Community Protocols: “Giving livestock back its soul”

Workshop participants visit a flock of Red Maasai sheep and learn about the problems that their lady owner faces.

Recently I had the pleasure and privilege to participate in, and co-moderate, with my old friend Dr. Jacob Wanyama a workshop entitled “Making Access and Benefit-Sharing work for Africa’s Animal Genetic Resources”. It was organized by the African Union’s Interregional Bureau of Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) in Kenya and attended by about 40 participants drawn from three different groups:  National Coordinators for Animal Genetic Resources, National Focal Points for Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS) and leaders of breeders’ organizations.

The purpose of the workshop was to develop a roadmap for establishing Biocultural Community Protocols for six African transboundary breeds, Red Maasai sheep, Dorper sheep, Muturu cattle, Azawak cattle, Kuri cattle, and the D’Man sheep.

An important part of the workshop was to inform about the rationale for Livestock Keepers’ Rights, a concept developed by civil society in the run up to the First International Conference on Animal Genetic Resources held in Interlaken in 2007, more than 10 years ago.

The second major aim was to learn how to develop Community Protocols, also known as Biocultural Protocols (BCPs). Community Protocols are a tool enshrined in the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to ensure that benefits from genetic resources trickle down to the communities who have created and steward themThey are supposed to reflect and put on record the perceptions, traditional knowlede and preferences of the community in its own words. Therefore they are entirely different from the “breed descriptors” that AnGR experts are familiar with. To get this deviation from the “scientific” approach across is not that easy, but I was extremely gratified when a lady herder from Tchad expressed her takeaway as “Community protocols are about putting the soul back into livestock”. I think that was beautifully put!

The table below spells out some of the differences between a Community Protocol and a Breed Descriptor.

Difference between Community Protocol and Breed Descriptor

Breed Descriptor Community Protocol
What is documented ? A breed A biodiverse production system, including people/culture, livestock, environment
Focus is on Physical and production characteristics Traditional knowledge about breeding and biological diversity of feed/forage and medicinal plants
Type of documentation Measurements of body parts and production outputs, usually under controlled (research institute or government farm) conditions Perceptions about special characteristics of the breed, its value compared to other breeds, folklore, local stories
Who documents? Scientist/Geneticist Community, possibly facilitated by NGO
Purpose To obtain scientific description and record of a country’s animal genetic resources To claim community ownership over a breed and identify/put on record the pressures on a breed and the prerequisites for its conservation and continued sustainable use.
Relevance to Access and Benefit-Sharing none yes
Description of threats and opportunities no yes
Information about conservation needs no yes

Keeping livestock these days is a challenging task that requires passion in order to hang on to it instead of looking for an alternative livelihood. That was again beautifully illustrated on the last day of the workshop when we went on a fieldtrip to visit a Maasai lady keeping a flock of several hundred almost totally pure Red Maasai sheep. She shared her trials and tribulations with us. Her biggest problem was theft: sometimes gangs would drive up in SUVs and stuff as many sheep as they could into them. Another threat was from leopards who would sometimes go on a rampage among the flock. But throughout the dialogue with her what really shone through was her love and passion for her animals. Each of them had a name. Like all good pastoralists she knew exactly how each animal was related to any other in the flock. This was incomprehensible to some of the scientists who urged her to keep written records.

All in all, it is encouraging that AU-IBAR has adopted the BCP idea. So glad that Africa is taking the global lead in this! But Argentina is also gearing up, as you will see in an upcoming interview with Dra Maria Rosa Lanari who is the agrobiodiversity coordinator of INTA, Argentina’s agricultural research institute.

Pastoralists and India’s Biological Diversity Act

The beautiful Dangi cattle from Maharashtra that sustains on biodiversity and crop after math is an example for a breed that should be protected by a Biocultural Community Protocol

An important group of “stakeholders” in India’s biodiversity falls through the gaps of the country’s Biodiversity Act and requires a special tool to document their knowledge and the genetic resources they steward.

India’s biodiversity management strategy and action plan rests on Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) –  village level institutions tasked with establishing local Peoples’ Biodiversity Registers (PBRs) that document local biological diversity, including wild flora and fauna, as well as traditional knowledge, especially about medicinal plants.

But a crucial group of biodiversity guardians, together with a significant slice of biodiversity, falls through the gaps of this system: nomadic pastoralists and the livestock breeds they have created over centuries. Moving around in the spaces between villages, they are major producers of food without cultivating the soil, while at the same time conserving and adding value to biodiversity.

India (still) has a large number of pastoralists who migrate with their herds and flocks between different locations – sometimes far apart – utilizing natural vegetation and crop aftermath to support a major part of India’s livestock population. They perform something remarkable:  systematically producing food WITHOUT tilling the soil and WITHOUT replacing bio-diverse natural vegetation with monocultures of crops.  In order to achieve this miracle feat, they have developed, and depend on, domestic animal biodiversity – breeds of livestock that are highly mobile and convert biodiverse vegetation into high value protein.

These people are the holders of immense bodies of  traditional knowledge – about the medicinal uses of plants, about the habits of wildlife, about the effect of plants on animal health, about the interrelationship between them.  In short, they are privy to holistic ecological knowledge that is still our best bet in the practical management of eco-systems and vastly superior to the atomized perspective of scientists who tend to focus on minute aspects and often fail to see the forest for the trees.

Being nomadic, these people who are crucial  for biodiversity conservation as well as India’s present and future food security, usually fall outside the scope of the village BMCs, even of state biodiversity boards, as they routinely wander between different states. In order to record and do justice to their role in biodiversity conservation and to ensure their rights as “Keepers of Genes” , a tailor made approach is required – an approach that captures the fact that they are mobile social groups roaming  over different geographical zones of the country together with  specific livestock breeds that they continuously adapt to changing ecological and economic scenarios.

A group of NGOs working with pastoralists in different parts of India has developed such a tool that is known as “Biocultural Community Protocol” . It corresponds to the “community protocols” that India – and other countries – are mandated to establish by an international legal convention: the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits arising from their utilization. Already a corpus of such BCPs has been developed by pastoralist groups, including the Raika , the Kutchi camel breeders , Rajasthan’s camel breeders   and the Bargur Hill Cattle Breeders . Various others are in progress, covering a significant part of India’s biodiversity.

So far they have not been recognized nor even acknowledged by India’s National Biodiversity Authority. The National Biodiversity Authority may to some extent be aware of the role of pastoralists as stewards of biodiversity as it has been supporting the annual Breed Saviour Awards  promoted by the NGO SEVA.  But these awards are given to individuals, not communities and represent a one-time reward, they do not imply any rights over animal genetic resources as envisioned by the Nagoya Protocol. BCPs would fill this gap and explicitly recognize what these communities do for India – producing food in marginal areas and from crop by-products, manuring fields with organic fertilizer, often supporting wildlife, and providing various other ecological services such as dispersing seeds.

As of 17th July, 2017, 62,502 BMCs had been established in India, covering less than 10% of the country’s 650244 villages. These are very unequally distributed, with some states such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh having tens of thousands while a state like Rajasthan only has less than one hundred. This difference is because of the presence of NGOs in that have actively supported and built the capacities of communities to establish People’s Biodiversity Registers. Without NGOs as catalysts and facilitators, village people rarely have the motivation to establish BMCs. It is certainly worthwhile and immensely important to encourage village people, especially youths, to take an interest in the biodiversity around them and to value the traditional knowledge held by the older generations. But rural people are already occupied with a host of issues and are likely to take action only if some component of biodiversity that is crucial to their livelihoods is threatened.

Strategically it therefore makes more sense to aggregate biodiversity at a higher geographical level; acknowledging and supporting (Biocultural) Community Protocols for pastoralists would be an important step towards a more efficient and regional approach to biodiversity documentation and management then relying only on village based BMCs.

The importance of  Community Protocols will really come to the fore if and when international interest in livestock breeds that are adapted to challenging environmental conditions increases. In times of climate change, this may be sooner rather than later. Already there is a case of Access and Benefit-Sharing with respect to an Indian livestock breed. In 2012, Brasif, a Brazilian agribusiness investor, applied to the National Biodiversity Authority of India for access to 4,000 cattle embryos from Gir and Kankrej breeds. The embryos were supplied by a Trust in Bhavnagar in Gujarat. In 2015, the expert committee on access and benefit sharing of the National Biodiversity Authority set a price of INR 12 million (USD 190,000) which was paid by BRASIF. But apparently the National Biodiversity Authority is unsure who is entitled to receive this money, as it wants to benefit the creators of the breeds. IF A Community Protocol existed, the decision would be much easier.

Such issues are currently also discussed at the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at the FAO in Rome. But Africa seems to be taking the lead in pushing for Biocultural Community Protocols, as I will report in my next blog post!

Livestock: The good, the bad, the ugly!

In order to remain healthy, livestock needs to be able to move around. In order to be happy, animals should be kept in family groups. Pastoralists know how to do this.

The trouble for livestock started with the publication in 2006 of  “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, the FAO’s detailed study of this sector’s startling environmental impact, identifying it as a major culprit in climate change, besides polluting rivers, oceans, groundwater and the atmosphere, as well as wiping out biodiversity. These widely broadcast results caught the imagination of both the media and the general public. The automobile industry suddenly compared its emissions to that of “farting cows” and prided itself on being better for the environment than the beef industry.

One of the unintended consequences of this game-changing analysis was the wariness of donors to fund any livestock related development projects. It resulted in a dearth of funding for animal husbandry – which suddenly seemed to have become almost a toxic word. Over the years, this scenario precipitated several damage control initiatives, for example the Global Agenda on Sustainable Livestock (GASL), a multi-stakeholder platform anchored by the FAO to lead to “practice change” towards more sustainable livestock, and the Global Livestock Advocacy for Development (GLAD), a project of ILRI, the International Livestock Research Institute. These initiatives are somewhat in an overcompensation mode: while they rightly emphasize the many beneficial effects of livestock especially in poorer parts of the world as source of livelihoods and nutrition, their blanket endorsement of livestock obfuscates a crucial point: livestock can be both “good” and “bad”, and its impact is entirely dependent on us humans and how we manage our farm animals.

