Getting poverty’s goat


In Nepal, Heifer provides families water buffalo for draft power and milk. Darcy Kiefel/Heifer International photo

In Nepal, Heifer provides families water buffalo for draft power and milk. Darcy Kiefel/Heifer International photo

You don’t see many water buffalo in central Arkansas. The one gazing benignly over the fence or its colleague enjoying a cool mud wallow outside Perryville, an hour west of Little Rock, has doubtless evoked more than one hasty U-turn for a long second look. Heifer International’s demonstration farm and visitor center, where the pair of water buffalo from southeast Asia reside, includes organic demonstration gardens, assorted convention facilities, and a “Global Village” of seven plots. Each contains a small house or shanty and is landscaped to approximate living conditions in one of Heifer’s project areas.

Heifer International, formerly called The Heifer Project, has been in existence for 60 years. Its well-known catalogues have a certain whimsical appeal to folks who like the idea of giving a heifer — or chicken, rabbit, sheep, pig& or a water buffalo — in a friend’s name. These don’t get handed over like a new car, though; the actual gifts are much more complicated, yet useful in the long run. They come with strings attached, the sort of cords that bind a community together and stretch, a little at a time, across lands and generations.

During the Spanish Civil War the late Dan West, an Indiana farmer doing relief work, had an epiphany while handing out milk rations to refugee children. “These children don’t need a cup, they need a cow,” West thought. This was the seed of Heifer International. West was a member of the Church of the Brethren, a low-key Christian denomination that includes in its mission various Social Gospel efforts: feeding the hungry, making peace. The Brethren are active right now in peacemaking work on the ground in Iraq.

With this background, West saw livestock donations as a grassroots way of promoting world peace. His campaign, then called Heifers for Relief, began to take shape in 1944 with a shipment of dairy heifers to Puerto Rico, and soon extended to war-ravaged Europe in cooperation with the United Nations. Farmers and churches donated stock, and 7,000 volunteer “cowboys” escorted the animals aboard converted Liberty Ships, World War II cargo vessels.

The aid didn’t stop with Europe. In the 1950s, the SS Tarheel Mariner brought pigs and heifers to Japan, where former kamikaze pilots took up animal husbandry. “Father was patriotic, but he was not nationalistic,” Dan West’s son Phil, a professor at the University of Montana, recalls. At the height of the Cold War, cattle were shipped to the Soviet Union; and the organization was active in China until its work was curtailed by the Cultural Revolution. Ensuing decades saw expansion into Latin America — in partnership with the Peace Corps — and post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe, and, after a long hiatus, a return to China. There was a domestic side, too, with outreach in the Mississippi Delta, the Navajo Reservation, and poor urban neighborhoods.

Heifer International now has 525 active projects in 47 countries and in 30 states in the US. Even reclusive Burma (Myanmar) and North Korea have welcomed Heifer International projects. The organization had five projects under way in rural Sumatra before the December 2004 tsunami, and plans to expand its presence to the devastated coastal areas. Its supporters raised a million dollars within a month of the disaster, and Heifer is using all that money specifically to support rebuilding efforts. Heifer’s Public Information Specialist Jennifer Pierce says of that effort, “We’re there when the cameras leave. We’re not a relief organization, but we’re into alleviating poverty and hunger in the long term.”

Along the way, sustainable development came to be one of Heifer’s core values. “We practiced sustainability long before that became part of the language,” says Phil West. “Dan was an environmentalist, although he never used the word.” The Project’s spokespeople say, “Heifer has learned that impoverished people often make short-term choices based solely on their desperate need for food.” Sustainability is not only a way out of human poverty; it’s the only way Heifer sees for its clients to stay out of poverty. It’s an extension of the “Give a cow, not a cup” concept: Only a healthy local ecosystem can nurture its human inhabitants along with their nonhuman neighbors. The project started with an emphasis on appropriate technology (using draft animals instead of agricultural machinery, for example), avoiding overgrazing, and using manure in preference to chemical fertilizers.

“Heifer wears so well because it avoids
the political labels we get trapped in,” West says.
“It’s both radical and very conservative.”

