Tuesday, 28 March 2006

Soya beans and wildlife

Being an environmentally friendly conservationist is not easy these days. And those who also try and live it as vegetarians have an even harder time. This is because what at first appear to be simple decisions, end up being complcated and often contradictory. Organic food, often comes with masses of airmiles attached, and fair trade often displaces British producers. And then there is the humble SOYA BEAN 0r soybean.

Over the past few decades there has been a massive increase in the worldwide production of soya bean. Millions (yes tens of millions) of acres of land have been converted into soyabean growing plantations. And much of this has been land that was until recently unploughed, wilderness full of wildlife. In 1961 there were a mere quarter of a million hectares (2,500 sq kms) of soyabean in the whole of Brazil, according to FAO statistics. But by 2005 there were 229,000 square kilometres(nearly 55 million acres) in production -- that's an area not much smaller than the United Kingdom. And in South America as a whole, there were some 400,000 square kilometres -- nearly the size of California, and larger than Finland. In 1961 there were a mere 1300 hectares of Soya bean in Paraguay, but by 2005 this had leapt to nearly 2 million hectares, much of it from ploughing up the chaco and other undisturbed habitats. And in Argentina, much the same story, with less than 1000 hectares in 1961, jumping over 14 million in 2005.

Flying up the Paraguay River last year to visit the area the WLT is helping Guyra Paraguay to purchase and protect, I could see the impact of soya bean. The Brazilian side of the border was much more intensively farmed, bearing witness to the pressure on the wild chaco of Paraguay. At least the lands were are helping buy will be spared that fate.

And it is us in the northern hemisphere, with our new-fangled quest for 'healthy living' that are behind this massive destruction of the rainforest and other habitats for soya beans.

Eat locally; think globally.

Money laundering

In the years since the World Land Trust has been in existence, the amount of paperwork involved has increased dramatically. When the Trust was launched in 1989 PCs were in their infancy, and electronic communication was still something in the future, and the 'paperless office' was barely a concept. Now less than 20 years on, we are weighed down under a load of paperwork, albeit, often electronic paperwork. New rules and regulations make it increasingly difficult to transfer money to our projects, and this is usually explained by it being to 'prevent money laundering' But part of the problem seems to be that banks increasingly rely on systems, rather than people. Once upon a time, I went to a bank, and saw the manager, and sorted out a transfer. If a Trustee changed, we filled in a form, and added him or her to our bank signatories. But now, everything requires ID papers, copies of electricity bills, copies of passports, and other paperwork, all of which is easily forged. So the net result is that the honest majority now have an enormous amount of paperwork, while the would-be money launderer or criminal of any sort will probably still get away with their crimes, because the pieces of paper needed are easy enough to forge.

It is a situation analogous to the bureaucratic overload that the agricultural agencies such as the UK's DEFRA have introduced. Someone like myself with a handful of sheep, three llamas and a pig has to go through all the expenses of registration and movement orders, while being of minimal risk for animal disease issues, while the people who are most likely to cause the problems are also the ones most likely to ignore the regulations.

So when donors ask about admin costs of a charity, they should be aware of the vast amount of paperwork that we are now require to fill in -- not only that, it keeps changing from year to year. It has now reached such a level, that if a charity appears to have exceptionally low overheads you really need to question if it is complying with all the regulations. Are they registered with the Data protection Act, and in compliance? Are they SORP compliant? Just two areas which many charities fail on.

Friday, 24 March 2006

Data protection

The Data Protection act is increasingly important piece of legislation, protecting you and everyone else who uses the internet in the UK. However, it does mean that there is an additional layer of beaurocracy, and it seems that some organisations don't bother to register. This is, not just an issue of good practice, but illegal if the organisation keeps records of donors and supporters. I was therefore amazed to find when I searched the Data protection website (http://www.ico.gov.uk/eventual.aspx?id=1) that several charities raising funds on the internet do not appear to be registered -- so do check before making you donation -- it's easy enough. And certainly ask an organisation why they are not registered, if you cannot find them in the register.

Foreign aid and wildlife

In my post-goat research, I began to realise that foreign aid, particularly that driven by religious zeal, was often misguided at best, and environmentally disastrous at worst. I came across a very interesting example, which I think encapsulates some of my concerns:
"...the World Health Organization Project, designed to eradicate malaria from Sri Lanka in the postwar years, achieved its purpose. But the problem today is that Sri Lanka must feed three times as many mouths, find three times as many jobs, provide three times the housing, energy, schools, hospitals and land for settlement in order to maintain the same standards. Little wonder the natural environment and wildlife in Sri Lanka has suffered. The fact [is] ... that the best-intentioned aid programs are at least partially responsible for the problems."
Interestingly this was a quote from an address on receiving an Honorary Degree from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, July 1, 1983, given by HRH Prince Philip.

I certainly would not suggest that malaria erradiction is not important, but all these programmes need to be thought through....thoroughly.