It is quite simple: If we keep livestock in a way that it mirrors nature and imitates the herds of wild herbivores that once created the world’s most fertile soils , then its impact is positive. If animals are kept moving, are deployed to convert roughage or waste into protein, raised in family groups contributing to their well-being, then this is an ideal situation. It is the model of livestock keeping exemplified by nomadic pastoralists.

The situation changes when livestock no longer moves around and forages on its own but is fed with especially grown fodder. Although this is the standard that most of us have grown up with, it is  already much less desirable! For one, living creatures that get no exercise and are totally stall-fed cannot really be healthy, as we know from ourselves. Furthermore, it costs fossil fuels to grow and transport the feed and it is usually no longer possible for animals to be in a herd – they are separated  by sex and age. Still, from an environmental and farming perspective, such systems are essential and acceptable as long as livestock remains integrated with crop cultivation, its manure is fed back into the local soils, and animals have the opportunity to exercise.

But it gets really ugly when we intensify this system in order to maximize output, confine and isolate animals, keep them in huge numbers for the sake of “efficiency” and profit, pay no heed to their social needs. We not only turn living beings into processing machines, we have to bring the feed from very far away (other continents), amass the excreta (which have turned from valuable organic manure into a toxic pollutant), dispense antibiotics to suppress diseases, add some hormones to make production even more “efficient”. And then – surprise, surprise – we have to deal with antibiotic resistance, animal rightists, tasteless food, stench in the air, rural poverty, what have you not.

Initiatives such as GASL and GLAD that aim to make livestock more sustainable, or give it a better press, are welcome – but they need to be brave enough to spell out under which conditions livestock is good, bad, and ugly. They should not excuse the ugly systems because they are supposedly “efficient” and necessary to feed the world (which they are not). They need to revisit the efficiency paradigm that they adhere to because efficiency can have many negative side-effects and undermine sustainability.

They must read the writing on the wall: the steep rise in vegetarians and vegans, the fact that supermarket and fast food chains are now the ones pushing for better animal welfare standards, the amount of funding going into developing artificial meat. In such a global scenario, blanket endorsements of livestock are no longer credible. Instead, a more differentiated approach is the need of the hour, even if it alienates some of the stakeholders in the livestock sector. If we try to please everybody, we end up without profile and impact, and will not make progress towards our goal of livestock sector sustainability.

Pastoralists of the World, speak up – and prepare your Biocultural Community Protocols!

October November 2008 134
Pastoralism has many times been declared as outmoded and about to disappear. But the world needs pastoralists, so what to do?

It is often said – and given as a reason for disparaging pastoralism – that young people do not want to become pastoralists. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, that is often the case. Pastoralism is hard work, and in the absence of pro-pastoralist policies while populations grow, it is coming  under increasing pressure and in conflict with farmers, roads and urban sprawl. To make matters worse, school education seems to be at odds with herding culture, projecting it as backwards and instilling a sense of disdain of this way of life. This in turn is a consequence of government determined curricula – and we know that hardly any government appreciates pastoralism.

However, the opposite is also true: there are young people that do want to be pastoralists. In developing countries, the motivation may be the absence of better options for making a livelihood. In Rajasthan, I frequently come across young pastoralists who have tried out urban existences but decided that they preferred the independence of pastoralism, despite all the associated hassles. In developed countries, this can also be observed – spending summers up in the Alps looking after goats or cattle and making cheese is quite an attractive proposition for many. Then there are urban shepherds or conservation shepherds who make a living from payments for ecological services or keeping urban lawns short. Or read the bestselling book “A Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks, an ode to centuries of rootedness in England’s Lake District.

Raika from Rajasthan meet a Swiss goat herd spending the summer in the Alps - during the First International "Interlaken" Conference on Animal Genetic Resources, September 2007
Raika from Rajasthan meet a Swiss goat herd spending the summer in the Alps – during the First International “Interlaken” Conference on Animal Genetic Resources, September 2007

The world needs pastoralistst, and without pastoralism many countries would starve, especially those with large proportions of uncultivable land. So why is this role of pastoralism not recognized by governments? Why do they not put in place policies that protect pastoralists and make their lives easier, instead of squeezing them out?

I have come to the conclusion that this is because pastoralism operates according to different principles than the animal science based kind of livestock production. Scientific livestock production works under controlled conditions, where everything is predictable – except outbreaks of diseases and prices.  There are standardized genetics, standardized feeds, standardized houses and the goal is to maximize output. By contrast pastoralism goes with the flow, it uses the resources that are available and it recycles nutrients into the soil. Pastoralists provide organic fertilizer, they steward livestock genetic diversity, they maintain wild biodiversity. They are usually pleasing to look at while the other type of livestock production has to be secured behind closed doors because people get upset about it.

Belgao Kuruma 180
Pastoralists, such as these Kuruba on India’s Deccan Plateau go with the flow- wherever there are resources available – and make an important contribution to recycling nutrients, producing organic manure. The problems of industrial livestock production – excess of nutrients accummulating in groundwater – are avoided.


