Animal Cultures

We hear a lot about animal industries, these days, but what are animal cultures?

Animal industries are conquering the world, and smaller cale livestock keepers – family farms and pastoralists – are being pushed out of business. The social , environmental, human and animal health, as well as animal welfare costs of industrial livestock keeping are well known and scientifically proven – just check the report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production about Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.  Now this model of livestock production is being exported to the rest of the world, due to an enormous demand for meat and milk.

In this scenario it is not surprising that livestock has turned into one of the world’s largest threat to the environment, to biodiversity, and even food security.

But it does not need to be that way: Livestock can also be beneficial to the environment and be a valuable tool for the conservation of biological diversity. It is all a question of management! In this respect we can learn much from those people who have a long tradition of livestock keeping in tune with the availability of natural resources – people who practice animal culture rather than agri culture (which means cultivating fields).

I define animal cultures as indigenous livestock breeding communities that have a tradition of livestock breeding and for whom their animals have social and cultural meaning. This is reflected in:

• An identity based on the community’s association with animals.

• A myth of origin linking community to a particular breed or species.

• Animals represent social currency (are given as dowry or bride wealth).

• Animals are shared within the community, while exchange with outsiders is restricted.

• Animals have a ritual function.

This blog is about livestock keepers that care deeply about the welfare of their animals. They perceive their animals as gift that has been passed on to them from their forefathers over countless generations and which they are obliged to pass on to their children.  For them livestock represents not only family heritage but also a source of identity. They know each of their animals by a name which reflects its special qualities that distinguish it from the rest of the herd, and that is passed on in maternal lines. They feel compassion with their animals, rejoice at the birth of a calf or lamb or the hatching of a new batch of chicks, worry and can’t sleep when the animals get sick, but also accept as a necessary part of their life the periodic pain when an animal dies or has to be sold.

The animals that are associated with these cultures are entirely different from the creatures that are kept by animal industries and in factories.  They are independent from grain and instead optimally utilize the local plants,  can cope with prolonged feed shortages, take high and low temperatures in their stride and can fend for themselves without much human input and care. They are integral parts of their respective eco-systems and their disappearance would lead to the extinction of many wild plants and animals.

These people and their animals together provide invaluable services to their societies and to humanity at large.  They produce food that is generally more nutritious and wholesome than that generated in the factories. They make available organic manure that is coveted by farmers for upholding soil fertility and providing bumper crops. They have shaped entire eco-systems and landscapes which would collapse in their absence or lose their distinctive character. They utilize marginal lands and interstitial places for food production and therefore have a huge, although unacknowledged role in global food security.

These often ignored livestock systems need all the support they can get instead of being discouraged and prohibited. This is why I strongly support “Livestock Keepers’ Rights” –  a concept that is getting increasing attention at international level, as well as in some countries. You can support this movement by adding your signature to the Declaration on Livestock Keepers’ Rights. If you like to sign, just send an e-mail with your name and address to info@pastoralpeoples.org and we will add your name to the list.

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