Monday, 18 December 2006

A thought for Christmas

Fair Trade is now firmly established in the supermarkets. But as always caveat emptor. Fair to whom? I see fair trade honey from all over the world, but none from English producers. This is hardly fair on all the English bee-keepers. And what about all the transportation costs of Guatemalan or Mexican honey? The same applies to organic foods, of course. It's great that the supermarkets are stacked with organic foods, but not so great that many of them come with airmiles attached.

I am of course well-known for my cynicism concerning many aspects of the green economy. Bio fuels, vegetarianism, soya beans, dolphin-friendly tuna and many other issues -- which at first sight seem A GOOD THING -- all have their down side. The issue which never seems to be addressed is that we all want too much. Too much food, too much travel, too much stuff. And the free market economy needs to sell us more and more, and needs an increasing population to sell it to. Malthus got it right, but some of the timescales have been wrongly calculated.

A few nights ago, I watched an old Sci-Fi Classic: Soylent Green. Although made back in 1973, and some of the visions of life in the 2020s seem a little naive, there is a lot of very thought provoking content to it. A world being destroyed by overpopulation and global warming.

Unfortunately population and economics are not fields in which I have expertise, and don't feel competent to be involved with campaigning. Saving bits of land is what the WLT is good at, but the human population explosion and its demands on resources has to be the single biggest threat to the future of the planet. If we really care, I believe we should all do something that we feel competent in doing, and we should all lobby for the human population crisis to be taken more seriously. If not fair trade, organic food, carbon balancing, and all these gestures will be just that: gestures.

As the ship went down, the band played on.

Desertification and destruction of fragile habitats

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I have been fairly outspoken criticising the numerous aid charities that promote goats as a solution to poverty in Africa. And this has received very widespread coverage in the news media. Many of the charities concerned defended themselves by claiming they did not actually supply goats, but the money raised just went into a general 'pot', and that this was explained in the small print. However, this does not alter the fact that all the publicity implies that goats are A Good Thing. But the truth is very different, with numbers escalating, and the destruction of fragile arid habitats rife.

The Director of Oxfam (one of the main charities promoting livestock) wrote to the WLT claiming that "Our experience at Oxfam tells us that when charities are seen publicly fighting this does nothing to heighten any organisation's cause, and actually undermines the efforts of the whole sector." I.e. even if you think we are completely wrong and doing something that undermines the work of environmental charities, keep quiet. With all due respect to Oxfam, I believe it is an important issue that should be aired. And so, apparently do large numbers of the public, as well as influential figures such as John Humphrys (see the Daily Mail feature, December 2). In fact, the WLT has seen an enormous surge in its donations as a result of all the publicity. This was not the intention of raising the issue -- but it seems to indicate there is a knowledgable public who are not fooled by gimmicky marketing stunts.

Having brought the subject out into the open, it will be interesting to see what further information will be forthcoming. Oxfam claim to have supplied 200,000 goats -- which have presumably bred and produced lots more goats. My argument is that Africa really does not need another half million or more goats, particularly in the poverty-stricken arid areas, where the ground is too dry to grow crops (which is where an Oxfam spokeswoman told me they were being supplied).

And if all the charities marketing goats, camels, donkeys, chickens etc etc are not really doing so, that really will bring the sector into disrepute. The World Land Trust is proud of the fact that the reserves it helps buy really do exist, and that many of our supporters have been to them and seen them on the ground. And we are always pleased to have people visit them.

Monday, 4 December 2006

Goats not to blame for desertification? Oh yes they are!

Part 1
Last night I attended the launch of the Linnean Tercentenary - along with many of the great and good of the natural hisory and biological world, and it was heartening to hear the support of several eminent naturalists, and in particularly those with Africa and desert experience, for my stance against more goats. It was particularly good to see John Cloudsley-Thompson, now in his mid-80s, doyen of desert biologists - see: Ecology of Desert Environments : A Festschrift for Prof. J.L. Cloudsley Thompson on his 80 Birthday/edited by Ishwar Prakash. Jodhpur, Scientific, 2001, xiii, 471 p., ISBN 81-7233-288-2. This along with many other of John's publications is excellent backgound to the environmental crisis of arid areas.

I was also gratified to see yesterday that we had made it to the pages of Private Eye. Having been a reader of Private Eye since its very first issue, I was not in the least surprised to see their ignorance of the literature concerning desertification - why spoil a good story with accuracy? It's par the for course. What I find interesting, is that the emails and phone calls to the WLT show overwhelming support for our stance. The only critics seem to be those employed by the aid agencies, or those with a vested interest.