So how to change the mind of policy makers about pastoralists? Well, the only way to do this is to demonstrate and make visible the enormous contributions pastoralists make in terms of food security, biodiversity conservation, and – at least in South Asia – organic fertilizer production. Scientific papers have made a stab at depicting this in numbers, but which policy maker reads them? I believe the most effective way of all is if pastoralist groups or communities  themselves record and document what they do for humanity by making use of a tool called Biocultural Community Protocol. Community Protocols are a legal instrument under the  Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a legal framework that practically all governments of the world are a party to. The Nagoya Protocol  commits countries to support communities  to develop protocols in which they state under which conditions they would grant access to their genetic resources and traditional knowledge. Now, such “access” can only be provided if these genetic resources (i.e. livestock breeds) and associated knowledge still exist – and without pastoralists managing them in-situ, they certainly will disappear. Ergo, this is the credo of my organization, the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development (LPP) , Community Protocols are a means for pastoralists to firstly describe the resources they manage and secondly to stae te conditions under which they are able and willing to continue this important role for humanity.

Already, more than a dozen of pastoralist communities have developed BCPs, most of them in India, but also in Pakistan, in Kenya, and soon to come in Niger and in Argentina.  The more BCPs, the more powerful and difficult to ignore they will become. In September, LPP is organizing a workshop to streamline the metod and process of BCPs, while in late September the Woodaabe of Niger will embark on developing their BCP, using innovative mobile technology. One of these days, governments, international organizations and livestock scientists will listen!

Developing a Biocultural Community Protocol is a community-led process. It provides pastoralists to claim their rights and gives governments the opportunity to the value of their pastoralists.

Somalis, droughts, and women power: Impressions from Kenya’s thriving camel sector

Not suffering from the current drought: Camels in perfect hump near Isiolo
Not suffering from the current drought: Camels in perfect hump near Isiolo

Kenya’s camel population has been sky-rocketing in recent decades – from less than one million around the turn of the millennium to an estimated 3.1 million currently. So what’s the secret? Why does the Kenyan situation differ from that in India where camel numbers continue to plummet  – despite protection as state animal of Rajasthan and the rescue efforts of animal welfare people?  My partner in camel affairs, Hanwant Singh Rathore, director of Indian camel support organization LPPS, and I travelled to Kenya to find out.

We had the good fortune of being hosted by Anne Bruntse, a Danish agronomist who has been residing in Kenya since 34 years, and is a pioneer in camel cheese making.  (Her feta, halloumi, and cream cheeses made from the milk of the Kumbhalgarh camels were a hit with Delhiwalas and connoisseurs during the Living Lightly exhibition about pastoralists in India last year). Anne lives on a farm in Gilgil in the Rift Valley and for many years was running a cow dairy and cheese making unit before taking a scientific approach to camel cheese making with a camel-specific rennet invented by the Danish company Chr. Hansen.

Our first port of call was the Anolei women’s cooperative in Isiolo, a crowded town of mostly Somali residents, about 235 km north of Nairobi.

Anolei women cooperative run by Somali women in Isiolo
Anolei women cooperative run by Somali women in Isiolo

Somalis are gluttons for camel milk, their whole culture traditionally revolved around the camel, and camel milk is important for their well-being. The Somali women that formed the Anolei cooperative turn over about 3000 liters per day. The crux of the system is the clan system. Somalis sell camel milk only to their clan members and the collective is the link between rural producers and urban consumers. The cooperative organizes the transport to Nairobi and, with the help of donors, has obtained a chilling tank where the milk is cooled down before onward transportation by bus. This makes a big difference to the quality of the milk. The Anolei women also own a pasteurization and filling unit which they are awaiting to operationalize as soon as they receive the necessary certification from the authorities. And, chair woman Sofia Kulow was really excited to share that the cooperative would soon have its own chilling truck to take the milk to Nairobi.

The milk containers are marked with the symbols of their owners
Women are in total control of milk turn-over
Women are in total control of milk turn-over










A similar set-up exists in Garissa, another Somali stronghold.  Setting up a chilling facility combined with training in hygienic milk collection enormously increased the availability of good quality of camel milk and thereby the demand for it. Local demand by the Somalis is so high that no milk is left over for export to Nairobi!

This is not the only case of camels serving to empower women in Kenya. Laura Llemeneite who has lived among the Samburu tribe for more than 20  years tells the story of how the originally cattle keeping Samburu have been switching to camel keeping in recent decades. Because of a series of droughts as well as climate change, cows are no longer providing enough milk or need to be herded to very distant locations for grazing and can no longer provide milk in the settlements. For the sake of food security, development agencies have been supporting the adoption of camels and distributed over a thousand heifer camels to Samburu women groups.

This has resulted in Samburu women becoming livestock owners for the first time, a change that has considerably strengthened their status in the community. According to Laura,  this has led to more eye level marriages, and while the men initially had difficulties accepting that women would attend meetings, they now often even offer to do the cooking so this can happen!

Near Rumuruti we visit Amanda and John Perrett who farm 200 camels on Ol Maisor, a large ranch.  Amanda’s father, Jasper Evans, a camel aficionado and visionary established a camel herd in the 1980s, seeing the advantage of combining them with cattle herds to intensify land use: camels and cattle utilize different types of vegetation. In the 1990s, Ol Maisor became a hub of applied research and  Jasper also had the foresight to import 60 or so high yielding dairy camels from Pakistan, keeping detailed records about their reproduction, health and veterinary treatments for more than twenty year. This tradition is faithfully continued by Amanda.

