Low carbon livestock

low carbon livestock

A migratory sheepflock of about 4500 head in Southern Rajasthan

5th February, 2013, along the Udaipur-Chittorgarh highway (in Rajasthan/India), the late afternoon sun bathing everything in mellow light. Dharmabhai, the patel (leader) of his dang (herding group) is directing us to his encampment, tucked in just a few hundred meters away from the highway. There is the familiar sight of seven charpoys laid out in a square on a harvested guar (cluster bean) field. Each charpoy (string bed) signifies a nuclear family and is piled high with bedding and blankets, while cooking equipment and staple foods are stored underneath.

Tying up the lambs in loops

Tying up the lambs in loops

In the shelter of this mobile furniture, the women have set up their temporary hearths, fashioned out of broken buckets or odhis (large metal bowls, used for washing clothes, feeding animals, etc.). Freshly collected firewood is stacked neatly nearby. Rows of goat kids and sheep lambs are tied up with loops around their neck, some of them have escaped and are frolicking around. A few steps away, under the canopy of some Acacia trees, the 13 donkeys of the dang are milling around. Seven camels are hobbled on another flank of the encampment.
We drink tea, banter, exchange news with the women, children and some elder men. Everything has been well since our last visit about a month ago. No major mishaps, although everybody is nursing a cold, due to the exceptionally chilly weather this year. But the group has entered the territory of the Kanjar community that is known for thieving and other mischievous activities. In fact they were robbed by the Kanjars on this very spot a year ago. So there is a bit of nervousness, but nobody seems to be overly concerned. Around sunset, the goats belonging to the dang return and settle down. But by the time the seven main sheep flocks return, it is already dark. When they approach a choir of bleating sets off, as ewes and lambs are calling out to each other. “Here I am, here I am, where are you?” trying to locate each other. In a crowd of around 4000 sheep it is difficult to find each other, so the shepherds carry around lambs under their arms to match them with their respective mothers. In the shine of their torches, the sheep are reduced to a sea of eyes blinking at us in the dark like headlights.

Matching returning ewes mothers and kids in the shine of torches

Matching returning ewes with their lambs in the shine of torches

After about an hour, the cacophony has ebbed out, as all lambs are united with their mothers and contentedly suckle away. Under a sea of stars, the shepherds assemble around a small fire. We are joined by the owner of the land who has brought tea leaves and sugar. He is still a young man with 100 bighas of land (“lots of land, but no water”) and highly appreciative of the shepherds, noting that the manure of their sheep would result in a bumper harvest of 14 bori (sacks) of guar. When I ask him how he would fertilize if there were no shepherds, he answers that he then would use the manure produced by his own buffaloes. But that would only result in 10-11 bori of guar, because buffalo ate grass while the sheep and goats were consuming shrubs and leaf fodder which rendered their manure much more efficient and long-lasting. And what about chemical fertilizer? He shakes his head in disagreement. “That would be much too expensive. And anyway, it turns the soil sterile and salty (”kharak”) after some time.
The conversation shifts to other issues. Hanwant shows the shepherds the film “The story of the Weeping Camel” about their pastoralist colleagues in Mongolia. They are fascinated and realize the enormous similarities with the Mongolian herders, despite the cultural and geographic distance.

Watching the "Story of the Weeping Camel" with the shepherds

Watching the “Story of the Weeping Camel” with the shepherds

And I am left to pondering. On our last visit we had been impressed how this dang – representative of many other migratory shepherds in Rajasthan and all over India – was basically producing food out of nothing, and without any carbon expenditure just by managing their sheep and goats to feed on harvested fields and surrounding trees and shrubs. This time, we have understood an additional aspect: the enormous significance of their system in reducing the need for chemical fertilizer. This is not just of benefit for the farmer who saves money, and the consumer, who obtains better tasting, “organic” food, but also to the climate. For fertilizer production is one of the most intensive greenhouse gas emitting activities that we know of.
Now, realising that these shepherds – and tens or hundreds of thousands more of them throughout India – are not only producing food without any fertilizer, but also enabling farmers to save fertilizer, shouldn’t there be a system for them to get carbon credits? And shouldn’t this function of nomadic sheep pastoralism be considered in the discussions about how to make livestock sustainable and lessen its environmental impact? Are any scientists up to calculating the green house gases saved by mobile pastoralists?

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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.

