Cows for Christmas

Have you gotten a flyer in the mail from some organization like Heifer International or Oxfam or Send a Cow? Or maybe you’ve seen Oprah begging you to spend your Christmas money on donations to Heifer International?

If not, you’ll soon get a brightly coloured catalogue from at least one of them. They urge you to donate money in someone’s name as a Christmas gift and that money goes to buying livestock for poverty-stricken people in Africa. For instance:

  • $500 buys a cow
  • $250 buys a water buffalo
  • $120 buys a goat, pig or sheep
  • $20 buys a flock of chicks
  • $5000 buys an “ark” of 15 pairs of animals

Heifer international has been around since the late 1940s. They were responsible for first sending cows to Japan (a largely vegetarian country) after World War II. Neither dairy nor beef had never been part of the Japanese diet before and the cows caused a lot of health issues for the Japanese people.

When I first heard about this livestock scheme, I was dumbfounded. Livestock farming isn’t even sustainable in wealthy, industrialized nations. How the hell is this going to work out in the poorest nations in the world?

The Heifer International catalogues show cute little farm animals being embraced by smiling African children. Little African children who haven’t seen rain in three years, have no drinking water,  who are malnourished, uneducated, unhealthy and whose parents have died of AIDS.

And we’re sending them cattle?

Livestock is the most inefficient, expensive and environmentally destructive way of producing food. Cows, goats and chickens can only add to the problems of drought and desertification in this countries – no matter how much support and education these charities promise to provide along with the animals.

Sure, the poor, starving African kids will pounce on these animals and maybe in the short-term will get some milk, eggs or meat from them. But in the long-term it can only be devastating. For one thing, globalizing our preventable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes for which an animal-based diet is largely responsible, doesn’t seem all that charitable. Two-thirds of non-Caucasians on the planet are lactose intolerant and cannot digest dairy. Does that hungry African child really need gastro-intestinal cramping and diarrhea from cow milk to add to its problems?

These animals need food, large quantities of water, shelter and veterinary care? But we’re  sending these critters to help people who don’t have any food, water, shelter or medical care? Does this make sense to anyone?

One cow drinks about 90 liters (24 gallons) of water every day. A goat will eat all the grass and shrubbery on two hectares (5 acres) of land, per year. Cows and goats destroy the fertility of land and any value the milk may have is minimal compared to the destruction they wreak. Two goats can reduce the amount of farmland available to local people to such an extent that people have to abandon that village.

A few years ago, in one area of Africa 80% of the cattle died in a drought. The rest were washed away in the floods that followed. Many recipients of livestock animals are unable to feed an animal to maturity, let alone able to feed and raise offspring. And what about the issue of introducing non-native animals to fragile habitats? How does that impact the indigenous plants and animals?

There must be hundreds of better, more direct ways to help feed these people and improve their lives. What about sending and helping them plant trees that produce fruit and nuts? What about providing appropriate agricultural technology or supplying drought-resistant, sustainable crops? What about sending money for health care or education?

I think the idea of spending your Christmas money on something useful that will actually help save someone’s life instead of buying your mom giant fuzzy, bear-paw slippers or your sister a collection of novelty lemon zesters is a fabulous idea. I love, for instance,  that Meanie’s daughter asked to have a third-word foster child for her Christmas gift.

But sending farm animals to poverty-stricken countries?

31 responses to “Cows for Christmas

  1. Education is the key. If you want to help African children find a charity that focuses on education. My charities of choice are Meals on Wheels, St. Jude’s Chidren Hospital and The Women’s Haven. I’m not one of those “keep the money over here” people, those just happen to be the charities that I choose to support. When I win the lottery, I’ll send some money to an African education charity. I will and I will.

  2. Whether or not you approve, owning livestock greatly helps out Africans. Even apart from the obvious example of the Maasai, who derive almost everything they have from their cows, any African who has livestock is better off than those who don’t. Chickens can give eggs, and cows can give milk, even in relatively lean times, because if your shamba doesn’t get enough rain, all of your other food is gone, but you can still buy enough feed from the market to sustain your livestock. Most Africans I’ve met have at least a little bit of livestock (mainly goats or chickens). Subsistence farming is hard enough as it is, I’m not sure how saying that they shouldn’t have one more chicken is a good thing.

    Now having said all that, I have no idea about Heifer International. Their practices may be good, or they may be bad, but singling them out because they’re providing something that you don’t personally approve of sounds, well, at the very least, culturally insensitive.

  3. Friar – Ya, that’s just nuts.

    Dr. Monkey – It is kind of like we’re thinking the best possible present to give a hungry person is a big slab of meat when maybe they’d much rather have enough rice and nuts and fruit — no matter what time of year it is.