Two important actors in Kenya's camel scene: Anne Bruntse (l) and Amanda Perrett
Two important actors in Kenya’s camel scene: Anne Bruntse (l) and Amanda Perrett

Rumuruti is at the southern end of Laikipia district, a place much in the news these days because of conflicts between predominantly white ranchers and conservationists and Samburu or Pokot herders desperate for grazing, with politicians also taking advantage of this situation. So there are security concerns and the camel safaris that were once a major source of income are currently down.

So what is the difference between Kenya and India?

  1. There is a large Somali community for whom camel milk is an essential food that they don’t seem to be able to do without. Thus there is a significant market for camel milk, providing economic incentives for breeding camels..
  2. Development organizations have been supporting transition from cattle to camel as a means of drought resilience and climate change adaptation.
  3. There has been sustained investment in applied camel research and, more recently, in setting up of cool chains to move camel milk from rural to urban areas.
  4. Women are important actors, including the Somali dairy entrepreneurs, the Samburu household managers, Amanda Perrett, and Anne Bruntse who has not only developed cheese but taught endless courses in hygienic milk collection and processing.

Can some of these approaches be transferred to India? Well, India probably does not have much of a Somali population and thereby an in-built demand for camel milk. On the other hand, people with diseases that can benefit from camel milk (such as autism and diabetes) are numerous there. While switching from cattle to camel is not likely to happen, it is absolutely essential and urgent to invest in the cool chains that link producers with consumers. And an effort should be made to involve women from camel breeding communities. While Indian pastoralist women traditionally have not had much to do with camels (except when going on migration), they have always played the role of “family finance ministers” and may have more of the business sense and attention to detail (hygiene) that are prerequisites for getting India’s camel dairy sector going!


Old World Camels in the New World

Dromedaries are Old World animals but were also taken to the New World where they met different fates.
Camels are Old World animals but were also taken to the New World where they met different fates.

Dromedary and Bactrian camels are Old World species, with Camelus dromedarius being an animal of the Old World Arid Zone belt that stretches from Mauretania in the west to Rajasthans Aravalli Hills in the east, while Camelus bactrianus is a creature of the cold high-altitude deserts of China, Mongolia, Northern Iran and some other pockets.

In the 19th century, camels were exported to both Australia and North America, with very different results. Recently, I was fortunate to get some insight into the scenarios in both countries and am marvelling at the role of culture in determining the fate of an animal species.

My source of information for Australia is the reknown camel whisperer Paddy McHugh who stayed with us on our “camel farm” to demonstrate how to train camels without nosepegs (more about this issue at a later date).

Paddy McHugh at the Pushkar Camel Fair.

Australia has a huge camel population in the Outback, numbering maybe around half a million head. These camels are considered a pest and invasive species (a concept a bit difficult to digest for us who try to save Rajasthan’s camel population)  and between 2009 and 2013 there was a government sponsored programme to try to eliminate the camel population by shooting the herds from helicopters – and leaving the carcasses to rot. Believe it or not, this A$ 19 million scheme was also justified with the need to mitigate climate gas emissions!

Now, according to Paddy, the environmental damage that the feral camels do is vastly exaggerated, mainly by the beef and sheep ranchers. I am sure they have their grievances, but – without having yet been to the outback – I am struck by the apparently amazing capacity of the camel to grow and flourish in such a hostile environment without any human inputs.  To me it seems that the Australian feral camels are amazingly efficient protein producers, and thus an asset in a food-insecure world. Isn’t it much better to produce animal protein for human consumption in this way, rather than in industrialized feedlots that cause huge pollution, require animals to be fed with antibiotics to keep them healthy and depend on vast monocultures of soybean and corn?

And mind you, it has been shown that camels emit less greenhouse gases than conventional ruminants, primarily because they need much less feed to produce protein. STRANGE that the animal science establishment that is so pre-occupied with “efficiency” of livestock has not latched on to this fact. But of course, it goes against the CULTURE of many people to consume camel meat instead of chicken or mutton, even if it makes utmost ecological sense.

In North America camels were also introduced but have not survived as a feral population. I have just come back from an amazing tour to California which was courtesy of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise and, as a budding camel dairy entrepreneur,  I used the oportunity to connect with the intriguing camel scene over there. The US has an emerging camel dairy industry, mainly to cater to autism patients, but also to health nuts, athletes, paleo-dieters, and sufferers of various diseases. My host  was  the lovely Christina Adams who pioneered the use of camel milk in the treatment of autism and is ne of the foremost authorities on this subject.

Together with Christina, I visited the Oasis Camel Dairy in Ramona run by a wonderful couple, Nancy and Gil Riegler, who own around 20 camels.


Because of the complicated legal situation, they currently are not selling camel milk, but use it to produce an array of luxurious body care items, including soaps, lotions, lip chaps, bath bombs, etc. They have just developed a lipstick based on camel milk of which they generously gave me a few samples.

