Thursday, 26 March 2009

Stanley Johnson I presume

A few days ago I read in London's Evening Standard a review of an autobiography of Stanley Johnson, father of London's Mayor Boris. I knew and worked with Stanley Johnson many, many years ago when he was one of the great advocates not only of whale conservation, but also the Mediterranean Monk Seal. As a very active European parliamentarian, Stanley was always a memorable raconteur as well, but one thing I had almost completely forgotten until I read the review of his autobiography was that he was also a leading advocate of the need to take human populations' seriously. If only the world had listened to him. Now, millions and millions of humans on the planet later, the problem is almost insoluble.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Africa, Goats, Oxfam, Christian Aid and impending disaster

I have just returned from Africa for a series of meetings with local conservation groups, and the World Land Trust will probably be supporting some of the important initiatives by the NGO sector in both Kenya and Tanzania. Land is under considerable pressure, and one of the main reasons is the rapid spread of agriculture, and to a lesser degree the mechanisation of agriculture. Added to this the dramatic and almost out of control increase in the human population has meant that more and more land once being cultivated is taken over for housing, and other forms of urban ‘development’. All this means there is a significant decrease in the area of grasslands, open woodlands and other habitats where once domestic livestock as well as wildlife once grazed. Add to that the fact that in the past 50 years the numbers of domestic goats, sheep, cattle, camels and other grazing animals have increased even faster than the human population, and it is hardly surprising that overgrazing is widespread.

But still foreign aid charities sell the idea that having lots of goats or even camels, is a way out of poverty for Africa. Of course for the individual that gets a goat or a camel, it probably is. But since none of the donor organisations appear to carry out Environmental Impact Assessments of their projects, little is known about either the impact of all these animals or the impact of the message that is being delivered. I am more concerned about the latter. If the developed world aid charities go around pretending that goats can be bred in unlimited quantities as a solution to poverty, they should at least be able to produce some evidence. In most African pastoralist societies, goats and other livestock are a form of wealth, and accumulated. Camels could be considered as a ‘rolls royce’ symbol in some societies. So dishing out livestock to the poorer members of society may have social implications that the donors are unaware of. Certainly when I met with representatives of Oxfam (one of the few organisations even prepared to discuss the issue) they were unable to point me in the direction of any research into this area.

And my final criticism of the goat and cow brigade is the way they market the idea that they are often providing ‘improved’ breed. I.e ones that give higher milk yields. On my visit to East Africa, I saw very few Ankole cattle this time, but loads of the ‘Holstein’ types. Is it really a good idea to replace cattle that have co-evolved with their local herders, to be suitable for the local conditions, with those that have been evolved to suit the conditions of northern Europe? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that in Europe there is considerable concern of the loss of genetic diversity in domestic livestock, and societies have sprung up to conserve rare breeds. But rare breeds are being created even faster in Africa, with very little concern by the aid agencies. I also know that the introduction of modern veterinary practices also produces short term gains, but may also wipe out long term, much cheaper husbandry practices, as it has done in the north. As a simple example, and one of my hobby horses, in England good husbandry was used to largely control parasites in livestock, but since the introduction of ivermectin and other pesticides, it has been easy to ‘clean’ animals. But this does not take into account the fact that those pesticides also wipe out a huge swathe of other invertebrates, particularly scatophagous insects. Vultures are pretty well extinct in India, entirely because of veterinary medicines, soon to be used more widely in Africa perhaps. The only winners are the northern hemisphere drug companies.

I am not the first to criticise the aid agencies, and certainly won’t be the last. But my recent visit to Africa certainly confirmed my worst fears. Aid charities far from helping solve the issues of poverty, are probably exacerbating it, despite their good intentions. And I can list a few of the reasons why I believe this is the case

1. Most interventions do not appear to have a clear exit strategy
2. Most interventions rely on western, and often inappropriate, technology
3. Most interventions are designed to make the donors feel good, not deliver the maximum long term benefits to the recipient
4. Very little is being done to address the real cause of poverty, i.e the explosive growth in human populations.
5. Aid encourages corruption
6. Aid absolves governments of responsibility for their own populations
7. Many aid interventions make the recipients dependent on long-term support from the donor countries and create debt.

I realise that for many of the charities and charity gift catalogues, 'Buying a goat' is only a cynical way of playing on emotions to raise funds for worthy causes. I know, because the small print often says so. But what really concerns me is the message that is being spread across the Internet, that increasing the volume of livestock across Africa, will help solve the continents appalling problems. I asked all the African conservationists I met, and all agreed that the main cause of habitat degradation was over-grazing and the spread of agriculture into marginal lands. Both of which are being actively encouraged by aid charities. This is not simply a wildlife issue. It means that short-term gains are going to lead to even greater problems for humans in the not too distant future.

I urge my readers to ask as many of the aid charities as possible to publish their Environmental Impact Assessments, not just for goat projects but for all projects. I think you will be surprised how few actually exist.