    Geewits – There’s something to be said for supporting charities close to home. At least you know what it’s all about and where the money is going. All the 3rd world aid issues are so fraught with controversy.

    MG – Whatever

    Matt – First, I haven’t singled out Heifer International. I mention other similar organizations; but HI have been around the longest. And, I’m sure there are parts of Africa where it’s feasible to keep some livestock, but in other areas it’s virtually impossible. You say ” because if your shamba doesn’t get enough rain, all of your other food is gone, but you can still buy enough feed from the market to sustain your livestock” Doesn’t that strike you as wrong somehow? That you have no food or water, but you can get food for your animals? Where is this feed coming from? Is it free? How do they pay for it if not? Why isn’t there food for people, but there IS food for animals? Why the “middle man”. Why do we insist other cultures follow our diets and lifestyles? Speaking of culturally insensitive, why would we want to give dairy cows to a countries where 2/3 of the people are lactose intolerant? And it’s not that I don’t “approve” of it, it just makes no sense to me on any level. But I do agree that if I were going to sponsor a child in a 3rd world country, I would do a lot of research before committing to that, as Meanie is well aware.

  4. I think helping Africans have access to clean drinking water and enable access to education for children of both genders are better ways of providing aid.

    Also, these “aid organizations” like World Vision do provide some help, but they also have an agenda for pushing Christianity down these peoples throats, which is not right.
    Provide help yes, but don’t try to convert or change the spiritual beliefs of the natives, which is symptomatic of old Eurocentric arrogance that should have been done away with years ago.

  5. Although I can agree with you that exporting NA culture wholesale is an unfortunate idea, it seemed to me that some of these animals are used in traditional farming and might be appropriate in Aid projects. So I checked the catalogue of Heifer intl. to answer questions like: where do the animals which are purchased through donations go (is that chosen by the donor or the aid agency?), are the animals/farming materials sent to appropriate destinations, and how do these projects integrate with traditional practices.

    Of course, aid is always a very complex and controversial process, but what I saw in my quick skim was that Heifer Intl. is pretty appropriate in their projects. They arent sending cows wholesale to africa, and actually a lot of the aid destinations are places where sending a cow might be a lot more appropriate, such as south america or Ukraine. In Africa, for example, the project in Camaroon is to set up bee hives, which is apparently a traditional type of farming there and environmentally appropriate.

    so lets avoid generalizations.

  6. I can’t help but think you are equating livestock ownership to our own particularly abusive factory farming.
    Most of the less commercialized world keeps and uses livestock because in many cases land that can’t be used for farming can be used for grazing or browsing animals. The goats and sheep usually are kept on hill sides or bush areas where crop farming is not very productive. As such they are making use of marginal land rather than diverting crop land to their sustenance.
    I don’t believe a prize Holstein is going to survive in that life but there are indigenous cattle, sheep, goats and fowl throughout Africa and they have been there and been raised by the locals for thousands of years.

  7. I just got one of those catalogs, but it’s from Plan Canada (fomerly Foster Parents Plan). It’s got livestock (for example a beekeeping kit for $25, or an ox and plough for $500). But they also have all kinds of other ethical gift ideas, such as: a home birthing kit for 10 births ($25), mango trees ($12 each), birth certificates ($25), vitamins for 60 kids for a year ($45), a Berkeley-Darfur Stove so that Sudanese girls and women don’t have to risk being raped while gathering firewood ($55), a sewing machine ($90). Some are aimed at health, some at education, some at safety, others at entrepreneurship.

    I’d do my research before buying into any of this stuff, of course, but on the surface it does sound appealing to me.

  8. Condoms and birth control would also be a big help. Considering how over-populated or AIDS-ravaged some of these countries are.

    Obviously, that’s wouldn’t be the entire solution. But it would be part of it.

    Unfortunately, the Catholic Church influences a lot of these places, which ain’t exactly helping things.

  9. Most people are lacto-intolerant because of how our milk is processed (ie. homogenized and pasteurized). Raw milk is much easier to digest.

    I have several friends who are Sudanese refugees. They are some of The Lost Boys of Sudan. They were separated from their families or orphaned when militia attacked their villages. They were spared because they were away from the village caring for the herds of goats and cows. The Dinka diet REVOLVED around the cow, milk especially as they are only killed for meat for special occasions. After drinking large quantities of fresh and/or fermented raw, unpasteurized cow’s milk their whole lives, when they were brought to Canada, our milk made them sick. Violently ill.

    Tells you something.

  10. I was going to mention Plan Canada and the BEES 🙂 There are all sorts of these programs and they don’t just operate in the developing world, there are programs in place to provide chickens and rabbits in impovrished urban areas of the US too.

    I agree about the raw/fermented milk too. But I do appreciate your vegetarianism.

