Wilcox put it.

Till date, Nellore cattle are the most prized in Brazil’s tropical ranches. As much as 90% of its beef production comes from Nellore cattle. Meanwhile, the Indu-Brasil is considered an endangered breed in Brazil, although it is found in several other Latin American countries, such as Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico, as well as some African countries, Australia and Thailand.

Cattle diplomacy

Although the story of Indian exports helping build the Brazilian cattle industry is one of the most important historical developments in India-Brazil ties, given the sensitivity regarding beef consumption among certain sections of the society in India, this chapter has somewhat been downplayed. In a January 2020 brief on India-Brazil relations, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs makes a small mention of cattle. “Another remarkable, but relatively unknown facet of our bilateral relations is that the bulk of Brazilian cattle are of Indian origin,” the ministry said, leaving out India’s role in Brazil becoming one of the leading producers and exporters of beef in the world.

But the story does not end here. It could come full circle if India goes ahead with the proposal to import Gir bull semen. “As uncertain and prone to error as the Brazilian breeding program was in the past, it has now become a major player in the industry, not only consolidating the dominance of the zebu in Brazil, but also serving as a repository for possible export to India,” Wilcox wrote.

Some scientists have suggested that the purity of Indian herds has declined due to lack of genealogical controls and the introduction of European milk cows in India. However, plans to import the semen of Brazilian Gir cows have faced resistance from Gujarat’s cattle breeders, who claim that they have preserved the original genetics of Gir cattle and that the Brazilian cattle have been genetically modified. The bull semen import plan was shelved in 2019 but there was talk of reviving it two years later.

Regardless of how the saga unfolds, the journey of Nellore, Gir and Kakrej cattle from India to Brazil in the 19th and 20th century will remain a remarkable chapter in the history of globalisation.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.