Ray White, Heifer’s Director of Public Information, talks about some sustainability specifics and shows off a simple diagram of a typical small project. On a streamside plot where a client lives, Heifer helps build a corral for a cow, terraces the slope down to the stream, and provides seedlings of fast-growing native trees to slow runoff. Other plantings help sustain the cow with fodder, the family with fruit and other produce, and local wildlife with native vegetation. The idea is to restore the local habitat and make room for humans to inhabit it with as small a “footprint” as possible — and, in the process, improve the humans’ lives toward modest prosperity. A lot of what he describes looks like permaculture practices — and, when asked, White readily agrees: “Yes! That’s what we do, though not many people recognize that word.”

As part of this focus on sustainability, the organization evolved a strong gender justice program, helping empower women in rural societies where patriarchal values persist. As its project profile booklet says, “Women produce more than 50 percent of the food consumed in the developing world, and nearly 90 percent of the food consumed in Africa. Yet these very people who are keeping their families alive suffer from major inequalities at home and in their communities& Heifer is fully committed to gender equity and promotes fair sharing of work, decision-making, resources and benefits among all members of the family and community.” In doing so, the organization has had to tread a fine line between advocating justice and being seen as cultural imperialists. The organic spread of its programs and the eventual participation of whole communities suggest that Heifer generally succeeds at striking this balance.

“Heifer wears so well because it avoids the political labels we get trapped in,” West says. “It’s both radical and very conservative.” Despite its origins in Church of the Brethren relief work, this solidly ecumenical group, partnered with several Protestant churches and the National Catholic Rural Life conference, has no religious agenda.

In 2003, 15 percent of Heifer’s $53 million outlay went for education in the US (at the Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, the Overlook Farm in Massachusetts, and the Ceres Center in California) and 57 percent to international project development. That 57 percent has a disproportionate impact, because of the low-budget nature of Heifer’s action principles — once the first livestock gift is paid for, its offspring and the passing along of training that accompanied it are cost-free to Heifer. Jennifer Pierce says of the overseas budget: “We can do a whole lot with $25. We tell our donors: Your contributions are never small. You’re imparting knowledge, training, tools that they’ll always have and can share. It’s the ripple effect.”

Heifer spends a hefty 20 percent of its budget on fundraising, including al those catalogues. It would seem to be effective: of the $53 million-plus it received in contributions in FY 2003, 69 percent was in individual contributions. (The second-largest chunk, 18 percent, came from church congregations. Corporate donors are lumped with assorted others — “Business & Organizations” — for a mere eight percent.)

Heifer International is about much more than cattle, of course. Chickens far outnumber cows among its donated animals, and care is taken to select livestock appropriate to local ecologies and economies. Program participants work with earthworms, edible snails, bees (both standard and stingless), silkworms, crayfish, ostriches, geese, guinea fowl, guinea pigs, alpacas, grasshoppers, water buffalo, yaks, and, in one Thai project, elephants. Heifer also assists Mozambican villagers in developing the sustainable hunting of crocodiles, but does not provide the crocodiles.

In Eastern Europe, Heifer is helping preserve threatened domestic breeds like Romanian spotted cattle and Furioso horses. The Furiosos, a draft breed, are being given to small farmers who have regained ownership of formerly collectivized family farms. Another project is reintroducing Hutsul horses, descendants of the wild tarpan, to mountain farms in the Ukrainian Carpathians. Draft horses are easier on the hilly land than tractors, and cheaper to maintain; they don’t use fossil fuel — and you can’t breed tractors. Similarly, in New York State, Heifer is helping the Farmer’s Museum preserve the now-rare Devon cattle breed.

The Peace Project in Albania encourages the exchange of guns for cows; one participant named his newly acquired cow “Carbina.” Rwanda’s Cows for Peace has brought often violently fractious Hutu and Tutsi farmers together in livestock cooperatives.

A pair of projects in Ghana and Togo are meant to counter the destructive practices of the bushmeat trade, the market hunting of assorted wild animals for food. As currently practiced, the trade results in overhunting edible wildlife, setting fires, using poison baits and toxic preservatives. The featured livestock animal here, substituting for wild-caught meat, is a large edible rodent called the grasscutter which is being raised by 120 Ghanaian families; 60 percent of the participants are women. The Togolese side also involves snail production.

