Rescuing a drought resistant sheep breed

Boti sheep - tubular ears
Short tubular ears, a black head and fine carpet wool are characteristic for the Boti sheep – a breed that has never been officially recognized.

Locally adapted livestock breeds are a key resource for adapting to climate change. This is brought home by a recently initiated action research project of Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) that documents and seeks to save an as yet unregistered sheep breed from the Godwar area in Rajasthan. This is the Boti sheep which is distinguishable by its small tubular ears and black head, as well as its lustrous carpet wool. This breed was described already about ten years ago by a Dutch researcher, Ellen Geerlings, who noted that it was gradually being replaced by another breed, the Bhagli sheep, which grows much faster and is therefore more profitable for meat production. The present survey, supported through the FAO’s funding strategy for the implementation of the Global Plan of Action on Animal Genetic Resources is coming just in time: it is hard to find any original Boti sheep at all, as herders have generally been using Bhagli rams. The breed is literally at the verge of extinction.

Explaining advantages of Boti sheep
Explaining the advantages of the Boti sheep makes Raika herders realise what they are about to loose: a breed that can cope with both disease and climate extremes – be it drought or floods.

However, in conversations with the Raika shepherds, they remember very well the advantages of the Boti sheep especially in terms of drought and disease resistance. They emphasize that the Boti breed can endure pain and even if it suffers from Foot and Mouth Disease or has a thorn in its foot, it will continue walking on three legs, while the Bhagli sheep lies down and dies. The Boti can also cope well with rains and water in its pen, whereas Bhagli requires dry ground or will get sick. The ewes of the breed have a very long life span, giving up to 10 lambs.

Just by talking about these matters, the shepherds seem to start reconsidering their preference for the Bhagli and express the need to again use a Boti ram (which are however now very difficult to find) for improving disease resistance and drought-proofing their flock. When the possibility is raised that they might receive a higher price for the wool, then they get really interested. Wool prices have been so low that they did not even cover the costs of shearing in recent years. However, through the development of niche markets, for instance by creating rugs that contain both Boti wool and “Desert wool” from the local camels, it will hopefully be possible to create financial incentives for keeping Boti sheep.

So, although the initial results of the survey were depressing, it now looks much more hopeful. Value addition is the way to go for saving  breeds and creating high value livestock products that appeal to the discerning customer. My next blog will be about our efforts to develop innovative camel products and how this is benefitting women and “poor” people in the Thar desert.

weighing Boti sheep
LPPS staff Khetaram Raika weighing the rare Boti sheep – to try to establish breed descriptors.

Desert delicacies

desert plenty
The Thar Desert in the rainy season (12th August, 2013): sheep grazing on nutritious bekar grass. The lambs will be exported to the MIddle East, as Northern Indians tend to be averse to mutton. They prefer goat meat.

Deserts are usually cast as bad or inhospitable, something to combat, as the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD) tries to do. People living in deserts are thought to be poor and in need of help from outside. But I think that paradigm is in urgent need of revision. Deserts may experience seasonal material scarcity, but they are also very rich, and not only spritually. Desert dwellers are immensely resourceful and their hospitality is impeccable. They also feed the world’s cities with dairy products and meat. In our Ark of Biodiversity project we have started to accumulate evidence that the nutritional quality of these products is much much better than those produced in industrial systems.

Hanwant Singh, the director of Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS), an NGO working with and supporting Rajasthan’s pastoralist communities, and I are currently experiencing this in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert where we are trying to tie up some of the loose ends of the Jaisalmer Camel Breeders’ Biocultural Protocol. We got way-laid because of heavy rains and stopped overnight at the place of a good friend who also happens to be the president of the Jaislamer Camel Breeder’ Association. We slept outside on cots under the pipal tree. In the morning we were awakened by the clatter of milking pails –  the seven or so cows of the family that had assembled right next to us were being milked by our host’s wife and son. It was a gentle scene – the cows letting themselves be hand milked without any restraint, although the calves were present to induce the milk flow. After several buckets had been filled, the cows went for grazing on their own. Only one very old cow, said to be more than 20 years old, stayed behind.

Cow in Sanawra
A very old cow that had recently calved.

This must be one of the most humane and mutually beneficial livestock systems that exists. The cows are habituated to harvest the local desert grasses on their own and willingly share their milk with their keepers. They require hardly any inputs, except a friendly pat and some encouraging words now and then. This production systems runs without medicines, fertilizers, and fossil fuels – not even a shed is required for this system.