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Livestock keepers at the GAA

Livestock keepers at the GAA

LIFE Network’s Elizabeth Katushabe (Ankole long-horn breeder from Uganda), “Mama” Nilkanth (Deccani shepherd from India) and Raziq Kakar (SAVES, Pakistan), share a panel with other participants. (Sorry for the quality of the photo…. more news from the Third Multi-stakeholder Platform on sustainable livestock will follow…)

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Pig – the protein pot by and for the poor: Guest blog by Dr. Balaram Sahu

The nomadic pigherds search the harvested paddy fields for left over rice corns and other goodies

The nomadic pigherds search the harvested paddy fields for left over rice corns and other goodies

To increase diversity, I have asked Dr. Balaram Sahu of the Innovate Orissa Initiative to write a guest blog about the role of Odisha’s pig nomads in food security. Dr. Balaram is a veterinarian, but also an author, poet and film maker. He has made a lovely film about the Chillika buffalo (“Night queen of Chillika”) that forages in the Chillika lake during the night. He has also written a book in his native language about “Ten days in a German village” that describes his experiences in Wembach, my native village in Germany. And he is the founder of the “Pathe Paathshaalaa“, the road side university for livestock keepers. So here is Dr. Balaram Sahu:

It was midday of a cool March, when we were about to reach Rajnagar, a sleepy town in Kendrapara district of my state Odisha, India. Dr Ilse Köhler- Rollefson, the guest and visiting professor of our moving road side university “Pathe Paathshaalaa” requested our driver to slow down the vehicle. On that point of time, I was eagerly waiting to reach the nearest Dangmal Forest Guest House and to have our lunch in the lap of nature. This guest house of Forest Department is situated in the mangrove forests of the world famous Bhitarkanika Crocodile Sanctuary called, near the sea. ”What happened?” was my natural reaction when the vehicle was slowed down to a complete halt. Dr Ilse pointed out a group of nomadic pastoralists grazing their pigs in the mid of a recently harvested paddy field. Her face was brimming with joy and alacrity. A known person of mine was seen in the vicinity, which helped us to go in to the already-harvested paddy field. We met the group of pig pastoralists including some men, women and children, even a lady pastoralist with her small baby in lap. All were on the move, grazing their pigs. Pigs were seen picking up left out grains, regenerated leaves from paddy stumps and roots of local variety of grass, making  peculiar sounds, as if celebrating a much awaited feast. The sight was the reality of pastoralism in rural India, where the humans, animals, souls, spirits and the biodiversity remain in convergence and peaceful situation!

Pig nomads have to carry along all family members

Pig nomads have to carry along all family members

We conducted our “Pathe Paathshaalaa” with the pig pastoralists, in the open paddy field, under the blue sky. It was a unique class of chatting, sharing and discussing. The topics ranged from their life of happiness with animals to the problems faced. The group belonged to the Kela community, who graze native breed of pigs (Swara/Kuji) since time immemorial. Haladhar Das, head of the group, shared his experiences of nomadic pig rearing and described the many challenges. The constant new places, new people, and new environments. Side by side they have to carry their family members also. But they overcome all odds, for the benefit of their animals. Their pigs are disease resistant and need no special feed to be bought. Instead they use all the resources that are not fit for human consumption. “They demand nothing from us and are our food baskets, protein pots and running bank accounts” said Haladhar Das. “There is lots of demand for pork by the local people, and even traders from neighboring states like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh want to buy from us”, added Baidhar Das, another member of the group with pride and content.

Dr. Balaram Sahu conducting a Pathe Pathshala session with the pig nomads

In our Paathshaalaa, we gave them small tips on low external input based skills like preparation of safe drinking water for them from local ponds, by adding matured and dried seeds of drumsticks (Moringa oleifera) overnight to the water pots, vaccination against pasteurellosis in local veterinary institutions and preparation of special tonic in case of anorexia of their animals. In turn the enthusiastic pastoralists shared some of their traditional knowledge with us. Their knowledge, although are already in public domain, enriched our “Pathe Paathshaalaa” for diffusing to pig pastoralists in other parts of the world.

It was half past two, when we had to say good bye. The pastoralists, that were initially  reluctant had become our friends and seemed emotional while bidding farewell. Dr Ilse was visibly moved by the nomads who could not speak to her directly in words but certainly by the rhythm of their hearts. The pulsation of dedication, belongingness to the nature was palpable.

In this “Pathe Paathshaalaa” we got once more convinced about the importance of these indigenous systems for food security and for providing the basic needs of rual people, even in the case of climate change.

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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.

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Good shepherds – and successful livestock keepers – are highly mobile

Raika good shepherd.compressed

We – Hanwant Singh (director of LPPS), Raika leader Dayalibai, and I – just returned from a visit to a group of migrating shepherds  – locally referred to as dang – which had set up their temporary camp somewhere between Udaipur and Chittorgarh (in southern Rajasthan).  It was an enlightening experience and a lesson in sustainable, eco-friendly animal husbandry that is quite profitable to boot. But an easy life it is not! For 8 months out of the year these people are on the move, only for the four months of the rainy season do they return to their villages. For the rest of the year, men, women and small children, are out of doors and subjected to the vagaries of the climate, without even making use of tents. But, for all those who think this way of life is anachronistic and passé: While our hosts complained a lot about dangers from theft and increasing harassment from villagers, they uniformly agreed that this way of life was more than a rung above working in Mumbai sweatshops or doing unskilled labour.

