The Chaco

We rode all day on a slow train through the chaco, the interminable forest of northern Argentina. It is a land of forest with open spaces not timbered but covered with large coarse grass. The timber is scrubby but valuable, as much of it is the quebracho wood from which is made quebracho tanning extract. The soils vary much. In general it is a perfectly level ground deficient in drain-age, having more rainfall than regions farther south. The soil is heavy, much of it black, resembling considerably the buckshot soils of Louisiana. Such fields as I saw in cultivation had, however, a looser, richer soil than the Louisiana buckshot type. In fact, it may be said to be in its best areas a rich soil. It grows good alfalfa, fair maize (the climate may be too hot for maize), castor beans, cassava, glorious orange trees (the older ones al-most like forest trees), rather stunted sugar cane (lacking moisture, I judge) and cotton.

A more level land I have never seen. We did not in the day’s ride pass one farm or garden. The land is so level that a heavy rain puts most of it under water. No drainage canals have been cut. The one enterprise, a vast one, is taking out quebracho wood. All of the region has probably enough rainfall and heat and a good enough soil for cotton culture. It will not come in the level interior until a system of drainage is inaugurated. The present cotton lands are mostly tributary to Resistencia, lying west and northwest of that point. There is also much land in northern Corrientes adapted to cotton, but now given wholly to cattle. The territory of Formosa has a poor soil. It is covered with forests as well. The cost of clearing up lands near Resistencia ready for the plow would not exceed $12 per. acre. There is also much land now ready for the plow.

I should guess that there is in Argentina as much cotton land as is in Alabama. It ‘ awaits immigration, clearing, ditching and cultivation. Continued high prices of cotton would no doubt do something toward stimulating this industry, but European immigrants are quite unused to cot-ton culture and do not take kindly to it. There is an import duty of 5 cents per pound on raw cotton imported into Argentina. There are mills using cotton in Buenos Aires.


Coming down through the chaco we enjoyed seeing the lumbering operations. It is all done with splendid big, raw-boned oxen. Quebracho trees are slow-growing, misshapen, crooked things, as a rule, but they work them up with some care, as their wood is valuable. A young Englishman, manager of a big timber company, told us the following anecdote : A North American company bought a tract of timber, with the mills and motive power, including the peons, to work it. There-upon they sent down a new American manager. The new man was shocked to see the condition of things about the plant; of his peons not one was married; they all worked by task work, each one by himself ; they brought in the logs by means of the slow plodding oxen. The American resolved on sweeping reforms. First of all he commanded that all his peons should get married, and brought in a priest to marry them in a wholesale way; then he hired them to work by the day at better wages than had ever before been paid in the chaco; he would encourage them to work hard. Then he bought mules to do his logging.

Guess the -result. It rained; the chaco became a miry expanse; there was no road save through mud and water; the mules could not and would not go; the men working no longer at task work but by the day, slipped out of sight in the jungle and. went to sleep, and no one could find them. The married came to him, one by one, complaining thus : “Señor, this woman lived with me many years, and I had no. trouble with her until after I was married to her; since then I can not trust her out. of my sight; she is always running away from me. I wish you to unmarry me so that my woman will be true as she was before.”

The American manager in his wrath renounced all that he had known in the states, reinstated the oxen and the task work, but he could not undo the mischief that he had done by imposing marital ties !

My most vivid memory of the chaco is of the clumps. of giant pampas grasses, growing some-times sixteen feet high, and of a horseman riding between the clumps. The white plumes and the yellow stems and blades made a strikingly picturesque effect and I wondered why we did not. grow more of this grass in North America.

What is to be the future of the chaco” Very rapid indeed is the destruction of timber along the railway, and it is very slowly replenished. If timber operators with whom I talked are not mistaken the woods of the chaco will not endure more than twenty or thirty years. Will the land go to cultivation? Assuredly much of it will, but there will be need of great dredged channels to carry away water, for it is a fiat region. It should grow cotton and corn and alfalfa on parts of it. There are now immense open glades covered with pampas grasses, so high that elephants would be hidden in them; these can be made to grow good grasses, and then cattle. It is, how-ever, a tick-infested region at present.


Few regions are less attractive than the chaco. Insects, mud, the vista forever shut in by ranks of gnarled and twisted trees, a hot sun and little chance of breeze—this is the chaco as I saw it. The young English manager of the great lumber company told me this story. The Indians of the chaco have never been conquered, but they have been nearly exterminated. He says that a great blunder was committed, for should agriculture be attempted there would be no source of labor. However, he admitted that in his own territory they still shot the few remaining Indians as fast as they saw them, because otherwise they would be in danger of their poisoned arrows, and that he thought them nearly untamable. Probably under such treatment they are wild, to say the least.

I like this frank young Englishman, typical of a host of them that one finds scattered over the world. They are well born, well fed, well muscled clean-living fellows. They bring with them that love for outdoor life and hard exercise that characterizes the English. He loves horses and rides well, after the English fashion; he loves to administer and order about other people; that also characterizes the English; but he is kind and just and a good administrator as a rule. Also he is usually liked by his employes and subjects, sometimes devotedly loved by them, as I have frequently seen in South America and elsewhere. It is quite de-sired by Spanish landowners to employ capable English or American managers and superintendents ; their habits of work and order, their liking to get up early in the morning and get out to see things stir—these things endear them to the land-owning class of employers.

From Resistencia southward we indulged in the luxury of a sleeping car. It was less comfortable during the day, however, than our common American day cars, although at night we enjoyed it. As there were no sheep in the chaco we continued southward. We stayed a day or two in Rosario and then went on to Buenos Aires. The distance is something like from Washington to Palm Beach. In Rosario I was busy interviewing landowners as to the cost of growing wheat and corn. Certainly such studies are at the best most imperfect because yields vary tremendously, depending on the seasons, yet we learned some interesting facts. One of the men interviewed was Henry B. Coffin, an American landowner who has lived for forty years along the River Plate, as the Englishmen call Rio de la Plata. Mr. Coffin is a landowner and colonizes his land in part. Wheat is grown almost exclusively by colonists, who are not landowners but tenant farmers, commonly Italians or Spaniards, rarely Frenchmen. I quote Mr. Coffin :

“The best colonists are Italians; they make the most successful farmers. They are often from northern Italy. Next to them are the Spanish and French. Men of Anglo-Saxon blood are always a failure in agriculture in Argentina. The reason is that they must live too well; they cannot practice the economies that the Italians practice. For example, the Italian will rig three riding plows, with horses or oxen. One he will drive himself. One his young son or daughter will drive. One his wife may drive. If the children are too small to lift the plows and turn them around he will attend to that at each end, waiting till they have come out.” He is also economical as to food. Most native Argentines are large consumers of meat. The Italian is a small consumer of meat, and meat steadily advances in price. In every way he is frugal. He is an indifferent farmer when he comes to Argentina, but he learns the use of improved American machinery and advances. He is more or less stupid, yet he will imitate the methods of any man who makes a success.