Cattle has actually aways been the backbone of human subsistence in this desert, kept by members of all casts and communities. Sheep and goat were rare earlier, as most people were vegetarians. And camel ownership was restricted to the Maharajah and a few wealthy landlords. So cows provided food, manure and draught power.

Our friend, who is in his late fifties, told us in some detail how scarce water had been during his childhood and that guests had not been offered water, but buttermilk, because the latter was more abundant and easier to obtain. He also described how people had lived mostly of buttermilk and ghee and fruits from desert trees. Even bajra – pearl millet – was a rarity.

This traditional food – all natural, home made, and organic – is delicious, as well as healthy. Below is a picture of my breakfast – which kept me going throughout the day.

desert delicacies
Our breakfast and typical delicious and healthy desert meal: freshly churned butter, curd that has soured overnight, and a “sogra” (flat bread made from pearl millet).

So what’s the future role of small-scale livestock-keepers in food production?

Mama and Adam looking into the future
Pastoralist leaders Neelkanth “Mama” Kurbar  from LIFE Network India and Adam Ole Mwarabu from the LIFE Network in Tanzania look down into the Rift Valley at the side-lines of the Third Multi-stakeholder Platform of the GAA (Global Agenda of Action towards sustainable livestock sector development) recently held in Nairobi.

The future of livestock keeping will have to revolve around finding a balance between economy and ecology. Economically it might make sense to crowd huge numbers of animals in small spaces and automate their feeding and management but this runs counter to all ecological principles: it requires huge amounts of fossil fuels (to grow and transport feed, to climatize stables), it results in accumulations of manure that become difficult or impossible to dispose of (turning dung from a much sought after asset into a liability and threat to the environment), it raises disease pressure (so that routine use of antibiotics becomes essential), and it is problematic from the animal welfare angle. It’s also not good for livelihoods – studies from various countries where the Livestock Revolution has taken hold testify that it results in depopulated rural areas.

Ecologically, decentralised models of livestock keeping as epitomized by pastoralists are much more preferable. They are based on the optimal utilization of locally available biomass and independent of fossil fuels, manure recycling is integrated into the system, disease pressure is small, and animal welfare is almost solved optimally. So why not support these, if we are concerned about the sustainability of the livestock sector?
“But young people don’t want to do this work and prefer to live in the cities” is the argument that is always raised when one suggests that small-scale livestock keeping may be an answer to the sustainability question. There is certainly some truth in it. Many young people are attracted by the urban life, and – by all means – they should be given a chance to go for it. But there are also many youths who find a life taking care of animals preferable to slogging away at menial jobs and a life in slums. So why not encourage these young people, by giving them respect and support, instead of branding them as backward? By directing subsidies towards these ecological livestock production systems instead of the industrialised ones? By building another livestock development paradigm that takes into account the ecological externalities, instead of always comparing the milk yields of the Indian cow with the Israeli cow and automatically concluding that the second one is so much superior?

According to a remarkable presentation by ILRI’s director Jimmy Smith during the third Multi-stakeholder platform meeting of the Global Agenda of Action towards sustainable livestock sector development (GAA), 80% of livestock derived food is still contributed by small producers. If we focus on raising the performance of these systems – for instance through adequate animal health care – and providing incentives for the young generation, then we can solve the livestock sector sustainability question. And we will help address another burning issue – the high unemployment rates that bedevil not only developing countries, but also Europe and the USA – as well.

Jaisalmer Camel Breeders put on record rights and resources

Checking facts and text
Checking facts and text of the draft document

Jaisalmer is one of the fastest developing districts in Rajasthan , or even India. The once empty desert spaces are now being mined – for wind energy, solar energy, oil, stone, etc. This development if good for some, especially the large corporations behind these activities, but the majority of the local people, with their dependence on livestock keeping are losing out. For this reason, Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan is supporting the Jaisalmer Camel Breeders Association to develop their Biocultural Community Protocol under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. In this they put on record their role in conserving the local camel breeds as well as the associated rangeland biodiversity – many traditional practices exist or existed to conserve the enviornment, but – as is also becoming clear – they are erdoding rapidly and will soon be forgotten. Camel breeding has lost its status and attraction for young people.

A group photo of Rajput, Bishnoi, Muslim, Raika camel breeders.
A group photo of Rajput, Bishnoi, Muslim, Raika camel breeders.

