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.

1 comment:

  1. Another snippet showing the global problem of goats, this time in China. The Times of 23 March had an article on cashmere which described how the Chinese authorities are reducing the size of the national herd of cashmere-producing goats. "As the goat numbers incresed, so the delicate ecology of their semi-arid grazing lands suffered. The Chinese Government began a programme of tree planting to hold the top soil and prevent sandstorms blowing into Beijing from the Mongolian desert. But as fast as they planted, the goats ate the saplings. ......They eat everything: needle grass, thorns, the roots of trees." Herds are now limited, grazing rotated and the plantations are fenced.