An array of camel milk based body care products on display at Oasis Camel Dairy.
Milking at Oasis Camel Dairy.

Finally, I had an interesting conversation with Walid Abdul Wahab, the founder of Desert Farms,  who is applying his business mind to set up a global camel brand, sourcing camel milk from all over the world – not only from the US, but also Europe and Pakistan. He believes in camel milk powder which is of course much easier to handle as it stores almost indefinitely and can easily be shipped. But does camel milk powder have the same beneficial and therapeutic qualities as fresh camel milk? I am wondering about this and would like to see some research and data on the question. I am also wondering about the desirability of establishing one global brand for all. While its true that camel milk producers have problems marketing milk on their own, I will continue to dream of, and pursue, a diverse camel milk sector where each camel milk has its individual taste and speaks for its region, just like cheeses and wines do!


Registering Rajasthan’s Camel Herds: Laying the Foundation for Ethical Dairying

Hanwant Singh Rathore, director of Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) registering the herd of Dhungar Ram Raika

The news around camels in Rajasthan have been dismal over at least the last 15 years, with the population plummeting, the remaining camel herds suffering from neglect and no young people willing to enter the profession of camel herding.  Declaring the camel state animal in 2014 and the passing of the Rajasthan Camel Bill (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) in 2015 only added to the gloom and certainly did not achieve the intended effect of reversing the fates of camels and their breeders.

But now there is some light on the horizon! Two developments make me feel that, if everything comes together, the situation can be turned around and Rajasthan’s camel economy revived.  And maybe, maybe – I know this sounds highly ambitious – even a new model for ethical dairying developed: Milk production where the consumer knows where her milk comes from and is ensured that she purchases a pure and unadulterated product. Because you are what you eat, and it makes a difference whether your milk is produced by stall-fed animals fed on a diet of concentrate and milked for all their worth with the help of hormone injections or from animals that graze on biodiverse natural vegetation, let down their milk voluntarily and whose milk is “harvested” judiciously and with concern for the needs of the calves.

The first reason for my current optimism is that the demand for camel milk in India is on a steep rise, especially for the alleviation of autism and Diabetes. Camel milk has medicinal qualities for which consumers are willing to pay a premium and this creates a huge incentive for camel breeders to hang on to their herds or to even expand them. I have seen this happening in the last couple of months among the camel breeders that supply to the “Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy” that is run by Camel Charisma and bridges the divide between urban camel milk consumers and camel breeders roaming around in remote areas.

“Last year, I thought I would have to give up camel herding, but now I am increasing my herd to produce camel milk” says Bhanwarlal Raika

But how to make sure the milk is from happy herded camels and not diluted cow or buffalo milk? Unfortunately there is still no field test available that can provide the answer. The only solution is to know exactly which herders the milk comes from and the number of milking camels they have. And to have the herders committed to provide genuine unadulterated camel milk and not a white fluid amalgamated from milk of other animals, water and other ingredients.

For this reason, Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) is currently engaged in registering all camel herds in a 50 km radius from Sadri and educating the owners about the real opportunity for the survival of their camels and their own livelihoods if they commit themselves to providing a genuine product.

Meeting the herders is a humbling experience, seeing how the old Raika philosophy of “first the camels, then us” is still alive, the hardships and hard work they perform to keep their camels healthy, how many farmers appreciate the manure that the camels deposit on their fields as organic fertilizer, how closely the herdsmen observe nature and the effect of camel browsing on the trees of the Aravalli Hills. One can feel how camels are a crucial part of the agro-ecological web whose disappearance would undermine both local food production and ecology.

But most satisfying of all is to see how there are still young Raika keen to herd and look after camels if only it provides a decent income.

“I want to be a camel herder when I grow up” says the youngest son of Dhungar Ram

Diligent registration of herds is an absolute must for camel dairying to grow into an ethical and profitable business. Its also a must for the successful implementation of a just announced scheme by the Rajasthan government to provide a Rs 10,000 subsidy for all new camels born, in 3 instlments and over an 18 months period. This scheme can only succeed on the basis of proper herd registration, otherwise it will flounder and be abused as so often happens with well-intended schemes.

Official announcement by Rajasthan government for a scheme to support breeders with Rs 10,000 for new born camels.

Both these developments – emergence of a market for a premium camel milk market and the subsidies for new-born camels – have the potential to provide a decisive boon to camel herders, both morally and financially. And if they would be embedded into a proper “Camel Policy” adopted and implemented by the Rajasthan, then we will be on the right track for conserving Rajasthan’s globally unique and ethical camel pastoralist system for the future!

Pigs, Power and Profit: Reading Pig tales by Barry Estabrook

A happy pig from Papua New-Guinea
A happy pig from Papua New-Guinea

Spending most of my time with pastoralists, I don’t often have to do with pigs, although there are exceptions. I had the good fortune to meet the pig nomads of Odisha due to my friend Dr. Balaram Sahu who runs a pathe pathshala (moving university for livestock keepers) and has written a booklet entitled Pigs: The Protein Pot of the Poor. And I was lucky to catch a glimpse of the pig culture of Papua New Guinea thanks to the invitation of Dr. Workneh Ayalew who headed the country’s National Research Institute on Agriculture in Lae until recently.