The process to develop the BCP was already initiated some time ago, but now it was time to check the facts and focus on the essential points. So about 35 camel breeders assembled in the meeting hall of Jaisalmer’s rural development authority and went through the draft document. Many bits and pieces were added, but further checking will be required, as at least seven different castes and communities have a common identity as camel breeders. Each one has a slightly different take on issues.

Hopefully this process will be completed in the next couple of months, so that the BCP can be released and shared with officials and the public at large.

Biocultural protocols: livestock keepers confirm the importance of this tool

Kutchi camel breeders presenting the results of their analysis about the value of BCPs. Photo by Dipti Desai

Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) recently organised an experience sharing workshop about Biocultural Protocols for those groups of livestock keepers that have already undertaken such an exercise. So far there are only a handful of them, and the ones that made it to the meeting were the Raika, the Banni buffalo breeders, the Kutchi camel breeders and the Jaisalmer camel breeders. The Kuruba shepherds of Karnataka were also represented by Nilkanth Mama and a colleague.

Nilkanth Mama (“Mama” is a honorific and means maternal uncle in Hindi) from the Kuruba shepherds gets across a point.

While the pastoralists unanimously underlined the importance of BCPs, it was also quite evident that a lot of uncertainty still surrounds the concept and that undertaking the process is by no means easy or fast. It requires time, resources and commitment for it to be of value. Nevertheless, BCPs are a crucial and even essential tool – for groups of marginalised people that traditionally have not attached that much importance to land ownership and are now losing out rapidly. The Raika, for instance, never really tried to claim land rights after Independence, since they believed there was plenty of it and they preferred mobility for their animals, even placing taboos on building permanent houses. Now they are suffering from this ignorance, as Dailibai Raika elaborated.

The incomparable Dailibai Raika – inveterate women leader. Photo by Dipti Desai.

Biocultural Community Protocols were originally conceived in response to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and as the basis for Access and Benefit Sharing agreements with communities. However, they have developed since then and other legal frameworks than the CBD may be even more important reference points – such as the Right to Food.

The essential elements of BCPs are documentation, awareness raising and knowledge about rights under national and international loegal frameworks. How best to implement them, what methodologies to use, how to ensure their integrity – these are the questions that are currently being adressed by various non-government organisations. However, the communities themselves also need to get into the action and push the processes.

Supporting and facilitating this will be a major strategy of LPP and its partners in the near future – because without decentralised small-scale livetsock keepers, livestock keeping will never become sustainable. See the photostory about this subject by Greenshoots and stay tuned about the more detailed report about the BCP Experience Sharing Meeting that will be put on line shortly!

In the meantime more photos by Dipti Desai about the meeting can be seen at this link.



Today is World Food Day

Camel Milk – also known as the “white gold of the desert”

Today is World Food Day, a time to remember the enormous role of livestock keepers in food production! Not just in terms of quantity, but also in terms of quality, as we are trying to highlight in our Ark of Livestock Biodiversity project. And a role that could be vastly increased and improved if “small-scale livestock keepers” (a somewhat unwieldy term that includes pastoralists, family farms, and smallholders) woud be given the policy support that they deserve.

Unfortunately, research and subsidies continue to be directed towards supporting high-input and industrial livestock production – a scenario that undermines livestock biodiversity, livelihoods, sustainability and – in the final reckoning – even food security, as more and more grain and soybeans are fed to livestock.

How to change this situation? Well, of course consumers have a major role to play by choosing products that come from extensively raised “pasture fed” animals. But it is also the livestock keepers themselves that must get organised and make their voices heard. One of the reasons for their neglect by policy makers is also that pastoralists and other small-scale livestock keepers are dispersed, busy with their animals, and have no institutional representation.

However, at the recent – actually still on-going -11th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)  in Hyderabad, they made an impressive show of strength, demanding their grazing rights in the forest. This fills us with much hope for the future!

“Science” – can it be trusted to be neutral?