This particular herding group was composed of 6 nuclear families with a couple of thousand sheep and they move every few days, grazing their herds almost entirely on fallow land, cultivated with jowar and ajwein.  All decisions of the dang are made by an elected leader, the patel, who is in charge of negotiating with land owners, police and all outside agencies, so spends much time nurturing contacts and sorting out disputes. But the rest of the chores ares done in teamwork , with  everybody having an assigned role. The adult sheep are taken out to graze early in the morning before sunrise, at about 6 a.m., return at around 10 a.m., then rest for a few hours, before again going out to feed until after sunset. The young lambs are tied up in loops, allowed to drink when the mothers return from their feeding sorties. What a noisy event – there’s a cacophony of bleating when thousands of ewes are trying to connect with their very own lamb and the shepherds are busy for about an hour carrying around lambs and enabling them to suckle their meals from their own mums and not any other lactating sheep!

The sheep and a much smaller herd of goats were all in very good condition, with clean coats and clear eyes, despite just having weathered an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease which is doing the rounds currently. They were in much better shape, and are also much more productive and profitable than those kept in sedentary conditions.

The cast was completed by 8 camels for carrying the luggage, as well as around a dozen donkeys that also do their share in transporting household goods. Plus associated wildlife – a herd of nilgai was roaming around, small flocks of drongos were taking a ride on sheeps’ backs or even frequently perching on the heads of goats.

Drongo on goat head

One could go on waxing away about harmony between people and animals, but more significant in this day and age when there are worries about how to feed people (especially with meat), how to do this sustainably, and how to increase “natural resource use efficiency” (see www.livestockdialogue.org), is probably the ecology and economy of this type of animal husbandry. What strikes me is that these mobile shepherds basically create food out of resources that would otherwise go entirely to waste or not be used. They only use what is left over from crop cultivation and metabolize it into arrange of products, thereby adding enormous value. From a herd of 250-300 sheep, they sell around 50 animals per year for meat. (As mutton is not popular in northern India – here people only want goat meat – it is likely exported to the Middle East.) They also milk the sheep and make ghee and/or curd from it which forms no small part of their diet. And they produce copious amounts of organic fertilizer – a significant feat when alarm is starting to build about the world’s depleting phosphorous resources! This fertilizer is also very much appreciated by some of the land owners who reward the dang with 80 kg of wheat or another  grain for every night they spend on their field, in addition to 2 kg of sugar and 250 g of tea leaves.

How much longer is this demanding, but rewarding food production system going to continue? That’s a question that we can’t answer at the moment, but we will try to make monthly visits to the dang to better understand the trials, tribulations and comparative advantages of this way of life.

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Livestock keepers will participate in the launch of the Sustainable Livestock Agenda

Livestock keepers, such as this camel milk producer from the Thar Desert, will have a voice in the Sustainable Livestock Agenda (SLA).

Livestock keepers, such as this camel milk producer from the Thar Desert, will have a voice in the Sustainable Livestock Agenda (SLA).

Good news at the start of the New Year! The FAO is fully supporting participation of four livestock keepers ‘ representatives in the “third Multi-Stakeholder Platform meeting” for a Sustainable Livestock Agenda (SLA). This meeting will take place in Nairobi from 22-24th January and you can find more information at www.livestockdialogue.org.

We are elated that livestock keepers are getting due consideration as a separate stakeholder group and look forward to their inputs to the interesting and challenging process ahead!

Just to recap: The rationale of the SLA is the need for “accommodating demand growth for livestock products within the context of a finite natural resource” and the need for a “change in habits and practices from all stakeholders”. The common parameter to focus on is “natural resource use efficiency” –  the rate of conversion of critical natural resources like land, water, nutrients, and energy into livestock products and services, and emission intensity of Green House Gases (GHG).

This sounds good! Our only concern is that certain other angles whose metrics are not that easily grasped don’t get left out of the calculation. Such as biodiversity conservation (both wild biodiversity and domestic animal diversity), animal welfare, nutritional quality of livestock products, and of course rural livelihoods. If we do ignore these angles, then high input and industrial livestock production may come out on top in terms of “natural resource use efficiency”, but if we take a more holistic perspective, then my guess is that pastoralist and other “decentralised” modes of livestock production will certainly win. But lets wait and see!

For the time being, lets be grateful that there is at least one policy relevant process that has taken the lead in letting livestock keepers have a voice. We very much hope that other institutions will follow this example, thereby not only inching closer to adhering the concept of Livestock Keepers’ Rights, but also taking a step towards making their work more relevant and benefitting from a treasure trove of knowledge and experience.

Happy New Year once again!

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