Supermarket baggage

Ireland brought in a tax on plastic bags in March 2002, and all shops and othersales outlets must charge customers 10p per plastic bag. Before the tax was introduced,about 1.2 billion plastic bags were given to customers annually. The levy has been a great success with a billion fewer non-recyclable plastic being and £2.25m raised for the new Environmental Fund. With whales, turles and other wildlife often dieing as a result of swallowing plastic bags, as well as the unsightly ltter they create, it is high time the British government introduced a similar measure, and started to demontrtate a real commitment to environmental issues.

Monday, 13 March 2006

Gaia in Africa

I have always liked the concept of Gaia Theory. It is relatively simple, and does explain a lot of what we observe in the natural world. And while snoozing on a train back from London last week, I was wondering how the impact of human populations could be explained using Gaia Theory. This in turn led me to think about the problems of Africa, and the way aid agencies were using goats, cows and other livestock to solve the problems of poverty and human suffering.

So I gathered some very simple statistics. The human populations of Africa, the cattle population and the goat populations. I got om to the FAO website and garnered data for 1961 and compared it with 2000. Pretty scary stuff. The human population leapt from 284 million to over 795 million, and similar increases occurred in all the livestock figures, viz cattle jumped from 122 million to 224 million, sheep and goats from 229 million to 451 million, camels doubled from 8 million to nearly 16 million, buffaloes from 1.5 million to 3.3 million and there were similar increases in all other livestock such as geese, chickens and ducks.

Gaia Theory assumes that the total biomass is more or less constant, and the increase in human and related livestock biomass has increased, and will therefore incur an equivalent loss from the ecosystem, probably of wildlife. The human biomass alone (assuming an average weight of 50kgs per person), will have increased by about 26 million tonnes. In the same period the biomass of cattle has risen by som 20 million tonnes, sheep and goats by 6 million tonnes. Taking these figures alone, it is an increase in mammalian biomass of at least 52 million tonnes. This represents nearly 9 million elephants -- or over a billion antelopes.

Now there's some food for thought. And we are still encouraging more livestock in Africa, and the human population is, to use a hackneyed phrase, a time bomb of which the fuse has been lit. Without the aid agencies putting more effort into controlling female fertility, wars, famine and disease are the only certainty for much of Africa. But a quick search of websites for information on what the big aid charities are doing to control female fertility, or subjects such as "population growth" reveal very few mentions at all. Worrying.

Cows for Africa

I am sure that all the worthy charities are very aware and carry out the appropriate research before spreading cows to the impoverished of Africa. But one of my corespondents pointed out that cows were perhaps not the best animal to help Africans. This was because most African populations have a relatively high intolerance to lactose. This is a gene that only occurs in about 5% of Scandinavian and northern Europeans, but is found in over 75-90% of Africans.

A paper published last June states that:
"On average, Sherman and Bloom found that 61 percent of people studied were lactose intolerant, with a range of 2 percent in Denmark and 100 percent in Zambia. They also found that lactose intolerance decreases with increasing latitude and increases with rising temperature, and especially with the difficulty in maintaining dairy herds safely and economically."
(see http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=25469)

Superficially, it would seem that those organisations advocating cows for Africa, are simply using the Europeans' familiarity with the cow as a symbol of fecundity to drive forward a campaign to colonise the continent with an animal product that are not part of the normal diet. Is this yet another form of imperialism?

I thought that perhaps goats milk might be better, but apparently it has only 'marginally' less lactose ( http://askdrsears.com/html/3/t032400.asp ).

Unfortunately my search of the internet for some positive data on the benefits of milk failed to yield results -- all I could find was information on the high levels of intolerance. Which rather reinforces the environmental negativity of cows. Any facts and figures would be useful.

The results of my research, albeit rather superficial, shows that the only Africans that normally have a significant degree of tolerance to lactose, are the nomadic herders -- and these are the very groups that are overgrazing and losing animals in droughts. The sedentary populations have the highest intolerance rates. So the Hutu in Rwanda are relatively intolerant, whereas the Tutsi are more tolerant. I am sure all this is well-known to the aid agencies promoting gats and cattle, but I found that very few others were very aware, and it seems to me to be an important issue.

Tuesday, 7 March 2006

Good Gifts from charities

There has been criticism of the practice of giving charity gifts, as these generally reflect the donors wishes, not the recipients. In fact in some case the recipients are unwittingly getting gifts they believe are entirely inappropriate. My criticisms of the 'Goats for Africa' were as a direct result of a well-meaning friend 'giving' my wife a goat a couple of years ago.

Rather than choosing a charity gift, for your friends and relatives, it is much better to give a gift voucher. My favourite website and charity gift catalogue is the Good Gifts (www.goodgifts.org). They offer Gift Vouchers that can be used to support any number of excellent charities, including the World Land Trust (and also goats). The important feature is that the person receiving the gift will actually get something they want, and feel good about it, whereas giving often means the donor feels good, not the recipient.