Saturday, October 15, 2011

Marajó - Brazil's Island of Buffalos

The enormous island of Marajó sits at the mouth of the Amazon river system and is by all measures the largest riverine island in the world. Its 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) make it larger than the country of Switzerland or the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro. It is the 35th largest island in the world - of any type. It sits almost directly on the Equator and is hot and humid all year round.

The only access to the island is by air or water - there is no land connection. From the nearest major city, Belém, it is a three-hour ferry ride to Marajó. Ferries dock at the island city of Soure. Even on the island most transportation is by boat along the coast - there are very few roads.

The major economic activity on the island is ranching and there are significant herds of cattle and buffalo. The estimated buffalo population of Marajó is 600,000 which is just about three times the human population. The buffalo raised on Marajó are not Noth American buffalos (they're actually not buffaloes at all; they're bisons), but rather Asian water buffalos. Marajó is very low and flat and during the rainy season much of the island is flooded - making water buffalos a perfect species to raise. Buffalos are happiest in hot, muggy climates and up to their necks in water so Marajó must seem like paradise to them.

Making buffalo mozzarella on Marajó
The animals are raised both for their meat and for their milk. The species of buffalo is the same one that is raised in the Campania region of Italy, where its milk is turned into the famous mozzarella di bufala, and Marajó has a significant cheese-making industry - one that is growing by leaps and bounds as the demand for buffalo mozzarella grows. Islanders have always preferred buffalo meat to cattle, but it's only recently that there has been any demand for buffalo meat in other regions of Brazil. As the beneficial nutritional profile of buffalo meat becomes more well known, particularly in relation to the profile of beef, demand for buffalo meat has grown tremendously in recent years. Marajó supplies nearly all that demand domestically in Brazil and there is an increasing market for export as well.

Traditionally-dressed vaqueiros (cowboys)
Another growing industry on Marajó is eco-tourism and several of the large buffalo ranches offer guest accommodation and activities. Visitors to these ranches have an opportunity to experience the life of the vaqueiros (cowboys) who manage the huge herds of buffalo and cattle and who have a unique and rich culture that dates back centuries. Some even offer guests the chance to ride a buffalo - something that local police do all the time (see the photo below). And of course, all visitors to the ranches can regale themselves with lots of local (very local) buffalo-meat dishes and cheeses.

No comments:

Post a Comment