    Have you read the 100 mile diet? They – a young urban professional couple in Vancouver – found it impossible to stay vegetarian while they were eating locally. They simply could not meet their protein needs without including eggs and dairy, and eventually seafood (and even some beef though it might not have been imperative) This is true in the developing world too.

  11. I drove around Botswana in the early ninety’s and observed with horror what unrestricted goats in quantity can do to a landscape.
    However, the catalogue I got also offers to send books, pencils, paper, etc to African schools. Now that I can buy.
    Good for you for highlighting this.

  12. This type of charity always troubled me. Thanks for spelling out the reasons why so succinctly. I thought maybe it was me that was crazy to question something that Susan Sarandon advocates!

  13. Meanie – I guess it works okay in some areas – Africa is a big place after all, but generally speaking it seems kind of odd.

    Hannah – Ya, there seems to be a heck of a lot that’s needed there that the push for providing them with meat and dairy seems out of proportion to me.

    Gokalie – The literature is very persuasive; but there is also literature that is persuasive on the other side – explaining how livestock has been shipped to places that had no way of maintaining them in the long term and how it’s destroyed fertile lands, etc. And just because Heifer Intl,.’s brochure makes it all sound like a great idea doesn’t mean that they and all such organizations are doing the best possible thing for the people they say they are helping…speaking of generalizations.

    Bandobras – I’m not talking about factory farming. I’m talking about the havoc even 2 or 3 goats or one cow can wreak on a small village. If there is no drinking water for people, how could there be the necessary water for animals? And yes, as you say there are plenty of areas in Africa where they could probably sustain a few animals, but the poorest areas in the continent – the ones that need aid the most cannot.

    Zoom – I’ve seen some of these too and they sound like a great idea. But yes, research always needs to be done. The animal thing – who knows where they’re sending them? An ox eats a lot, too and bees need a bit of plant life around in order to do their bee stuff.

    Friar – There’s a lot of stuff that would be useful there. Catholicism isn’t among them.

    Amy – Yes. And we tend to forget that Africa is a huge place with a diverse geography and population. What tends to be true in one area (no grazing land/water/etc.) may not be true for another. Interesting about the milk. Lactose is still present in raw milk, isn’t it? What do you suppose the pasteurization process does to that lactose that makes it indigestible?

    Mudmamma – I wasn’t trying to suggest that we should turn everyone vegetarian; but if they are vegetarian, we shouldn’t feed them with meat (a la the Japanese example). Plenty of cultures have existed and thrived on a plant-based diet and one which uses only local products. We’ve managed to breed out many of the nutrients in our plant products over the decades, but once upon a time, wheat was a good source of protein. Rice and other grains were (and in some cases still are) good sources of protein. Nuts, seeds, oils, legumes and some vegetables can be excellent sources of protein. But sure, eggs and milk are a fine idea if people have the resources to maintain cows and chickens. If not, it’s not a good idea.

    Mary – Thanks for the first hand account. And YES, there are tons of other things that I to send over that I think might be a better idea.

  14. Heathen – I love goats, too. Maybe we could buy a small alp and become goat-herders?

    parasol – it’s not just me. there are plenty of groups calling for the boycott of this practice.

  15. I have to agree. This does not make a alot of sense to me.

    I personally like the charities that do things like, building wells, for water, to each village, or the ones who teach and provide a way to sell local products. As a potter, I was interested in one I heard about that teaches a village to dig clay, make pots, fire them, and market them.

    It’s the old saying; give a person a fish and they eat for the day, teach a person to fish and they eat for a lifetime.

  16. Sheryl – Ya and giving a person who lives in a desert a fish is even less of a good idea. Of course teaching a person to fish who lives no where near any water isn’t all that clever, either. Ha ha. I know what you mean, though.

  17. In a similar vein, I always get annoyed when people get into the spirit and preach about the office about giving food and whatever to local or international programs ONLY during the holiday or a disaster.

    People need supplies all the time, of all kinds. A friend of mine just did a medical mission to New Dehli for Unite for Sight. She brought 1,000 pairs of used and new eye glasses with her in a huge suitcase/trunk. She said those were put to use within days of her arrival.

    Don’t stop giving during the holidays, let’s just remember to give in March or August too.

    While we’re talking- I donate platelets to the Red Cross and I have been getting lots of extra calls from them lately. They are low on blood donors because so many people have H1N1 or whatever other bugs are flying around.

  18. Missy – Ya, the same thing with the Food Bank when they’re overwhelmed with stuff at Christmas and Thanksgiving or soup kitchens that have to turn volunteers away at Christmas but can’t get anyone the rest of the year.

  19. i’ve used heifer int’l for christmas gifts in the past, you make so many good points here that i never considered. i can say i won’t be donating cattle again.

    there are plenty of other ways to donate, and i like meanie’s daughter’s suggestion. i’ll check it out.

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