MALI: Cured meat as a cure

Thursday, 23 September 2010 16:18 GMT

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BAMAKO, 23 September 2010 ( IRIN) - Destocking weak animals has long been considered part of the emergency and recovery response to help pastoralists survive, and protect their livelihoods in droughts, but experts say destocking must come sooner - before emergencies develop. In northern Mali, 40 percent of herders' animals are believed to have died from starvation or disease due to lack of pasture this year - a stark statistic in a region where 80 percent of people rely on stockbreeding and agriculture to survive. "The crisis has been known for a long time - since November 2009. If we had all responded a lot earlier [to livestock needs] we could have reduced pastoralists' stress movements, and remaining animals would have stayed alive," said Marc Chapon, head of NGO Agronomes et Vétérinaries Sans Frontières (AVSF), in Mali. Aid agencies Oxfam and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been leading destocking programmes in northern Mali to help inject cash into pastoralists' pockets; improve the prospects for the remaining healthy flock; reduce pressure on the fragile environment; and in ICRC's case, improve food security by redistributing slaughtered animals as cured meat. ICRC staff buy sheep, goats and cattle at pre-crisis prices - US$ 40 for a sheep or goat, $150 for a cow - from herders with 50 animals or less, so they can buy grain to fill the hunger gap, said Christian Wabnitz, ICRC's deputy head in Mali and Niger. Thus far, ICRC has bought 36,000 animals in Agadez (northern Niger) and in Gao and Timbuktu (both in northern Mali); and given veterinary help and fodder to 60,000 stronger animals that remain. "The main aspect is a cash injection, but the meat is also available which can boost nutrition," Wabnitz said. "And allowing weakened or sick animals to die can protect the health of the remaining herd." The agency works with district vets to kill the weakened animals, and with women's cooperatives to cure the meat, before distributing it to beneficiaries, prisons, hospitals and schools. Community members inform how the animals are killed, to ensure it is done in line with traditional practice, said Wabnitz. Women cure the meat by cutting it into strips which are then marinated in salt and dried in a protective cage. "There are some other more advanced [curing] techniques, but we want to fine-tune our approach to suit cultural habits," he pointed out. Resistance But some herders are reluctant to give up their animals, despite their deteriorating health, says World Food Programme head in Mali Alice Martin-Dahirou. "Some nomads would rather keep their animals to the end, and see them die, rather than selling them en masse," she said. Weakened goats and sheep were selling for just $10 at the height of the crisis; while in neighbouring Niger, cattle worth $300 were reportedly sold for as low as $6. Herd size is an important cultural status symbol. "A large herd is like a large bank account - and it is a way to accumulate further wealth, as well as ensuring social functions can be acted upon, so some nomads will resist culling," Wabnitz told IRIN. Resistance to destocking - with or without slaughter - is common in African pastoralist zones, said Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) animal production officer Nacif Rihani. "There is often confusion between the early and accelerated livestock off-take [culling], which is the main objective sought, and the distress sale of livestock, which herders fear the most," he said. ["Distress sales] can cause psychological and cultural shock, in addition to the loss of livestock assets, which are crucial for their livelihood, food security and social status," he said. Reluctance can also come from bad past experiences in which agencies have taken a top-down, non-consultative approach, to destocking, said Rihani. Local and indigenous organizations must take the lead in selecting beneficiaries and stocks; organizing stock sales; and agreeing on pricing and meat preparation and preservation methods if destocked animals are slaughtered, he pointed out. This approach is in line with the Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards, which were issued in 2009 to improve the quality of livestock relief interventions. [] As the Sahel crisis deepened, reluctance among herders dissipated in northern Mali, said Wabnitz, which he says is "an indication of how bad the situation was". [[] Timing Despite ample early warning, in northern Mali, destocking came late, said AVSF's Chapon: it should always be addressed in the first emergency phase of a crisis. But FAO's Rihani says in slow-onset droughts destocking can get started even sooner. "Specific indicators can trigger the appropriate response, and [enable] adequate resources - such as a flexible local fund - to be put in place to start destocking," he said. If done this early, animals will retain their market value. Indeed, experts recommend continual destocking to regulate herd numbers and not over-pressure the fragile ecosystem. "In many pastoral and agro-pastoral zones in Africa, herd sizes expand to unsustainable numbers [encouraged by]� subsidies or direct aid through animal feed," explained Rihani. Herders do regulate their herds to some extent, but complex social and ethnic issues are at play which can encourage herd-growth. An indirect approach is needed, says Rihani, involving a stress on improving milk production per animal; improving access to livestock markets; and helping herders attain fair prices for their animals, so they can get more out of a smaller herd. aj/cb © IRIN. All rights reserved. More humanitarian news and analysis: