Tuesday, 31 October 2006

The Goat season approaches

Despite my criticisms, and the general failure of aid agencies to address the issues adequately, it seems more and more charities are jumping on the 'goats for Africa' bandwagon.

But before buying a goat for Christmas have a look at http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/deserts/desertification/

And not only goats. All manner of livestock. Including camels. And this is despite the fact that livestock, particularly cattle and camels are often simply status symbols. And as the website quoted above shows, in areas prone to drought, when a drought comes along, there is wholesale death and destruction of livestock. I am not saying that in some cases livestock are not a good thing in Africa, but in many many cases, goats and other livestock are a cause of poverty, not a solution. It is irresposible for aid agencies to continue to promote them as a solution. Any schoolkid logging on to the internet in Kenya or other parts of Africa will get a very wrong message.

Oxfam claims to have provided 700,000 goats to Africa in the past three years, according to an interview in the Guardian of 18 October. I don't know how many that has now grown to, but using the fact that (according to Oxfam's publicity) the goats are meant to breed, that means there's now an extra million or two goats running around eating everything they can. The Oxfam Unwrapped Team claim, to counter claims that the animals were being bred for slaughter, on their website state that the goats are "not slaughtered for meat" but only used for their milk. But what happens to all the little billy goat kids? Around 50% of the goats will not produce milk.

Other aid charities claim that they are using 'improved' European breeds of cattle and other livestock -- but don't specify how these 'improved' breeds benefit a society which generally measures wealth by numbers, not quality of livestock. In fact all the aid agencies fail to address this fundamental issue -- in most parts of Africa, livestock = wealth. So giving the poorest members of society goats can also severely disrupt the social structures. Like so much of foreign aid it is another form of aid imperialism. Telling people we know what's best for them, and making them aid dependent. Aid has been pouring into Africa for 30 or 40 years or more, and the situation in most places is significantly worse than at the time the colonial era ended in the 1960s. Is there a connection? I certainly think so. I am not against aid per se, but the way it is disbursed is often demonstrably wrong, ineffective and disempowering. I would also argue that it is often financially inefficient -- though this is difficult to ascertain, as it is difficult, if not impossible to disentangle from the accounts of the organisations involved.

And a new book, The White Man's Burden, by William Easterly, a Fellow at the Center for Global Development, argues this case very cogently, according to the reviews I have read -- though I have mot yet been able to get a copy.

To reiterate the figures: Sub Saharan Africa has seen its goat population go from a mere 77,600,000 in 1961 to 211,000,000 by 2005. And Oxfam are helping it grow even faster as a quote from their website shows:

"Oxfam gave me three goats - I did not have any goats at all before. My goats later started to multiply and after two years I gave three goats to my neighbour...At some point I sold 5 goats ... I am now left with 5 goats, of which 2 are also already pregnant." Wilma Mura, a widow in Karika, Sudan

Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid, has published some very cogent arguements against the use of animals in subSaharan Africa, from the welfare point of view, and also pointed out that a newly lactating cow needs about 90 litres of water a day..... Visit his website for more arguments against sending animals to Africa this Christmas.

Monday, 30 October 2006

Climate change suddenly fashionable

Over the past few months suddenly climate change, global warming and carbon emissions have become headline news. Newspapers and magazines are full of it, radio and TV news programmes are choc-a-bloc with it. But to me it is very worrying, because none of them are actually addressing the real problems. Those are population growth and the ever widening wealth gap.

Reducing energy consumption inevitably, in a free market economy, also means reducing expenditure for the consumer. So the crucial question, is what do we spend those savings on? Very often those savings will be spent on something that can actually use more energy than was saved in the first place -- or from a different source. As an example, one could save £50 on an electricity bill (and the energy could even be partly from renewables) and then spend it on going on a three day holiday by air to Majorca. Or buying fresh organic, fair-trade vegetables, flown in from Peru or Kenya. In the developed world we all have too much 'stuff'. Our houses are full of gadgets, we buy new clothes each season (well actually I don't, but many people do). And I make no claims to be greener than anyone else. It is the culture that we have developed over the years, and is virtually inescapable. The reality is that small gestures by individuals really don't have much impact. I am certainly not going to give up my car, or stop flying on holiday. But will certainly vote for a politician who will make it more expensive and more difficult. But unfortunately that's not likely to happen. While politicians are jumping on the carbon bandwagon, they are still encouraging more people to fly to Britain for their holidays. They will still allow cheap imports from China, which are only cheap because the workers are badly paid, and the industries are highly polluting, and do not conform to western H&S standards. I could carry on this rant indefinitely, but the point will no doubt get completely lost.

I see little hope for the future, while governments continue to ignore the fact that the world's human population continues to grow, and standards of living for a minority continue to grow at the expense of the rest. Nearly all governments assume that economies must expand, and that populations must continue to grow. The only conclusion one can come to is that the doom mongers of 25 years ago were only wrong in one respect: they got the timescale wrong. There will be massive problems in the future. Whenever natural disasters occur they will wreak increasing destruction. Epidemics will kill millions in due course, tsunamis will wipe out coastal towns and cities, and if, as I have written many times before, there was an eruption on the scale of Tambora, the loss of crops in the northern hemisphere would cause widespread famine, followed by disease, and undoubtedly wars. It's time the politicians woke up to the fact that climate change, carbon emissions and so on are all symptoms, not the cause of problems.

Thursday, 26 October 2006

Insects and the hot summer, to be followed by a Silent Spring?

This year has seen some wonderful numbers of butterflies. The long hot summer really seems to have benefited them. But this is also worrying because it masks the more serious problem of massive declines of most species. Insects are spiralling and there can be no doubt that extinctions on a local regional and national scale are occurring annually. One only has to drive through the countryside to realise this. Most agricultural land is a biodiversity desert. The average field of barley, beet or wheat has significantly less species diversity that an out-of-town supermarket car park. And there are thousands of acres of crops. I am not suggesting that conservationists should welcome out-of-town supermarkets, but it's a sobering thought.

The lack of diversity is camouflaged by the fact that within the surrounding hedgerows, copses and woodlands an incredible amount of diversity survives. But acre for acre, Britain is mightily impoverished. The only cause for optimism, is that the residual diversity (still declining at an alarming rate) found in these marginal habitats, could recolonise given the chance. And with over 95% of the flower rich meadows gone in Britain, there is certainly plenty of scope for improvement. But very little sign of governments, even in so-called conservation aware countries such as Britain, doing anything serious to stabilise these trends, let alone reverse them.

It is 44 years since Silent Spring was published. And the situation is far more serious. In that time the human population of the planet has more than doubled from 3 Billion to over 6 billion. That is the real environmental crisis. Global warming, loss of biodiversity, declines of insects, are all directly related to this one issue.

Editor's note: John talks about the insect crisis in Where have all our insects gone in the November issue (Volume 24, number 12) of BBC Wildlife Magazine, and in Nature's cruel twist in the Daily Express, 24th October 2006.
Helena (WLT web admin)

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Down With Sustainable Development

I have, over the years, become increasingly uneasy about the use of the term sustainable development -- trouble is, it is a byword in most conservation funding strategies, and government agencies, the World Bank etc seem to accept it as a sine qua non, that it is an ideal and objective we should all endorse. Now I have become not only uneasy about the use of the term but also its implications. It simply is not realistic. As I have written elsewhere in this blog, it is simply not feasible for the while world to aspire to the standard of living expected in Europe, let alone the USA or somewhere like Dubai.

So I am proposing that wildlife conservationist reject (almost entirely) the use of the term, and replace it with the phrase "sustainable management". This is a difficult enough target to aspire to, but at least it is reasonably realistic. If we can try and manage reserves in a sustainable way, then at least they are unlikely to increase pressure on the environment. And some development will be essential, and of course this must be designed to be as sustainable as possible. But I don't think a wildlife conservationist should ever have as a primary objective "Sustainable Development". It is invariably in direct opposition to the conservation objectives, and best described as a necessary evil. And while I am at it, let's throw out reforestation as an objective for conservationists. Restoration Ecology is what we really mean, and that is the term we should use.

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Captive Breeding endangered species

All over the world zoos use captive breeding of endangered species as one of the justifications for keeping animals in captivity. Personally I do not have any great objections to animals in captivity, provided they are well housed, and kept humanely. I believe that seeing animals in zoos can have very positive educational benefits. I certainly had my love of wildlife greatly encouraged by regular visits to zoos, and by keeping animals myself. But for over a quarter of a century, I have been questioning the validity of captive breeding as a justification for zoos.

During my last visit to India I visited the Madras Crocodile Bank, and here was a clear demonstration of the dilemma that faces those involved in captive breeding. The Crocodile Bank has been so successful in breeding almost all the species it keeps, that most are now separated into single sex enclosures to prevent further breeding. There simply is nowhere else to release them into the wild. Surplus animals are sent to other zoos, and no doubt some of those zoos keeping endangered crocodiles will use them to justify themselves. But clearly there is no need for them to be kept on conservation grounds. What conservation really needs is some more habitat to be purchased and conserved.

One of the areas the WLT is hoping to assist the Wildlife Trust of India is in the purchase of mangroves and regeneration of mangroves in coastal areas. It would be very nice to be able to acquire a large enough area to reintroduce crocodiles -- but somehow I doubt we will be able to. Crocodiles are, unfortunately large predators, and humans often form part of their natural prey, so a very large are of habitat would be needed if they are not to come into conflict with human population. But if someone gave us a couple of hundred thousand pounds or more -- it could be done, as the land is available, and the crocodiles are waiting.

