Staff writer Máirín-Rua Ní Aodha speaks to Boaz Abraham, a vet and spokesperson for Véterinaires sans frontiérs Germany about the role of livestock globally.
There are over 1 billion goats in the world today. In Africa, that means there are over 14,000 goats for one lion. Goats, cattle, sheep and fowl play an essential role in sustaining communities all over Africa, where people rely on them for more than their meat. Staff writer Máirín-Rua Ní Aodha speaks to Boaz Abraham, a vet and spokesperson for Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Germany about the role of livestock globally.
Véterinaires sans frontiérs:
“VSF is an NGO, which means it relies on donations, funding from other organisations and the work of volunteers. We help people who are one way or another reliant on livestock in Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda.”
Boaz joined Vétérinaires Sans Frontières while completing his veterinary degree. He was drawn to their unique approach of combining animal health and humanitarian aid work. He felt he had something to contribute, he explains, “VSF is an NGO, which means it relies on donations, funding from other organisations and the work of volunteers. We help people who are one way or another reliant on livestock in Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda.” VSF is a dynamic, flexible organisation which evolves to tackle the new problems they face. As Boaz puts it, “ VSF Germany was founded 25 years ago as a purely veterinary organisation. These days we realise that the needs of the communities we work with are complicated and we need to be versatile. We strive to have a long lasting impact on the lives of people we work with, so we hire experts in many fields, from engineering to conflict resolution.”
As an international NGO, VSF initially faced some hesitation from local governments and organisation. “People want to get to know you and see that you’re serious about helping. A lot of NGOs focus on people’s short term needs, ignoring bigger political and environmental influences. The problem is as soon as the they leave everything they set up collapses, so we understand frustration and reservation. We take our time and try to constantly make improvements. By now we are well established and respected by local groups and international bodies like the EU. People come to us and suggest projects, which is great because they’re better at identifying their own needs”
What VSF vets offer to developing countries:
”Political stability has a big impact on access to pasture”
Vétérinaires Sans Frontier’s success has stemmed largely from its broad outlook. Boaz elaborates, “ At VSF we support the concept of One Health. That is the belief that the health of animals should be prioritised as a way of improving human health and welfare. The people we work with rely on their animals as much as their animals rely on them. For example, when we treat diseases like rhinopest or PPR, we know that primarily we are helping the animal. However, by helping the animal we make it available to its human as a food source and a working animal.”
Environmental protection is becoming increasingly important in their work, “ For the last 9 years we have been working with people dealing with drought in Kenya. In these areas conditions are really harsh, so we try and reduce the strain on the environment by having the healthiest animals with the highest yields, giving a more efficient return for farmers. One of our suggestions has been to swap from rearing cattle to rearing camels, who are better adapted to the hostile, dry environment.” Drought conditions also derail local markets, “During times of drought the local markets are flooded with sickly, poor quality animals that farmers are trying to get rid of. This influx drives down the price, meaning people get a very poor return for their animals.”
Political and social instability also poses a huge problem for livestock farmers. As Boaz demonstrates, “In Ethiopia, political and market stability is crucial for farmers, as they are the one of the biggest global exporters of meat. When relations become strained farmers incur losses which are really difficult to recover from as most don’t have savings or access to other markets.”Political stability has a big impact on access to pasture, “ In Syria and South Sudan civil war makes it impossible for farmers to access their normal pasture lands. This forces them to travel much further or risk their safety when trying to feed their animals.”
“When a man wants to marry in these communities he must have animals for any bride or her family to consider him. Therefore the more animals he has, the more attractive he becomes. It’s funny how it’s the opposite here in Europe, a German farmer could have hundreds of animals but still struggle to find a woman willing to take him on!”
Livestock are a key part of the communities and culture in these African countries. Families depend on their animals for everything, from food source to social symbol. “Most of the people we work with are pastoralists (nomads), so they spend weeks on end wandering with their animals. The result is a very special bond, they know each animal individually and often have names for them. These animals important in culture and religion.. Most nomadic people follow traditions where animals are slaughtered every year to celebrate a new season, a birth or a wedding.” Animals are an important resource for trading also, “People here don’t have bank accounts, if there’s something they need they will trade their animals for it, or sell animals to make the money. In this way animals become a symbol of wealth, which has an impact on a family’s social standing.”
Boaz admits there are other traditions which seem strange to us in Europe “When a man wants to marry in these communities he must have animals for any bride or her family to consider him. Therefore the more animals he has, the more attractive he becomes. It’s funny how it’s the opposite here in Europe, a German farmer could have hundreds of animals but still struggle to find a woman willing to take him on!”
Boaz believes that small scale, pastoralist farming is a much more sustainable practice than industrial farms. “The pastoralists we work with are fulfilling a need in their families and communities. They live in rural areas where there are no other livelihoods or food sources available to them. By keeping everything in the small scale families can sustain themselves without damaging the environment. By selling their animals or products they earn money to educate their children and pay for medical care. It’s a different story in the Europe, where it’s demand and not necessity that drives industrial farming practice.” Boaz believes that despite more developed veterinary practices in Europe and the US, animals in our farms suffer more than those in Africa. “Animals in these units are sometimes misused. We’ve all seen the videos on Facebook and Youtube and it’s a very grim reality. Disease management in these farms is very poor, and sick or injured animals can go unnoticed until it’s too late. Animal welfare is far from ideal as the keeping conditions are so bad. Personally I would never eat meat from these farms, I believe if we are going to eat meat, we owe it to the animals to see that they are raised in decent conditions.”
However, Boaz thinks that demonising industrial farmers is not the answer, “The problem is the market demand for these products. We need to target the market, not the farmer. The only way we can create a better future for animals and farmers is by educating the public on what’s happening and what needs to change. People don’t want to pay more for their meat, so we need to show them that smaller scale farming is in everyone’s best interest. Eating less meat is part of this, and eating better quality meat less often is one solution.”
As the human population creeps towards 8 billion people there is no doubt that the number of livestock on our planet will also rise. Boaz plans to keep working towards a better future for animals and humans with VSF. 2017 will be a year of changes and challenges for livestock farmers globally as our climate continues to change. Each of us as consumers will need to be more aware of where our food comes from. As Wendell Barry, farmer and activist, puts it, “Eating is an agricultural act”.