By Kizito Makoye
ARUSHA, Tanzania (AlertNet) – As recurring drought afflicts much of East Africa’s drylands, the Tanzanian government is trying to save the livelihoods of traditional herders by giving them free animals.
The Cattle Replenishing Initiative aims to rebuild the stocks of herders who have lost thousands of cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys during the worst drought in the country’s history, which began in 2008. Many experts believe increasingly erratic rainfall is linked to climate change.
President Jakaya Kikwete asserts that, apart from helping herders replenish their lost animals, the multimillion-dollar project will introduce them to quality cattle breeds that are more profitable. Those promoted by the project are bigger and mature faster than traditional breeds. They also produce more milk and are better adapted to dry climates.
The effects of the drought are still fresh in the minds of most residents of Monduli district in the country’s northern Arusha region.
Emerging from his rudimentary hut made of thorn shrubs and dried mud, 67-year-old Laibong Ole Mideye welcomes the government’s initiative as a way of enabling his family to provide for themselves.
As father and grandfather to an extended family of 25, Ole Mideye is happy to be receiving 26 free cows after his cattle, goats and sheep perished.
“The cattle provided the best source of income and protein for the family, and because they all died, we had no alternative than to count on food aid from the government,” he says.
His family is one of more than 6,000 households set to benefit from the modern breeds of cows under the first phase of the government scheme, launched this year.
For the past three years, Loliondo, Longido and Simanjiro districts have experienced shorter-than-normal rainy seasons. The ravages of drought are still evident, with vultures hovering over animal carcasses.
Coping strategies pastoralists have used for centuries, such as moving livestock to better pasture, did not work for Monduli’s residents this time because of the length of the drought.
Livestock contributes at least 30 percent of Tanzania’s agricultural GDP, according to data from the ministry of agriculture and food security. The country is estimated to have 21 million head of cattle, the largest number in Africa after Ethiopia and Sudan.
Government statistics show that Arusha lost more than 800,000 cows between 2008 and 2010.
The government initiative, which costs 12.9 billion Tanzanian shillings (about $8.2 million) per year, is eventually expected to reach nearly 370,000 people in Arusha’s Monduli, Longido and Ngorogoro districts who have been relying on food handouts.
But some experts see the programme as a political gesture, claiming it does not provide sustainable solutions to the growing problems herders face as they compete for dwindling supplies of water and pasture.
“I do not think giving free cows is the best way to help herders in this country, because (the cows) have always been susceptible to bad climate,” said Yefrey Mnyenzi, who runs Haki Ardhi, a nongovernmental organisation dealing with land issues.
“The best way is to have a sustainable policy to cushion them from drought whenever it happens,” he added.
PURCHASING, INSURANCE ALTERNATIVES
Haji Semboja, an economist at the University of Dar es Salaam, said the government should run emergency livestock purchasing programmes to allow herders to sell their animals when drought makes it too risky to keep them.
“Buying livestock in drought situations relieves pressure on natural resources and strengthens the financial power of pastoralists,” said Semboja. The government should also consider enrolling pastoral communities in insurance schemes to limit their financial losses when livestock die in drought, he added.
Libona Maneno, a herder who is generally pleased with the government replenishing initiative, worries that bailing out pastoralists will not solve all their problems because drought is an ongoing challenge.
“Are they going to give us cows whenever drought hits?” Maneno asked, adding that the country’s ruling party has made many unfulfilled promises to deal with natural disasters.
But Helena Sukumai, who was among the first to receive new cattle, dismissed such thorny issues. “We are very grateful for this offer – we take it as a goodwill gesture by the government to its people,” she said.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam.