Monday, 27 November 2006

Milch cows get my goat.

Just after Christmas 2005 I questioned the advisability of goats, cows and camels being marketed by Oxfam and other aid agencies. After all, a quick search of the internet reveals that goats, sheep and other livestock are one of the main causes of habitat degradation and desertification in Africa. The response from the media was rapid, and I appeared on TV and Radio explaining the problem. Oxfam responded, and indeed said they would be contacting me to discuss the issue in depth. However, not only have they continued to market livestock as an ethical Christmas present, but even more organisations have jumped on the bandwagon. This is truly depressing, since it flies in the face of common sense to promote so called solutions to poverty, that in reality encourages beliefs which are entirely erroneous. If you search the internet using Google for "environmental disaster goats" it comes up with 21,300 results. Search the Oxfam website for "population control" and you get three results; search Oxfam for "goats", and 250 results come up. It says it all.

Last year selling goats as a way of alleviating poverty could have been accepted as an error of judgement. This year it can only be seen as cynical exploitation of the public and misguided philanthropy. When I last wrote about this issue, no one wrote and told me I had got it wrong (apart from a few representatives of organisations doing it, who produced no evidence that would remotely alter my opinion. On the other hand, I had a significant number of responses supporting my views, many of them from very well informed persons, with direct experience of the issues concerned.

Having spent best part of a year pondering the issue, I have begun to question the whole ethos of this type of foreign aid and come up with a new name: it's "guilt colonialism". Those living in the rich northern hemisphere feel guilty about the plight of Africa, and salve their consciences by making token donations to alleviate poverty. However, because it is largely done through western aid agencies, a) much of the funding stays in the developed world's economy, and b) because the solutions are often those of the developed world, the poor of Africa become even more aid dependent. If the aid was truly charitable it would be given to local NGOs, to spend as they thought fit, and you wouldn't need armies of aid workers being sent in to "supervise" and "manage".

The World Land Trust sent out another press release recently, and already papers and other media are taking up the issue. While we are not a campaigning organisation, I do think it very important that all agencies are fully aware of the impact that goats and other grazing animals are having on the already fragile habitats where the poorest people in Africa live. In the decades since much of Africa became independent from Colonial rule, the numbers of hoofed animals, south of the Sahara, has gone from about 275 million to over 655 million - at a time when the areas available for grazing have declined dramatically. Unsurprisingly the numbers of wild grazing animals - most of which are much better adapted to fragile habitats - have declined catastrophically.

So, while we are not a campaigning group, it would be a good idea if anyone else who shares my/our fears, makes their views known, if only by adding to this blog.

Friday, 10 November 2006

Statistics to really scare you

China has a rapidly expanding economy, and it is likely to continue to grow. China holds over $323 billion of US debt(Wikipedia, April 2006), and consequently has a huge influence on the US economy. And if China was to have car ownership at the same level of the US there would be over 1 billion cars in China. These would need 99 million barrels of oil a day -- more than the world total production of 88 million.

According to the FAO website in 1962 (the year Silent Spring was published) Brazil had 155 million hectares of agricultural land, but by 2003 another 100 million hectares had been cleared. Worldwide some 600 million hectares had been added to the agricultural lands, mostly in the tropics. That's an area the size of Argentina and India combined. I find this so scary, that it is difficult to believe, but I checked again and it seems to be right. Perhaps someone else can look into this and correct me if I am wrong.

In 1962 there were 996 million head of cattle in the world, by 2002 there were another 362 million. By 2005 there were 1,372,251,000 cattle in the world.

Another statistic: from 1993 to 2003 world production of soya bean increased by 90 million tonnes a year. Wheat production rose from 250 million tonnes in 1962 to 573 million tonnes in 2002, and the yield per hectare more than doubled in that time as well. Banana production trebled from 21 million tonnes a year to over 67 million tonnes

In 1962, in developing parts of Africa there were 183 million sheep and goats; by 2005 as most of developing Africa continues to spiral into poverty there were over 450 million sheep and goats. And bizarrely, developing countries suddenly started producing strawberries -- less than 1 tonne a year until the mid 1960s, and then an ever increasing volume which had reached 214,800 tonnes by 2005.

In the same period the United Kingdom's use of fertilizers had gone up by over 200,000 tonnes a year, but the worldwide usage had gone from 35 million to 147 million tonnes.

All this and more is on the FAO website:

It's really scary stuff, if you have the slightest belief that the world's resources are not infinite. Applying a sort of Gaia theory to all the above statistics, it becomes apparent that it is not only NOT surprising that so many species are going extinct, but it is actually rather surprising that the rate is not a LOT faster.

The inferences that I draw from reading these statistics, and placing them in the context of the wild places I visit, the nature reserves I know in England and other parts of the world, is that we really are teetering on the brink of an abyss. When ecosystem collapse starts it will be truly catastrophic, and when pandemics strike man and his food resources they too will be catastrophic. An inkling of things to come was seen when the threat of avian TB loomed. We can be certain that in the relatively near future, pandemics will sweep human populations. Pandemics could also affect food crops. And if an explosion the size of the Tambora volcanic eruption took place now, the crop failures and subsequent disease and other after effects will be truly devastating. We have absolutely no excuse for complacency, but meanwhile the human population is still careering out of control. It is no good saying that the populations of countries like Britain are more or less stable -- their resource demand are not.