Christmas Charity Appeal: Learning to Work Together: How Namibia's Farmers Are Getting Their Grasslands Back
McCarthy, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
HERE'S A conundrum. You've probably seen films or photographs of the vast game herds of the African plains, the buffalo, the wildebeest and the antelopes in their thousands and tens of thousands (if you're lucky, you may have seen them in the flesh). They make an unbelievably stirring spectacle, these rippling waves of wild creatures flowing over the landscape.
Have you ever stopped to think of how much grass they must eat? All those hefty animals together? Furthermore, have you ever stopped to wonder why they don't eat it all? Why they don't, in their hunger, graze it all down to the bare soil, letting the earth erode away into a dust bowl? Why, year after year, in spite of their teeming numbers gobbling it daily, the grass never seems to run out? Maybe you haven't. But these are thoughts that do occur to you when you travel through parts of Africa - and there are more and more of them - where the grass has been completely eaten away and the naked red soil is all that remains.
Africa's degraded grasslands present an astonishing sight, when you come across them. It's like seeing a British football pitch at the end of the worst-ever winter - except it's the whole landscape. The earth appears to have been scalped. This is a problem caused by domestic cattle, and it is a life-or-death one for the poor livestock farmers who own them, for once the grazing is gone, the cattle face starvation, and then so do the farmers themselves.
Encountering it somewhere like Erora in northern Namibia, in an area populated by Herrero and Himba peoples who have lived off cattle for hundreds if not thousands of years, you feel an instant sense of concern. Here are their traditional houses and their traditional beasts, and the people with their traditional knowledge of livestock farming accumulated over generations, and around them the earth has gone bald.
You need no special knowledge to recognise at once that something has gone drastically wrong. But what? Although Africa's problems are often terrible, many of them are familiar and indeed starkly simple in their outline: take Aids or drought, or the crippling effects of foreign debt. These issues are clearly understood. The difficulty in solving them lies in their scale or their intractability. But the case of Africa's vanishing grasslands is different. Here the causes of the problem are subtle and often not yet understood even by the people most affected.
IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation), the Namibian wildlife-and-communities charity that is one of the subjects of The Independent's Christmas Appeal, is trying to bring them the understanding. Its essence could be summed up in a single word: progress. In the past 50 years the way domestic cattle are allowed to graze in many parts of Africa has changed. Previously, they used to graze like the great herds of the plains animals, and now, because of different aspects of social and economic development which most people would characterise as advances, they no longer do. …