Tuesday, 28 February 2006

The Last Goat

I have just heard my latest broadcast on goats, on BBC Radio 4 Home Planet. Catch it on the internet if you really want to hear it (Tues 28 Feb). Unfortunately, the panel discussing the issue failed to address the issues that particularly concern me, as well as perpetrating several errors. They claimed that goats 'have a light footprint' for instance. Far from the truth in areas where the flora is impoverished, as in these habitats goats will devour almost everything left that is edible.

And then they went on to discuss the keeping of goats in close confinement --which is not related to the issue I was raising. I am sure that the Charities supplying goats in Africa try to ensure reasonable standards of animal husbandry. But I am also sure that many animals are kept in conditions that would not be tolerated in England. The supporters of goats have also consistently failed to address the issue of what to do with the goats in time of drought and famine -- another mouth to feed and water. And no mention was made of the veterinary costs of keeping goats in cages.

In the discussions and newspaper articles that have followed my initial comments I have been aware that many of the defenders of goats appear to have little direct knowledge. I have not only travelled extensively in the arid parts of Africa, Asia, Europe and South America, and seen first hand the effects of a wide range of grazing, I have also kept goats, sheep and other livestock (and still do). I have first hand experience of the differences in the feeding of goats and sheep.

My initial criticism remains: goats are a major cause of poverty in Africa, and should not be marketted as a solution. Individual cases do not justify a high profile campaign promoting the species as a whole.

Part of the problem is that the charities promoting goats and other livestock seem totally committed, and not interested in discussing the issue. ON BBC TV last week, Caroline Nursey, International Director of OXFAM was asked by the interviewer if OXFAM would be reconsidering its position, to which she responded with a clear negative. In the same programme she also stated unequivocally that "goats do not cause desertification". If OXFAM are taking such a hard line stance, flying in the face of all the evidence, it is difficult to see how a constructive dialogue can develop.

As a result of all the publicity and discussion, I have been giving serious thought as to how to address the underlying issues causing poverty in the arid regions of Africa. In my view, one of the most important issues is that of land rights. Where land rights are confused, ill-defined, or often non-existent, there is no incentive for using the land sustainably. Everyone will try and accumulate as large a herd of livestock as possible, otherwise a neighbour will graze the land with his flocks. If aid agencies addressed these issues, it might go a long way to longterm solutions. The problem is that it is not easy to market this to the public -- selling a goat is.

To conclude, I would like to reiterate my position. Individual goats, in carefully controlled circumstances may do little harm to the environment; however, in these circumstances they probably do very little to alleviate extreme poverty either. Promoting goats (camels and other livestock) as a solution to poverty is misguided, and gives the wrong messages to the world at large, as they (goats) are a significant cause of poverty in arid and marginal habitats (where poverty is often widespread). I would also suggest that anyone 'buying' goats should also ask questions about the economic effects of the trade, since livestock such as goats, and particularly camels, are often more important as a wealth and status indicators, than as a major food commodity.

It's a very complicated issue, being misrepresented as a simple solution.

Friday, 17 February 2006

Goats and the news

The Times took up the goat issue, and as a result I was asked to discuss the issue on TV with the International Director of Oxfam. Unfortunately there was not much of a debate, because Caroline Nursey of Oxfam appears to be in denial about the relationship between goats and desertification -- claiming that "There is no connection between goats and desertification". If this really is Oxfam's official position, then the matter is very serious, and they ought to read the website of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). A search on that site of "desertification AND goats" produces over 1750 results. But I hope that was a slip of the tongue -- unfortunate because it was seen by several million viewers.

The trouble with TV and radio is that the debate is always in short, soundbites. One viewer wrote into claim that my criticism of goats was hypocrisy, because we offered consumers the opportunity to buy rainforest. But this is not remotely comparing like with like. One is encouraging people to destroy the environment, while the other is trying to protect it. I did not criticise all the gifts that Oxfam and other agencies offer, only livestock, being used as a means of poverty alleviation. And I am not alone in recognising that in general, the supply of animals, particularly goats to very poor people makes no sense at all -- for a huge range of reasons. And I am far from the first to criticise. Animal Aid have an excellent website, with scathing comments. What has been particularly interesting has been the many letters of support I have received. But more of that next week.

The only reassuring thing about the discussion appears to be that not all the money raised by the various charities selling goats, actually goes on goats -- if you read the small print. And Oxfam stated that not all their goats were involved in poverty alleviation, but were part of other programmes such as conflict resolution.

But Oxfam's claim that goats were good for the locals because were able to cary on feeding in areas so overgrazed by sheep and cattle, that the latter had died in a drought, was a particularly scary concept.

I would suggest that anyone with first-hand experience of goat issues writes to Oxfam.

Tuesday, 14 February 2006

Species increasing

Not all species are declining. A classic example is the Little Egret, which over the past couple of decades has greatly expanded its range in Europe. It has colonised Britain, and is now breeding in many parts of southern England. Last year driving back and forth between my home office and the World Land Trust office, I saw several prospecting trees along the river bank.

And then last weekend I saw one in our own garden. We have a small copse, which has a rookery with about a dozen nests in it, close to a stream and a pond -- an ideal site for a small heronry -- so parhaps we will have little egrets nesting in our backyard within a year or two. I certainly hope so. It would justify all the effort we have been putting into habitat restoration. Next to our copse is a field of about two acres, which we have been mowing to eliminate the nettles and thistles (over a metre high when we moved in), and are now grazing the field with llamas and sheep. The open, unsprayed meadow should be ideal for egrets, as they also often like to asociate with grazing animals.
Fingers crossed, watch this space.

Friday, 3 February 2006

Recycled printer cartridges

Readers of this blog may be interested in this news story, published on edie.net yesterday (with quotes from the WLT's Viv Burton):

Court case tightens company's grip on its ink cartridges

Tokyo Canon Inc has won a court case over their claim that companies refilling empty Canon printer cartridges are breaching the manufacturer's patent rights. This could spell trouble for charities relying on recycling cartridges as a source of income. And more importantly, if printer cartridges can no longer be refilled and reused, the effect on the environment from using these products will be greater. Said Viv:

"If Canon aren't prepared to do let others refill them they should be encouraged to do it themselves."

Wednesday, 1 February 2006

More about goats

It was before Christmas that I first wrote to OXFAM about their programme to create herds of goats across Africa, as a solution to poverty. Since writing my blogs on this issue, I have had lots of people confirm my negative views on this, as anyone with even scant knowledge about environmental degradation in Africa, is aware that goats are one of the main causes.

Unfortunately OXFAM have been unable to come up with a spokesperson who can justify their activities. Despite reminders, the best I got was a message that some one would contact me in about three weeks time.

An issue I did not mention in my earlier blogs, is that very often animals such as goats and camels (also being 'sold' as Christmas gifts) are frequently used as status symbols, not as sources of food. Goat keepers often try to accumulate large herds, which are then used for trading, bride-money etc.

But the big issue is still what do goats feed on? They either feed on foodstuffs that could have been eaten by humans, or they graze (and usually over-graze)on what is left of the natural vegetation. And it is this latter which is the problem. As far as I am concerned, until OXFAM, and the other charities involved can answer these criticisms, we should consider goats a threat to the environment, and discourage any increase in their populations, which are already unsustainable in many parts of Africa.