Farm Africa have reacted, almost hysterically, to my criticisms of the "goats for Africa" campaigns. However, it appears they, like many of the other charities, have not really understood the nature of my criticism. I have not said that every single goat project funded by every single aid charity is wrong. One of the problems of relying on press reports.

I am sure that some of the charities have done proper Environmental Impact Assessments of their projects (however, I cannot find details of any of these on the internet, and none have been volunteered to me so far). However, reactions from Farm Africa, are bound to be in this vein, since their whole ethos seems to be based around promoting European-style attitudes to livestock farming and production. While this is primarily an ethical issue, there are of course environmental implications as well. But I personally can't help feeling that it's wrong to be exporting these approaches to livestock farming, at a time when there is increasing rejection in the developed world. It smacks of bio-colonialism - Farm Africa even state that the government (of Kenya)is encouraging de-stocking in areas where they are trying to increase stocks. But, as I say, it's a different argument - and perhaps I have misunderstood it all.

My principal criticism, is that the aid charities are marketting goats to the world as a way out of poverty in Africa, without making it very clear, that goats and over-grazing are also one of the major causes of poverty over much of subSaharan Africa. Nor do any of the charities promoting goats explain what happens when the next drought comes along. None of the defenses for promoting goats, put forward by the aid charities, have convinced me that Africa needs more goats. The number of hoofed animals in subSaharan Africa went from around 275 million in 1961 to over 655 million by 2005 (FAO Statistics) -- and the levels of poverty have not decreased - they have escalated.

The map on the UN website showing desertification
shows the problem.

It is interesting/significant that the aid charities involved with promoting goats for Africa, only ever put forward CEOs, fundraisers, agronomists and the like to argue their case - I have yet to hear any conservationists or environmentalists who believe that hundreds of thousands more goats in Africa is a way out of poverty. I would certainly be interested in hearing from any.

Any school kid in Africa surfing the net on his class computer, because of all this high-profile marketting, will be bombarded with information about goats, how easy it is to grow a herd, how they will produce gallons of milk, tonnes of manure, and loads of kids, and how they will solve the problems of rural communities. Do we really want them to believe this?

Goats saga part 2

This is a link to the Farm Africa Press release

And just to put the record straight I have made a few comments below on their claims, in case Private Eye or any other journalists want to follow it through.

Where rainfall is too low to grow crops, it means that the habitat is extremely fragile and liable to desertification when overgrazed, and 65 million hectares of sub-Saharan Africa have been lost to desertification (in the past 50 years), with overgrazing one of the main causes. Increasing the goat population (as well as camels, cattle and sheep) is a disaster; q.e.d.

Farm Africa claim a "backgarden" is .5-2ha. Where? Even 0.5ha is a very big garden, by British standards. In England very few gardens are between 1 and 5 acres, which is the size claimed (1ha = 2.47 acres). Hopefully their other claims are a bit more realistic.

Most goats are kept by pastoralists, who consequently do not usually have that many crop residues. Livestock also requires large amounts of water, particularly if they are producing milk. This is normally a scarce commodity in arid environments.

Camels are particularly destructive, since they can feed on vegetation and live in areas where almost no other grazing animals can survive, and are often kept as symbols of wealth, rather than any utilitarian purpose.

By their own admission goats will cause environmental destruction. The WLT has never claimed that the goats created the arid degraded environments. What I have said is that when introduced into fragile, degraded environments, goats will eat almost anything left that is eatable, and will thus often be the main cause of desertification, which in turn is a major cause of poverty.

It is claimed by Farm Africa that the WLT's views on the destructive nature of goats were exposed as nonesense, but we can find no trace of this exposure. The reverse is true: various UN sponsored websites (FAO, UNEP for example) give extensive data showing the connection between goats and desertification). Furthermore the emails responding to my criticisms earlier in the year were almost unanimous in their support (particularly from those with first hand experience).

Encouraging further expansion of the already vast goat population, to me, shows 'breathtaking' contempt for past knowledge and experiences about the causes of desertification.

I challenge all the charities involved to publish on their websites details of any of the Environmental Impact Assessments of their projects carried out in arid environments, in advance of commencing the projects, so that the environmental community can comment on them. Also a list of where all these projects are implemented, numbers of goats involved etc. One of the problems confronting anyone wanting to research this issue is the lack of transparency in many of the implementing agencies.

Finally I would like to re-iterate my criticism: It is that aid agencies are promoting goats as a solution to poverty in Africa, without making it clear that goats are also recognised as one of the significant causal factors contributing to poverty. I am sure that individual projects do not cause enviromental damage. But I am also sure that anything that encourages the overall growth of the goat population in sub-Saharan Africa, will do more harm than good.

