What is Uruguay’s Latest UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Uruguay has a new site on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Fray Bentos Industrial Landscape was added in July 2015. The listing brings Uruguay’s total on the list to two. But they couldn’t be more different. This site “stands out as an example of early 20th century industrial development”. The Historic Quarter of the City of Colonia del Sacramento is an urban landscape which “illustrates the successful fusion of the Portuguese, Spanish and post-colonial styles.”
Some journalists have suggested that the Fray Bentos site has no place on a list next to grand structures like the Taj Majal and Hagia Sofia. But UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee considered this meat processing plant to be of Outstanding Universal Value.
We visited the site recently and learned that the factory was set up in Fray Bentos for 3 reasons:
- the abundant supply of beef in the region
- the shippable river, making global exportation convenient
- the sloping nature of the landscape, allowing gravity to be used along the production line to bring the final products to the wharf
Through its 117 year history this industrialised slaughterhouse became well-known as La Gran Cocina del Mundo (the great kitchen of the world). Famous brands such as Oxo and Fray Bentos were originally produced here. The export of frozen beef from South America to Europe was also pioneered from this site.
But it wasn’t only the unique history of the factory which earned its World Heritage listing. It was also the cosmopolitan community of immigrants that were brought in to work in the factory. The workforce was made up of “immigrant workers who arrived from more than 55 nations”. [UNESCO] Original workers’ housing and social institutions are part of the site.
From 1865 the Liebig Extract of Meat Company (LEMCO) produced the famous precursor to stock cubes, and exported it to Europe. This company was the brainchild of Georg Giebert, who worked with the inventor of the extract, Justus von Liebig, to produce it more cheaply, and in greater quantity, in South America. Fray Bentos canned corned beef soon joined the meat extract on the ships. The corned beef was created using the meat remains from the extract, with added fat and salt.
In 1924 the complex changed hands and the Anglo Meat Packing Plant built a huge freezer and began exporting frozen meat to Europe. The freezer was original technology and had a floor area 100 x 40 metres, 5 storeys high, and could store 18000 tons of frozen meat. 70km of pipes distributed the ammonia gas around the building. Workers were brought in from the colder regions of Europe to work in the freezer because they should be acclimatised to the severe temperatures. Even so they could only stay in the freezers for very short periods.
At the height of production there were 3 shifts per day of 1500 workers. The canned meat production continued and expanded, as other products were developed and sold under a variety of brands alongside Fray Bentos.
This factory was largely responsible for feeding the soldiers in both World Wars of the 20th Century. In 1943, 16 million cans of Fray Bentos corned beef were shipped to Europe. After WW2, as the economy in Europe improved and the equipment in the factory became out-dated, the production was gradually moved away from Fray Bentos. Ultimately the Uruguayan government was given the complex in 1971. They kept it going on a smaller scale until it was closed on October 15, 1979. (Fortunately construction on the international bridge connecting Fray Bentos to Argentina was started that year, so not all workers had to leave the area.)
Our English-speaking guide, Nicolas, met us in the original administration office of the factory. It remains almost exactly as it was on that day in 1979 when business stopped. It’s like stepping into the past.
He took us to various parts of the complex:
Along the way we walked an interesting path. It was paved with thick steel plates, which had served as ballast in the empty ships on their way from Europe to collect the export products from the factory.
Machine room where they produced their own electricity with steam turbines, 3 years before Montevideo had electricity for its population.
Main control room, with its huge, marble-fronted switchboard.
Corned beef processing section, but only to peek through the window. It’s closed to visitors because the roof isn’t structurally safe.
Meat extract production area, where the meat was boiled in huge vats. It was then pressed to release the liquid, which was heated under pressure to form a concentrate with a molasses-like texture.
Slaughterhouse – the organisation of the production line meant that it took only 30 minutes to process a cow from death to freezer. It couldn’t have been a pleasant place to work. Nicolas told us that the workers from the slaughterhouse had to see a company psychologist regularly before they were paid.
Freezer – a sloping, open walkway connects the slaughterhouse to the top floor of the huge freezer. There is a chain pulley system hanging above the walkway which utilised gravity to take the meat from the slaughterhouse to the freezer. Each floor of the freezer is divided into rooms. It was possible to maintain a different temperature in each room, depending on the grade of meat being stored. The temperature also had to match the freezers on the ships transporting the meat across the sea, to avoid compromising its preservation.
The freezer is one of the most vulnerable parts of the World Heritage site. The insulation of the freezer is all natural cork. Unfortunately the cork takes up moisture, contributing to the deterioration of the building. They haven’t yet worked out how to solve this.
The tour ended back at the administration building, on the ground floor. This is where the Museum of Industrial Revolution is housed. You could spend a very long time in this section. It’s full of information, photos and relics of the pioneering history of the site.
Clearly, Fray Bentos has earned its place on the World Heritage list for a number of reasons, which are set out on the UNESCO website. Primarily the pioneering aspects stand out. The factory brought the industrial revolution to the region. It also created and supported a cohesive multi-racial community around it.
Through its physical location, industrial and residential buildings as well as social institutions, the site presents an illustration of the entire process of meat production on a global scale. [UNESCO]