And more to the point, this is one of the reasons the WLT is working closely with the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums -- our Wild Spaces programme will compliment the work of zoos, providing opportunities for in situ conservation.

Friday, 13 October 2006


According to their website "Alcan created the Alcan Prize for Sustainability to recognize outstanding contributions to the goal of economic, environmental, and social sustainability by not-for-profit, non-governmental, and civil society organizations." On the surface this appears a worthy cause, and Chairman of the Adjudication Panel is Dave Runnalls, a widely respected environmentalist. So imagine my surprise when I saw that among the finalists was the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), from Canada. I checked their website to see if these particular Mennonites were trying to change the ways of their brother and sister Mennonites but there was no obvious evidence of that. Now Mennonites are well known as peaceful, rather introsective, deeply religious farmers (the Amish are among the best-known sects). But in places like Belize and Paraguay, they are also known as among the most efficient destroyers of natural habitats. Many of the the lands around the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA) in Belize (which the WLT helped save) were cleared by Mennonites, and they are still actively clearing the Gran Chaco of Paraguay. There is no question that they are efficient farmers, but in terms of wildlife and the natural environment, they are a disaster in many parts of the world.

I emailed both Alcan and Dave Runnals asking how they justified this shortlisting -- but answer came there none..... It would be interesting to know just how many thousands of acres of rainforests and other habitats the Mennonites have destroyed over the years. Does anyone out there in cyberspace have any data? I have no objection to Mennonites farming or buying land -- but why can't they buy existing farmlands, why do they have to destroy the world's last remaining wilderness? And why should such a sect deserve a prize for sustainability? Answers by email or on the usual postcard please.....

Tuesday, 10 October 2006

more about Soya beans and wildlife

July 26, 2006 - By Reuters
SAO PAULO, Brazil - Brazilian soy crushers and exporters will stop buying soybeans grown in the Amazon basin for the time being, industry groups said Monday, bowing to pressure from activist groups trying to preserve the rain forest.

The moratorium, which will last for two years, will apply to soybeans planted as of October 2006 in newly deforested areas of the Amazon, the world's largest rain forest.

I wrote about soya beans in March, and in July I flew along the border between Brazil and Paraguay again, so the report from Reuters came as good news. But it is certainly not enough. All that will happen is that demand for Soya beans will shift to Argentina and Paraguay and other countries. It may not be Amazon rainforests that will be threatened, but Chaco and other equally important habitats (but less glamorous, in the public eye) will be ploughed up and destroyed. As so often is the case, we are missing the main point. The main point is that not only are there too many people, there are too many people in the affluent north, demanding more and more resources -- such as soya beans for cattle feed.

In 1961 Brazil produced just over a quarter of a million metric tonnes of Soya bean, but by 2005 was producing over 50 million metric tonnes. In the same period the US production had gone from 18 million to over 82 million tonnes, and Argentina, which had an insignificant production in 1961, was producing over 38 million tonnes. So the real culprit is the increased demand for Soya. And the real question is why does the world suddenly need so much? Unless the demand for Soya is curtailed more and more lands, such as the Gran Chaco of Paraguay, the Pampas of Argentina, and other relatively arid, fragile habitats will be lost to Soya. The paradoxical fact is that Soya features in so many 'healthy alternative' foods. And if one suggests that Soya may not be environmentally friendly, the response is often 'But I don't eat/drink Soya from Brazil/rainforest areas' - ignoring the fact that this simply shifts the demand, and someone else will still be consuming that Soya. And while the argument that soya is used as cattle feed is a valid criticism, if it is organic soya, it can be used to feed organic cattle. The unpalatable fact is that until we reduce the overall demand for Soya, huge areas of the natural world will continue to be gobbled up. It comes back to the fact that eating locally is the best way of thinking globally, as I wrote back in March.

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Labour party research.......

If you type "Buy Rainforest" into Google, at the top, or near the top, the World Land Trust website pops up. Yet Frank Field has apparently persuaded David Miliband, Secretary for Environment, that what is needed is a new initiative to "promote the idea of a worldwide trust which would allow individuals and companies to buy up chunks of tropical rainforest and save it from destruction" (Guardian, 2 October).

According to the Telegraph (2 Oct)"The plan is the brainchild of Frank Field, the Labour MP and former minister. It appeals to the Prime Minister and Mr Miliband, according to their officials, because it would "capture the imagination of the world" and "bring the international community together".

But both emphasise the idea is at an early stage and admit that there would be "sovereignty issues" involving the government of Brazil, which is home to almost all the Amazon rainforest."


Perhaps someone who knows messrs Miliband or Field could point out that the WLT has been doing just what they propose for 17 years, and are only hampered by lack of funding. And even the sovereignty issues have been sorted by the WLT.