There is nothing wrong with calls for more science and for science-based decision making. But the “production of knowledge, the access to this knowledge, and the capacity to challenge a particular intellectual formulation” (to paraphrase Vasant Saberwal in his book “Pastoral Politics“) are also very much a matter of power, so it is interesting to see what actors are chosen (or have chosen themselves) to participate in a newly announced effort to ” harmonize measurement of livestock’s environmental impacts“. It includes the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation (FEFAC), the European Vegetable Oil and Proteinmeal Industry (FEDIOL), the International Dairy Federation (IDF), the International Meat Secretariat (IMS), the International Egg Commission (IEC) the International Poultry Council (IPC), the International Federation for Animal Health (IFAH), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  It is of course laudable that these stakeholders want to collaborate among each other and agree on a methodology for measuring environmental impacts. But shouldn’t some more disinterested or neutral agencies also be involved – for example some universities? And who will watch out for the interests of the small-scale livestock keepers – that produce animal food without much purchased input, either on natural vegetation or crop by-products ?

Shepherds penning their herds on India’s Deccan Plateau. Who will calculate their “resource use efficiency”?

It is almost as if they have already stopped existing, although they still produce at least half of the world’s milk and meat. And they achieve this without much of the negative environmental impacts of their industrial counterparts, in fact they tend to have beneficial effects on local ecologies.

Another quote from Vasant Saberwal’s “Pastoral Politics”: “The incorporation of local knowledge into the management of resources, results in a de facto reduction in the power differential between the local community and the bureaucracy managing the resource. ” While the context to which Saberwal refers is slightly different, the principle applies just as well to all the global alliances and action agendas that seek to improve on the livestock sector’s rather horrid environmental impact and turn a blind eye to the small-scale livestock keepers that – by and large – produce meat and milk in tune with local resources and eco-systems. Enabling the small guys to have a voice and contribute their common sense and local knowledge would do much to put the livestock sector on a saner trajectory.

Livestock out of balance

Well, due to travel and slow internet connection in Rajasthan its been a while,  but at least there has been some progress and follow-up with respect to the issues raised in the last post. In the meantime, my colleague Evelyn Mathias has completed a study about the impact of the Livestock Revolution on farmers – which gives ample food for thought. The results are preliminary and need to be discussed with economists, but they are on-line now as a discussion paper “Livestock out of balance. From asset to liability in the course of the Livestock Revolution.” on the LPP website. One of Evelyn’s conclusions is that the enormous competition for ever cheaper livestock products is creating incentives for “unethical behaviour”, such as the use of banned antibiotics and many environmental sins.

Well, I will be attending the 13th Inter-Agency Donors Group Meeting, this time organised by the Worldbank in Washington DC, over the next couple of days. One of the priority themes is “equity” and I am really curious what the results of the discussions will be!

Livestock: From Asset to Liability?

On the way to the Global Livestock Sustainability Conference in Thailand, I picked up a copy of the book “The Mystery of capital” by Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto. In it he describes how the concept of capital (which meant cattle or livestock in Medieval Latin) was derived from livestock – a movable, low-maintenance asset that is self reproducing. His description is dead-on, and pastoralists certainly have capitalized on the savings and asset function of their livestock. I have often observed that they dont need credit since they can always generate cash by selling a few animals. However, in the course of the  Livestock Revolution, livestock seems to turn into a source of liabililtes: significant investments are required in order to enter the industrial mode of production. Farmers are required to take up loans for erecting the housing for the animals.  Since they have no control over either input or product prices, they tend to end up heavily indebted with no opportunity the debt cycle. This is described for Thailand by Isabelle Delforge in her study of pig and poultry contract farming, as well as by various sources for the United States. It wold seem that this situation very much affects the “sustainability fo the livestock sector”, since it locks farmers/livestock keepers into a straight jacket that prevents them from adapting to changing economic situations.

Sustainability of the livestock sector

The FAO is worried about the global sustainability of the livestock sector – which it should be. It is preparing to launch a “Global Agenda of Action in support of responsible livestock sector development. The focus appears to be on “resource efficiency” and environmental aspects. However such an approach would neglect equally important angles of livestock, such as social implications and livelihood issues, as well as the animal welfare perspective. We urgently need a holistic approach that scrutinizes the direction that livestock development has taken in the last few decades. The effects of the Livestock Revolution in the countries where it has hit the hardest, such as China and Brasil, are now becoming apparent – they include loss of  rural livelihoods and outmigration to the cities.

In order to make the livestock sector sustainable, we need a radical rethink and thrive for decentralisation instead of further concentration and ever bigger livestock holdings. We need Livestock Keepers’ Rights instead of a further expansion of the Livestock Revolution. I have expanded a bit on that in a recent article published in Ecology and Farming.