Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Christmas is coming and the goats are getting fat

3 December, 2014 - 15:08 -- John Burton

The other day I received an unsolicited mail shot from Farm Africa. It was extolling the virtues of goats as a solution to poverty. “Goats, you see, are particularly well adapted to the harsh condition here in Tigray. They will happily eat the kinds of plants that grow even in the poorest soils,” said the promotional literature.

Clearly Farm Africa ignores research that links habitat degradation with overgrazing by livestock and the fact that even poor soils can grow some crops, which are of far greater nutritional value to humans than growing crops to feed livestock (which also require huge quantities of water, if the animals are to produce milk).

One of the aspects of ‘goat giving’ that concerns me is that very little research has been published, by any of the agencies involved, on the consequences of increasing the number of grazing animals in the developing world. Dishing out ‘free’ goats not only has an environmental impact, but in areas where wealth is often measured by ownership of livestock, it can also have serious social implications. Neither can I find any studies of the long term impact of increasing the number of goats, nor what happens when there is a drought, although news reports suggest that livestock is sold when a drought looms.

It’s not that there is a shortage of data on the region. There are plenty of scientific papers on the impacts of desertification on the Tigray region, and there are plenty of proposals for improving the livelihoods of the local people. However none of the scientific studies I found suggested that boosting the goat population was a way of greatly increasing food production and alleviating poverty. The studies I found all focused on increasing the production of cereals for human consumption.

To my mind, Christmas appeals to ‘give a goat’ are an easy way to generate public donations by aid charities – some of them extremely large - that have simply not thought through the full consequences of their actions.

‘Give a goat’ is a nice simple message, and one that evidently raise funds, although how much of the money raised by the goats actually goes to goats is almost impossible to determine (and, believe me, I have been trying to find out for several years).

As for the impact of encouraging greater numbers of goats, the only information I can find almost unanimously agrees that the increase in livestock (be it goats, sheep, camels or cattle) in arid and semi-arid areas over the past 50 years is one of the main causes of habitat degradation and hence poverty, and even ultimately a cause of death when drought occurs.

Below, for interest are Oxfam’s responses to my questions, provided finally after over two years of my repeatedly asking for answers and a year after they assured the public that they did carry out Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) at a recording of BBC Radio 4’s Shared Planet

From Oxfam’s answers, I conclude the following.

Oxfam does not carry out EIAs.

Oxfam may not actually know how many goats it has funded as there is no direct answer to the question: how many goats have been funded?

Many countries where goats are provided are in arid zones where goats are a cause of over-grazing desertification. They are all countries with serious population growth problems, both of humans and of livestock.

There are few, if any, easily accessible, published studies of the social issues surrounding increasing livestock ownership or of goats being liable to serious mortality when drought occurs.

My overall conclusion is that Oxfam, along with other aid charities such as Farm Africa, is capitalising on the public’s love of animals as a way to raise funds. This in itself isn’t a problem, all charities have to find ways to ‘sell’ their appeals to the public. But in this case, Oxfam and other charities are simultaneously broadcasting to the world through the internet (which reaches schools etc in Africa) the idea that goats and other livestock are a solution to poverty. This ignores the fact that goats are a cause of desertification, that livestock in general consumes large amounts of natural  resources, and that the demand for cheap animal protein is the major force driving deforestation in most parts of the world.

While we talk of having education programmes for poorer countries, it seems to me that too often it is the developed world that needs re-educating.

More information 

Questions put to Oxfam, and Oxfam’s responses

Have any environmental impact assessments been carried out prior to increasing the number of goats? If so where are these available?
At Oxfam, providing livestock is always part of a larger sustainable livelihood's programme, where we consider the impact on natural resources. We are concerned with long-term environmental sustainability because it is an essential requirement for human development and well-being - especially relevant to poor people, whose lives and livelihoods are more closely linked with the natural environment. Local programme staff, partners and local communities have detailed knowledge of the local grazing patterns and feeding practice and therefore lead on deciding if and where we should provide animals. As part of a number of livelihood projects, we also support communities to adopt environmentally friendly farming practices to help them use land and water resources more efficiently, protect and even restore natural resources.

We provide livestock only where keeping livestock is a traditional or essential part of people's way of life. We don’t introduce the practice of animal husbandry, release animals into the wild or help import them into developing countries.

How many individual goats have been funded?
Since Unwrapped was launched in 2004, over £4 million have been spent on goats (this includes the provision of animals, but also activities such as veterinary care, animal shelters, training to herders etc). We ask our programme staff to spend time reporting in detail on how much money they have spent, and how many people have benefitted from our programmes, rather than how many animals have been supplied. The cost of animals and related activities also vary considerably between programmes, so the same amount of funding would not necessarily fund the same items or similar numbers of livestock within each programme.

What are the locations of the goat projects?
Countries where goats have been provided include Armenia, Haiti, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Bangladesh, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia - this is not an exhaustive list though!

Are traditional breeds of goat used, or are non-native ‘improved’ breeds used?
Animals are always sourced locally - from the communities we work with or neighbouring villages or towns. In some rare cases, we may go further afield to source animals of stronger genetic stock to help improve breeding. But these are always national breeds sourced from within the country and we never import western breeds.

What other similar livestock projects are there, in particular cattle?
We have provided sheep, pigs, camels, cows, chickens and donkeys to a number of projects in various countries. We need to be flexible in the way we use the funds we receive for animals sold in the Unwrapped catalogue. For example, sometimes we need to purchase different types of animal that are suitable to different local conditions and communities.

Have any studies on the social issues surrounding increasing livestock ownership been carried out? If so are these published?
There would certainly have been studies carried out around this topic. I would suggest you look at our policy and practice web site, where research and evaluations are published - 

Have any studies been carried out on goats being liable to serious mortality when drought occurs?
Proneness to drought is taken into account when we assess a community suitability to receive a goat. We would not knowingly put animals into a drought situation. In severe droughts, Oxfam may help by distributing water and fodder for animals, or rehabilitating livestock water sources. Oxfam also works in communities in arid areas to increase their water supplies – through work such as digging wells – that can be used to benefit both people and livestock. Our programmes also fund veterinary training and animal husbandry training to ensure the community has a good understanding of how to care for their animals.  

Desertification in Tigray

A brief internet search on ‘desertification, Tigray Ethiopia’ produced the following links:


Submitted by Jonathan Elphick on

Brilliantly argued, John; it was high time someone with a knowledge of solid science-based research addressed this issue, and no one could have done it better than you. Emails may well be sent to one or two well intentioned relatives and friends! Better to give to WLT!

Submitted by John on

Thanks for the support Jonathan. I do feel I am banging my head against a brick wall sometimes. As I have told Oxfam representatives on many occasions, every wildlife conservationist knows that goats and other livestock are a major cause of desertification and habitat degradation so why encourage people to believe the contrary?

Submitted by John on

Check out the Wikipedia entry on Drought East Africa (clearly something the aid agencies don't do. "The rains failed in 2011 in Kenya and Ethiopia, and for the previous two years in Somalia.[7][26] In many areas, the precipitation rate during the main rainy season from April to June, the primary season, was less than 30% of the average of 1995–2010.[27] The lack of rain led to crop failure and widespread loss of livestock, as high as 40%–60% in some areas, which decreased milk production as well as exacerbating a poor harvest. As a result, cereal prices rose to record levels while livestock prices and wages fell, reducing purchasing power across the region". Depressing isn't it?

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