Topping off the new Heifer headquarters in Little Rock. Heifer International photo

Topping off the new Heifer headquarters in Little Rock. Heifer International photo

There’s a growing emphasis on agroecology and agroforestry, with a number of projects supported by Heifer’s Agroecology Fund. A prairie restoration initiative in Saskatchewan involves seeding cultivated land with native grasses. Several Latin American projects address farming practices in imperiled ecosystems like the Andean paramo and the dry tropical forest that straddles the Peru-Ecuador border. The Polochic Watershed Livestock Project in Guatemala aims to help Mayan farmers make the transition from slash-and-burn to sustainable agricultural practices. Others hope to reforest the battered landscapes of Haiti, Albania, and Burkina Faso.

The lowland forests of Nepal are being stripped for firewood, the only fuel available to poor peasants. Heifer’s Agroecology Improvement Project provides Nepalese families with biogas production plants; the gas, derived from animal waste, is an alternative fuel source for cooking and lighting. The families get tree saplings for replanting, as well as goats and buffalo. Biogas stoves and lamps are also being introduced in China and the Asia/South Pacific Program. They eliminate health hazards to forests as well as to human lungs and eyes, burning cleaner than smoky wood fires in poorly ventilated small homes.

Along with sustainable farming practices, Heifer promotes citizen science. A community-based water quality monitoring program developed in the Philippines is being extended to the six-nation Mekong River region.

How does a Heifer project begin? “Typically a community group will come together and contact Heifer, not the other way around,” says Pierce. “It’s community driven. They’ll come to us with a request and talk with our field program people who will put them in touch with the country director. They learn about Heifer by word of mouth; people see adjacent communities benefiting from their projects. Some communities have specific ideas in mind, based on what they’ve seen in neighboring villages. Some just say, We want to make our lives better.’”

The originating group can be “as complex as a consortium of small farmers or as loosely based as a village or family members,” Pierce says. “There’s a formal application process we help them with. Their proposals are reviewed by a review team and decisions are made based on criteria they have to meet.”

Jim DeVries, Senior VP for Programs, estimates that just 15 to 20 percent of project requests are approved. “We have a lot more requests than we’re able to fund. The biggest factor is that we don’t have enough resources to approve all the projects. It’s not just the money; it’s people to work with the participants, train them properly, and then help train a cadre of new people who’ll receive the animals’ offspring.”

Although the typical Heifer project site is an impoverished rural village, the organization also has a big-city presence. “The North American programs team is placing a high priority on expanding urban agriculture programs this year,” says Pierce.

Will Allen, who runs Growing Power in Milwaukee, represents the urban face of Heifer, which gave GP a grant of $168,342 over four years. Allen started 10 years ago with the last remaining farm within the city limits, bordered by two expressways and a busy street, and a cadre of kids who “didn’t know a cucumber from a pepper.” Growing Power now boasts 300 farmers, greenhouses (which grow duckweed-fed tilapia as well as vegetables), and a 33,000-square-foot warehouse. It also does nationwide outreach training. “It took hip northern kids getting involved in agriculture before southern kids would get back into it,” Allen says.

Growing Power runs workshops and demonstrations for aquaculture, aquaponics, vermiculture, horticulture, small and large-scale composting, soil reclamation, food distribution, bee-keeping, and marketing. Its projects include flower and produce gardens, and its training center houses fish, rabbits, bees, goats, chickens, and ducks. Its collaborative Market Basket “alternative distribution” project educates city dwellers about nutrition and gives urban and rural farmers direct markets for their goods.

The backbone of Growing Power is an animal that lacks one. “We couldn’t do what we do without worms,” Allen says. Every week, the earthworms get 30,000 pounds of food residue collected by the city and 8,000 pounds of brewery waste. His project produces 15,000 pounds of vermicompost per month, processed by a sifting machine adapted from a clothes dryer. And the worms themselves have been passed on to other city farmers.

Allen says urban farming is “the fastest-growing form of agriculture in America.” In Milwaukee and Chicago, gardens have sprung up on the asphalt surfaces of vacant lots. “We have techniques we’ve developed to grow food on any surface. We lay down straw on the asphalt as an absorbent, then add vermicompost.” The produce goes to farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs, and Allen is working to get better food to homeless shelters. “You don’t have to throw up a fence if you’re able to engage the community,” he adds. “If you involve youth, they’ll protect the garden.”

The vegan objection
Heifer International has its critics, of course. Some of its livestock is intended for meat production, which does not endear the organization to those categorically opposed to eating animals. However, the draft power the animals contribute, and the dairy and eggs, fuel and fertilizer they produce are also important components of Heifer programs.