But realistically, no one is going to address the real problem: that the human population far exceeds the carrying capacity of the land. And the human population continues to grow, at an unsustainable rate. And of course this is true not only of sub-Saharan Africa, but many other parts of the world. Search as hard as I can, and on all the websites of all the aid charities, it is nigh on impossible to find projects that address this issue, or even allow people to address it themselves.

The dramatic increase in activity on our website demonstrates there is considerable public interest in these topics. So please do let us have feedback.

Paraguayan success

A quick note, which saves me writing up one of the WLT's latest successes, have a look at this:

After this very useful visit to Paraguay the Guyra Paraguay and the WLT have identified several other critical areas, mostly corridors between existing protected areas. A one-off donation of $20,000 could buy a critical area, creating an unique reserve for endemic and endangered species such a giant anteaters, chaco peccary, chaco seriema, and pumas.

Saturday, 2 December 2006

The Times, Goats and Oxfam

The ongoing saga of criticism of goats and other grazing animals being used in Africa developed a new twist when, according to an article in The Times "some of the aid agencies questioned whether the argumment was more about whose catalogue was most ethical. They pointed out that.... the [World Land] trust offered a chance to preserve an acre of rainforest." Ignoring the fact that the WLT does not actually have a catalogue, I should point out that wildlife, animals and habitat degradation are all areas in which the Trust has expertise. I would also point out that another charity with expertise in animal husbandry is also critical of the goat schemes (Animal Aid).

Land purchase is central to the whole mission of the World Land Trust. Trading in goats, is not central to Oxfam or any other of the aid agencies doing it -- which is one reason why I and others see it as a cynical marketting tool.

It is also worth pointing out that the WLT's offer is very transparent, totally traceable and subject to a proper review and evaluation process, and any developments on the land subject to an EIA. And the projects are all run by competent local NGOs. And we publish on our website details of the location so that anyone can visit the projects if they wish.

Part of the problem with the whole goat issue has been the difficulty finding out any hard facts. This time last year I first wrote to Oxfam, and later on a TV broadcast confronted some of the issues, but they have never come back with any satisfactory responses. For all I know, they may be carrying out effective Environmental Impact Assessments, but when they come out with claims such as the animals being supplied to pastoralist communities, and fed on crop wastes, I do wonder if they know what they are talking about -- since most pastoralist societies do not grow crops, by definition. Of course the issue has now been clouded further, because of the admission by some of the aid charities that the money does not actually go into purchasing goats and cows....

One of my criticisms that has not received any serious coverage, is that putting all this information on the internet, about goats and cattle being a way out of poverty, gives entirely the wrong message to people living in that part of the world. When schoolkids in Nairobi or any other part of subSaharan Africa search the internet -- and millions do -- they will be subjected to a barrage of misinformation that flies in the face of all the research published by the United nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), as well as the Nairobi-based United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP).

Or do the aid agencies assume that the rest of the world live in ignorance and do not use the internet or mobile phones?

Friday, 1 December 2006

It's not all doom and gloom

My friend Bob suggested I should write something a bit more cheerful for this festive season approaching. Well we have some good news. I have just returned for a series of meetings with our local partners in South America, and we have agreed to help fund the purchase of large tracts of threatened habitats in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. In Paraguay I attended an government reception to mark the official launch of the first Pantanal Reserve in Paraguay, which was initiated with funds from World Land Trust supporters. The Netherlands Committee for IUCN has also provided funds, and in a very enthusiastic speech, His Excellency Sr Castiglione, the Vice-President of Paraguay paid tribute to the individual donors who had made this possible. Similarly at a meeting held in Posadas, the capital of Misiones Province of Argentina, the Minister for the Environment, expressed his enthusiasm for working with the World Land Trust to creat a private nature reserve which will form a corridor between protected areas.

A flying visit to the extreme northwest of Paraguay identified an important area of Dry Chaco -- inhabited by about 10 species of armadillo as well as various Chaco endemics such as the Chacoan peccary. Our Paraguayan partners are now negotiating the purchase of at least 10,000 hectares of this important habitat, which again form a corridor between existing protected areas.

The land purchase prices range between $20 and $300, but at any of these prices (which depend on factors such as accessibility, habitat, rainfall) they are incredible value for money -- a tenth of the price of land in Britain, with perhaps 10 or 100 times as many species.

So that's the good news. The other good news is that you, we, can all do something about it. This year has seen a spectacular growth in the World Land Trust, and we expect that to continue next year, with more and more critical land purchase for conservation. But there is less and less to save, so act NOW.