Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Famine in the Horn of Africa

5 August, 2011 - 11:23 -- John Burton

I have been an outspoken critic in the past of aid agencies promoting livestock, particularly goats, as a solution to poverty in Africa. Of course it is not simply the goats that are the problem, it is also the rapidly growing human population as well. And despite the dismissal of my complaints by Oxfam, Christian Aid and others, we are now seeing the disastrous impact of ill thought out foreign aid policies in the drought ridden areas of the Horn of Africa.

I have never been able to offer solutions to the problems of the area, but it has always been clear to me, that increasing the dependency of the burgeoning human population on ever increasing numbers of domestic livestock, could only have two results; the first would be the destruction of the vegetation on which the livestock depends, and the second would be mass deaths when drought occurred, as it predictably would.

And so it has come to pass. Thousands of people are fleeing the drought, and that in itself will undoubtedly cause conflict, as they cross international borders. So we are ending up with huge refugee camps, with the inhabitants totally dependent on foreign aid for their survival, leaving behind a landscape devastated by overgrazing, with the wildlife that once roamed it extirpated.

What is the solution? Unfortunately there is no easy answer, and it is certainly not my job, nor that of the WLT to solve these sorts of problems; this requires specialist expertise that we certainly lack (and so do most of the aid agencies it would seem).  But what is certain, is that aid agencies are often  part of the problem, by not accepting that increasing the numbers of goats, cattle, camels and other livestock will ultimately cause a major human population crash.

Arid habitats can actually support quite a large biomass, but that biomass needs to be a diverse, specialised and an ecologically adapted range of species. Cattle require huge amounts of water, and are descended from forest dwelling species, while goats are notorious for their ability to eat almost every living thing that is green.  Add that toxic mixture to a human population that is growing at an alarming rate, that is already importing significant amounts of food and other resources, and the short fuse of a time bomb has been lit.

I am not suggesting that humans, livestock and wildlife are incompatible. They can live alongside each other, but not in the way that aid agencies seem to be promoting. And  by ignoring the fact that many cultures do not keep livestock as a source of nutrition, but as a form of wealth, aid agencies may actually be exacerbating the situation.  Many years ago, the comedian Spike Milligan said something along the lines that  ‘every loaf of bread sent to Africa needed to be sent with a packet of condoms’. A simplistic suggestion perhaps, but nonetheless true.  Aid Agencies and government aid programmes consistently ignore the elephant in the room (an unfortunate metaphor), but human population is the root of the crisis, and nothing serious is being done to address it.

The World Land Trust has made a key feature of its modus operandum that key decisions are made by our local partner NGOs. We believe that by taking this route, our projects stand a much better chance of being sustainable: a better chance that the local communities will accept conservation. Perhaps it is time that western aid agencies stopped telling communities in Africa how to get themselves out of poverty, and let the communities sort out their own solutions. All too often the solutions involve completely inappropriate technologies, making communities further dependent on aid and supplies from the developed world.


Submitted by Kent on

We need to work together and find a solution

Submitted by John Burton on

But Kent’s link does not make any suggestions as to how we can work together. Emergency aid is fine, I don’t argue against it. But what is anyone doing about the long term consequences of that aid, and of the underlying causes of the need for aid? If the aid agencies do not consider it, then the consequence will be war, pestilence and more famine in the future.

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