Nomadic pig herd in Odisha (India) grazing on harvested rice fields

But I am also a member of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock, a multi-stakeholder initiative managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that is doing its level best to create momentum for practice change to make the livestock sector more sustainable. The rationale of GASL is that the livestock sector has problems but also great potential to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

So it was with great interest I picked up a book  entitled Pig Tales by Barry Estabrook to learn about the situation in the US pig sector. In a captivating introduction three “tribes” of pigs are distinguished: feral pigs, those kept in industrial systems, and a small minority raised by farmers  exemplifying an alternative to the industrial model. In the second part, we learn about research on the “the nature of the beast”, for instance by Candace Croney who heads the Center for Animal Welfare Research at Purdue University. Pigs are extremely intelligent, easily learning how to work with computers and use joysticks, are able to recognize symbols, and even are self-aware. Other studies provide evidence that pigs living in an enriched environment and being treated nicely have better health, bigger litter sizes and higher growth rates. Alas, such crucial research has come to a halt because it was funded by the industry which concluded that it does nothing to improve their bottomline.

The power of the pork industry is indeed the most shocking revelation of this book. As described in a large number of examples its protagonists can ignore and violate laws with impunity, and influence legislation, so it has been impossible to stop the use of antibiotics . Workers rights are worse then when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. Yet, consumers are not entirely powerless as recent pledges by major stakeholders to not use products from sows kept in crates and chickens in cages.

The final chapters of the book show that alternatives are possible in which farmers make a reasonable income, pigs live a happy life without confinement, antibiotic use is restricted to therapeutic indications, and consumers enjoy  a tastier and healthier pork chop. These are win-win situations that should be supported with appropriate policies so that they can capture a higher share of the market.

This book is an eye opener that one can hardly put down, although I skipped a few pages in which the gory details of error prone assembly line slaughter are described.

It re-inforces my sceptical view about using “efficiency” as yardstick for judging and improving livestock systems. Unfortunately, livestock efficiency as currently defined, more often than not occurs at the expense of animal welfare, workers’ rights, farmers’ profits and consumers’ health and tastebuds. And it makes me believe even stronger in the urgency for developing countries to NOT follow the “western model” of livestock development depending on exotic genetics and imported feed, but instead carve out their own farmer/pastoralist centered approach building on local breeds and available biomass.

To me it feels ominous that the largest American pork processor Smithfield is owned by a Chinese company that renamed itself W.H. Group and is registered in the Cayman Islands for tax purposes. Such concentration of transnational control and power can not be healthy for the planet, despite the best efforts of the company to project a responsible image. Do read Barry Estabrook’s book!

Love of Bulls in Tamil Nadu

One of the Kangayam cows conserved at the Sivasenaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation
One of the Kangayam cows conserved at the Sivasenaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation

India is famous for its veneration of the cow as Gau-mata (although with the recent rise of Gau-Rakshaks, self-appointed cow protectors, it is also in danger of becoming somewhat infamous in this respect). That is also has a very ancient bull-culture is much less known. The last couple of days I have been spending in bull country, in Tamil Nadu, surrounded by passionate supporters of  Jallikattu, the Indian response to bull-fighting as practiced in Spain, but which is more correctly described as “bull-embracing”. Its a practice that dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization, some 4000 years ago, as indicated by ancient seals showing bulls that throw people into the air.  Jallikattu is entirely different from the Spanish version. Basically, village boys attempt to embrace the hump of a bull during a 15 m run. If they manage to do this, they are given a reward by the bull owner who gains prestige from having a bull too ferocious to allow this to happen. The sport was and is enormously popular, and the bull is never harmed, in fact if just one drop of blood the event is immediately stopped.


I am staying once again  at the Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation (SKCRF) in Kuttapalayam in Erode helping them to put together a Biocultural Protocol for the Kangayam cattle breed. The Kangayam cattle, a medium sized draught breed usually of white or grey colour, once was – and continues to be to an extent – the backbone of the local agro-ecology. Every farming family owned a pair of them for ploughing, pulling water, hauling the harvest, and powering carts for personal transportation. This cattle was raised on privately owned pastureland, the Korangadu, a very bio-diverse and extremely drought resistant sylvo-pastoral system. The Kangayam cattle was also essential for rituals and in religious life. Each village had a temple bull that provided free stud services. During Pongal, a Tamil harvest festival, the cattle was elaborately decorated and, on other occasions, bullock cart races known as Rekhla provided entertainment to and prestige to the owners of the winning bullock pairs.

But, like many local livestock breeds, the Kangayam cattle is now under threat, due to a number of factors such as a change in the farming system, availability of motorized transport, and the loss of Korangadu pastureland, mostly due to its high  real estate value.

The SKCRF is at the forefront of conserving the breed, keeping a herd of about 40 animals, educating farmers about the use of organic manure, organising competitions and fairs, and raising awareness of students and the general public about the Kangayam cattle. Sadly there is practically no government support for these efforts, even though India is a signatory to the Interlaken Declaration and the Global Plan of Action on Animal Genetic Resources.  While the country can boast a well-staffed and well-funded National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources,  this institute is oriented at research rather than practical conservation. And although there are various government conservation programmes with huge budgets they do not benefit the people at the grassroots who actively conserve by looking after livestock even if it is unprofitable.