Other Heifer critics have attacked the inefficiency of feeding plants to meat animals instead of eating plants directly, and the presumed environmental impacts of animal-based agriculture including the effects of grazing on plant cover and topsoil. Responding to such charges a few years ago, Heifer’s Communications Director Anna Bedford pointed out that the organization often works in areas unsuitable for cropland, like the high Andes or the Tibetan Plateau, where raising enough plants to sustain human life is not feasible. But llamas, yaks, and camels do well in such environments, and provide milk, draft power, and manure for fuel. “Without them, traditional cultures could not survive,” Bedford said.

She also pointed out that project partners who receive dairy cattle “zero graze’ their animals, carrying fodder to them and collecting the manure for a biogas unit to supply energy for a simple cook stove and slurry to fertilize a tiny vegetable garden.” Zero grazing means the cattle are less likely to overgraze meadows, trample fragile habitats, or pollute streams.

Heifer and Earth Island
In 2002 Heifer International and Earth Island’s Global Service Corps (GSC) fused a bond that has positively affected the struggle for HIV/AIDS eradication in Africa. The collaboration had its inception in Tanzania, where both organizations maintain an in-country presence, and was primarily designed to promote HIV/AIDS education and sustainable agriculture training in areas of rural Africa.
Through a series of seminars, GSC trained 244 Heifer International staff and partners, as well as local leaders and farmers, in the areas of HIV/AIDS prevention, nutrition, and sustainable agriculture. This training prepared participants to become community resource people, thus further infusing the rural cultures with helpful knowledge about preventing and coping with HIV/AIDS.
Within six months the instruction initially offered by GSC had spread knowledge and training to 15,000 residents and laid the groundwork for GSC’s new Seeds of Survival Fellowship Program, which completed its pilot initiative in April 2005. For more information on Seeds of Survival, see the article on page 18 of this issue.
— Tucker Sharon

Pierce says, “Accountability is one of our cornerstones. We train and impart these values to our communities long before a gift of livestock is received. You have to place animal well-being at the highest priority. We have project reports they’re required to turn in during the funding period, usually two or three years. We stay on the ground long before and long after the animals are provided. We monitor even after the funding ends.”

Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, agrees with Heifer’s method: “Heifer International deserves its stellar reputation. Its approach offers immediate help to our planet’s most vulnerable citizens; and it builds community strength for longer-term solutions. Linking people across continents, Heifer is the positive face of globalization — connecting communities around the world through hands-on projects that get to the root causes of hunger.”

One key to keeping aid efforts manageable and low-impact seems to be Heifer’s penchant for small projects. It has over 400 projects now underway in 50 countries. These range from small projects such as the Voces Libres Poultry Project in Bolivia, with a budget of $8,983 for 700 families over two years; to the Bees on Wheels Project in Armenia, with a budget of $15,725 spread over two years; to the Livestock for Sustainable Farming and Income Generation in Nepal’s Terai Region with $501,846 over five years, with 862 families receiving livestock, training in sustainable practices and soil conservation, and small biogas fuel plants. A few million-dollar-plus projects involve thousands of families each over five to seven years, mostly “umbrella projects” that bring together several local organizations, sometimes across national borders, for purposes combining community involvement in policy-making with conservation.

Heifer International representatives say that their “Cornerstones” are the key to their operation. There are 12 Cornerstones, laid out in a sort of double-barrelled acronym:

Passing on the Gift
Sharing and Caring
Sustainability and Self-Reliance
Improved Animal Management
Nutrition and Income
Gender and Family Focus


Genuine Need and Justice
Improving the Environment
Full Participation
Training and Education

The first principle, “passing on the gift,” is perhaps the oldest and primary cornerstone. One of the strings on a Heifer gift is that the recipient, who gets a year of training in care for it, must pass along the first offspring of that gift to a neighbor, along with similar training. The next recipient, in turn, passes on the first offspring of that gift, and so on, to the betterment of life in the whole community.

Within the next year or so, the Heifer Farm headquarters in Perryville will move to Heifer International’s new “green-building” headquarters complex on the edge of Little Rock. But activities at the country ranch will continue. “Our Little Rock operations will never overshadow the learning programs that are available at the ranch,” Jennifer Pierce says. “And we have such great things going on out there: organics, community supported agriculture.” And, of course, water buffalo.

Joe Eaton and Ron Sullivan are S.F. Bay Area freelance writers.

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