Make boverty history
Unless you have been hiding under a rock for some months, you will realise that people are starving in the Horn of Africa.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation considers 12 million people at risk in a region that includes Ethiopia (82m), Kenya (39m), Somalia (9m), Uganda (32m) and little Djibouti (1m). The figures in brackets are national populations and imply that 12 million is only only about 7 per cent of people in the region.
But you know the risk to each and every one of them is serious when Bob Geldof is wheeled out in a suit. Geldof, in a recent press conference, felt compelled to remind people that those at risk are intelligent, creative and resilient people who are suffering enormously.
Geldof’s claims about the glowing personal attributes of the 7 per cent who are starving were made without evidence but indicate that he understands the difficulties that many have, certainly white urban monolingual Australians, in identifying with the usual images of hungry black jabbering people that appear from time-to-time in between the football and media frenzies over the Labor leadership.
The proof of Geldof’s claim is immediate in the 93 per cent who are using that intelligence, resilience and creativity to cope with a really tough situation.
Ethiopia, for example, is a bit over half the size of Queensland but feeding 18 times more people. That’s bloody impressive.
Particularly since they only import about 6 per cent of cereals most years. The industrious Swiss typically import 50 per cent of their cereals.
But the starving African images in the bad times aren’t matched by any images of Africans in the good times, so Australians get a highly unbalanced picture from news sources.
On the other hand, there really are some serious long term problems with the food supply in the region which see many children undernourished and stunted, even when they are not starving before TV crews. These problems are rooted in eerily familiar attitudes.
If we had Ethiopia’s population density, we would have the same problems for very similar reasons. Like Ethiopia, we have ingrained attitudes that prevent us making the most of our food production potential. Happily there are forces in Africa working successfully to change the attitudes and practices that shape the crux of the problem.
But before delivering the good news, we need to understand the problems. So it’s time for a quiz.
Which has the most cattle, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya or Queensland? I mention Sudan (30m people) because while it isn’t on the canvas today, it’s almost always on the ropes and suffers the same structural problems that will keep it there without change.
If you can’t answer the question, then you will never understand the problems.
Here are some clues that may help you guess the answer. Sudan is about the same size as Queensland (185 million hectares) and Queensland has about 11 million cattle which graze 81 per cent of the state.
Ethiopia is much smaller than Queensland at 110 million hectares but with over 80 million people.
Kenya is less than a third the size of Queensland with 41 million people. In case you are wondering, Queensland only has 4.5 million people.
So can you now estimate those bovine statistics? Perhaps another clue may help.
Heifer International is a charitable organisation with funding from Bill and Melinda Gates, among others. It apparently perceives a shortage of cattle in Ethiopia and pretty much everywhere else on the planet, so it donates cattle to help deal with that shortfall.
Is there a cattle shortfall? Not bloody likely. Ethiopia has about 50 million cattle, Sudan has 40 million and pip-sqeak Kenya has 12 million. All three countries have more cattle than Queensland. Now, just how did Queensland accommodate those 11 million cattle?
Easy, for a couple of decades until very recently, Queensland was the per-capita deforestation capitol of the world.
Great bulldozers carved through the dry forests in South Eastern Queensland at a rate sometimes exceeding half a million hectares per year, echoing the great wildlife extinction wave driven by the sheep industry in the 19th and early 20th century.
Ethiopia’s 50 million cattle eat far more biomass than its 80 million people and are the true measure of the national impact on the environment. What do they provide? Are Ethiopians getting fat on burgers? Hardly.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, all those cattle provide less than 3 percent of daily calories, and that’s the total when beef and milk are combined. Cattle function primarily to reduce soil productivity while providing men with surrogate V8 utes to worship and trade. They are status symbols.
In Kenya, custom usually allows livestock to graze crop residue without permission, thereby robbing fragile soils of both cover and soil carbon that would other wise be returned to the soil when the residue broke down.
But cattle are grazers, so there are plenty of things they won’t eat. Hence, if you really want to desertify an area properly, you need to add a browser, something that can eat rougher foliage. Enter the humble goat. Cattle and goats form the perfect dynamic desertification duo.
The catastrophe gets worse as western aid agencies try to curry favour with people by giving them animals. This is like giving whiskey to a drunk. Does Africa have a goat shortage? I guess that depends on whether you think 300 million goats is enough.
The last sad coup de grace, in a very literal sense, is delivered when poor families cook with cattle dung. This robs the soil of nutrients and compromises childhood health. The smoke sickens and kills their children, it’s that tragic and that simple.
This is boverty. Bovine induced hardship on a continental scale. And if you think the small amounts of meat actually work nutritional miracles to compensate for the concomitant poverty and destruction, then you’ve been played by decades of meat industry spin.
Check the research, it isn’t true. But there is some good news.
In Kenya at least, there is a program turning things around. Herders are being taught to produce food.
Traditionally, women produce the food while men and their cattle act as a giant anchor chain. The whole process is rather like a poor Australian family kept poor by feeding a fuel guzzling V8 ute whose primary purpose is to pick up slabs at the pub on a Friday night.
As part of the Kenyan program, thousands of herders are being persuaded to reduce or eliminate their herds. Children who would have ended up perpetuating the cycle of boverty are learning to grow real food.
These are similar to school garden projects in Australia, but on a much bigger scale. At a Narok primary school, the 800 students have planted an 11 hectare garden. The impacts have been huge.
A much better diet, income from excess crops, better school results as a result of improved nutrition and a role model for the wider community who now realise the value of crops rather than a tenuous existence as herd followers. Even the local elephant population has discovered the wonders of a real garden compared with bush tucker. Fortunately, an electric fence now keeps the peace.
Africa is remarkably well placed to produce food in all kinds of conditions. It has a wondrous supply of well adapted and nutritious indigenous plant foods. Increased use of these resources has indeed occurred in Ethiopia and elsewhere since the horror famine of 1980s. Typically, it is women who have been doing the work while the boys are off playing cowboys and hunters.
I’ll sketch some details of just three of the dazzling variety of underutilised African foods.
First, the Baobab. We have varieties of this spectacular tree these in Northern Australia. Both the fruit and leaves are widely eaten in western Africa but the leaves are particularly fascinating. They are 10 to 17 per cent protein with a pretty well perfect mix of amino acids.
Also high in critical vitamins and minerals, they are already a staple in some areas and of growing importance. Far less nutritious but with a fearsome reputation as a food that can get you through any drought is the Enset.
A member of the banana family, this is actually a root vegetable and a single root can provide 40 kilos of food. A small group of plants can feed a family indefinitely.
Areas of Ethiopia which have adopted Enset cultivation are reportedly free of food security issues and are also said to enjoy superior nutritional status. The latter is surprising, but would take too long to explain.
Many Ethiopians began growing Enset following the horror starvation marches of the 1980s. The survivors adopted Enset cultivation which they learned in the highlands.
The down side of this plant is that its preparation is highly labor intensive, so again, it’s the women who do the work while the men are off watching their cattle starve.
Lastly, the Safou is a popular fruit in many parts of Africa, but is of particular interest because its pulp is high in both protein and energy. It’s levels of lysine, leucine and threonine (amino acids) are similar to those found in eggs and much higher than in normals staples like wheat or rice.
Geldof was right. Next time you see footage of desperate black people either too weak to speak or apparently jabbering in a language unlike any you have ever heard, think of the ones you aren’t seeing. They are off harvesting a myriad of foods, processing them in sometimes very sophisticated ways and making a go of it.
Now, login to the on-line donation page of the overseas aid agency of your choice and make a donation, but make sure your money doesn’t pour petrol on the fires of boverty.
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