Grassroots people who are taking care of threatened breeds do not benefit from existing conservation programmes
Grassroots people who are taking care of threatened breeds do not benefit from existing conservation programmes

Furthermore, there seems to be no awareness among decision makers that indigenous breeds cannot be dissociated from their respective agro-ecosystems, in this case the Korangadu pastureland, and neither can be conserved without the other.

But the biggest ire of the cattle aficionados I met is the ban on jallikattu and rekhla precipitated by the animal welfare movement that has pronounced these traditional “biocultural” sports as cruel to animals. This means that one of the last remaining incentives of breeding Kangayam cattle has evaporated and that there is harly any utility for male animals besides slaughter. The ban has had enormous repercussions on the rural economy, as was explained to me in detail by Mr. Balaram Sonu, a photographer, animal lover, and author of the book Cursed Heaven  that develops a conspiracy theory for the motivation of the animal welfare people against jallikattu.

The legal tussle around the ban on cattle sports is on-going and I don’t want to go into the political ramifications. But I was told that about 90% of Tamilians are in favour of retaining these sports. Certainly they play a huge role on the conservation of India’s indigenous cattle breeds, and should there be any harm to animals involved, then they should be regulated, rather than banned.

On 18th of September, the SKCRF and Kangayam cattle breeders are hosting a huge cattle show in Erode. Besides the wonderful cattle, you will be able to encounter the famous singer Hiphop Tamizha who will be honoured by the organizersfor his music video Takkaru Takkaru in support of Jallikattu that has garnered 2.7 million hits on Youtube. ENJOY!

How can livestock become sustainable? Impressions from the 6th Meeting of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock

Panama Canal Authority
The Panama Canal Authority is working with beef cattle raising Campesinos to protect the Panama Canal watershed.

The 6th meeting of the Multistakeholder Partnership of the Global Agenda for Sustanbale Livestock took place in Panama from 20-23 June, just before the new locks of the Panama Canal were inaugurated.

On the surface, the two events may not appear to have much of a connection. But, for one, there is an urgent need for protecting the Panama Canal’s watershed area through extensive livestock keeping. Secondly, the new expansion is critical for U.S. soybean exports to Asia. About a quarter of the average  4 billion-bushel U.S. harvest is transported on the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, from where some of it is destined for Europe and Africa while around 600 million bushels will pass through the Panama Canal en route to Asia, especially Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, and Korea.

The new Panama Canal extension allowing passages of much larger ships will make the transfer of livestock feed considerably more efficient, and “improving efficiency” is one of the key tenets of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (GASL), which basically is a long-term follow-up to Livestock’s Long Shadow, the seminal first comprehensive analysis of livestock’s environmental impacts published by FAO in 2006. GASL was initiated in 2011 in Brasilia and is a concerted effort to involve all stakeholders (including government, research, social movements, NGOs, international organizations and the private sector) in constructive dialogue and arrive at a “consensus” about how the livestock sector can become more sustainable.

While the priorities and opinons of the different groups obviously vary (I personally believe that the focus on improving “livestock efficiency” is only a small part of the solution, if any) , the meetings provide a great and very valuable opportunity for understanding each other’s perspectives as well as to get exposure to different livestock production systems. At this meeting the focus was on showing the connection between livestock and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is certainly a very timely and appropriate endeavour.

But the most interesting and thought provoking information was presented in the parallel sessions. Most fascinating  was a paper presented by Pablo Manzano, currently an independent consultant adscribed to the IUCN commissions, who drew attention to the fact that the greenhouse gas emissions of wild herbivores once exceeded those of current domestic ruminant populations. Another paper by Pablo Peri of INTA in Argentina dwelled on the potential of Silvo-Pastoralist Systems as an animal-friendly, climate change mitigating alternative to the rapid expansion of soybean cultivation in Argentina – a process that is destroying native forests, biodiversity and local livelihoods. Then there was the presentation by Elizabeth Katushabe, Ankole cattle breeder from Uganda and fellow member of LIFE Network International  in which she showed the draw-backs for farmers and the environment of the transition from local cattle to Holstein-Friesian cows for dairy production.

Interesting also the fieldtrip to the watershed area of the Panama Canal where campesinos are being incentivized by the Panama Canal Authority to keep forest standing and utilize sustainable land use practices in order to prevent soil erosion .

Campesino cow
“Indian” or “Indian origin” cow kept for beef production in the Panama Canal Watershed

I was especially impressed how the Indian origin Zebu cows were thriving in the Panamanian jungle and how happy and well-fed they looked by comparison with many (but of course not all) of their Indian relatives, despite being kept for beef production!

Uplifting also the participation of pastoralists and the attention that is given to the subject of pastoralism, as reflected in the number of best practice notes that were published for the occassion by the Action Network on “Restoring Value to Grasslands”, including one based on our experiences with the social institutions upholding sheep pastoralism in Rajasthan.

In conclusion, its important that such global meetings around livestock continue to take place and we hope that GASL will get the necessary support from FAO Headquarters that it deserves!