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.


  1. Further to my comments on your previous blog on this crucial matter, well done and please pursue!

    The development/farm chariddees are clearly rattled because they have been caught cynically latching onto a cheap'n'easy way of squeezing Xmas cash out of a jaded public. Whether or not the actual interests of the 'third world' communities are served by them having OUR chosen presents - have them they MUST - marketing and PR budgets are at stake here!

    Fools rush in. But those with broader, longer experience of the world need to step forward now and make the case for restraint in foistering with even more livestock upon already over-stressed landscapes.

    Where's the Xmas gift of some basic contraception? Ooh er, way too intrusive!!! But hey - here's more goats, goats, goats....

  2. Where's the Xmas gift of some basic contraception?

    Errr.... try here in the same catalogue as the goats?

    You'd think with all this fuss over goat programmes that they were the be all and end all of charity gift projects. There are plenty of other types projects to invest in, most of which don't actually involve livestock.

    I would be insulted if I got an Oxfam unwrapped gift and it turned out to be a goat, mainly because it would show how lazy and unimaginative the giver was.

  3. I think what is missing here is a recognition that many of these charities have been working in these areas of Africa for a long time. Projects are often highly attuned to the needs and culture of local people, and recognise the value of local knowledge and skills. Of course population growth is the major issue, but in an environment such as this you cannot simply say that they need less livestock. As Farm Africa pointed out, this is the best and only means of survival for many families. So is it the people or the environment that are top priority? Most development projects aim at sustainability, which involves both human and environmental concerns over the long term.

    Also, it is not that these projects are ignoring the issues of population growth and AIDS etc, but poverty is both a cause and effect of these. What's more, you cannot simply say 'Here's a free condom, use it, it will be better in the long run.' There are often cultural reasons why people won't use contraception, as well as a need for education and provision of contraceptives that development organisations recognise and do address. Having lots of children is also a coping strategy for many poor families.

    Perhaps promoting goats is not the best way forwards, but I think it's naive to criticise those organisations who have much experience in development and are not ignorant when it comes to environmental issues.

  4. But this still ignores the fact that many of the aid charities are promoting the use of livestock in arid areas where it will continue to cause environmental degradation. As far as I have been able to ascertain, none of the aid agencies have ever carried out full environmental impact assessments (EIAs) of their projects, and I do not believe that any are monitoring the long term impacts of their projects on the environment. I don't think it is adequate to state they are working with local communities, and that they know best. Once aid agencies start interfering in the local economy, they surely have a duty to carry out proper monitoring of ALL potentially negative impacts of such aid.

  5. Does anyone know of any scientific studies demonstrating the impacts of goats of the environment?- I would be very interested to know what the outcomes show- it seems logical to assume that they can contribute to environmental degradation and desertification- but if you want to convince the public you have to be armed with proof...

  6. The United Nations FAO site is a good starting point, and Google Scholar produces reference