Saving Ngamiland

Late last year some of the leaders of the Ovaherero (Baherero in Setswana) community in Botswana publicly stated their desire to return to Namibia. The reason offered was that they were being impoverished in Botswana and simply could no longer stay.  Exactly 110 years ago Samuel Maharero rose up against the German conquest of Namibia and was violently suppressed by the German ‘schutztruppe’. In order to avoid the subsequent retribution, the Ovaherero escaped to Botswana. The 1000-1500 Herero who survived the deadly trek across the Kalahari settled on the banks of the Okavango River in Botswana. There for three generations the Ovaherero raised their cattle, worked hard and generally prospered and are considered today to be a very productive and important part of Botswana’s cultural mosaic.

The reason offered then by the   Ovaherero in their letter to the Botswana government for their desire to return to their ancestral homeland in Namibia was their impoverishment in Botswana stemming from their inability to sell their cattle because of endemic foot and mouth disease (FMD) in the Okavango. While there have been short-lived outbreaks of FMD in the past that temporarily stopped farmers from moving and selling cattle, they were quickly controlled and normal trade continued. Over the last decade, however, the impact of FMD has taken on a new dimension throughout southern Africa. It is now driving people who have long been productive and hard working members of Botswana’s varied communities into poverty and out of the country.

The only difference between the Ovaherero and their Batswana neighbours is that the Ovaherero can potentially escape to Namibia where the FMD problem is not as bad, at least for the moment, but Batswana cannot. But FMD is very much a SADC-wide problem; today, despite around five decades of endeavour, only about 15% of SADC’s mainland cattle (i.e. excluding those in the Indian Ocean States) are reared in FMD-free areas and therefore tradable under current international trade rules. FMD is increasingly becoming a major problem throughout southern and eastern Africa but there has been little progress in successfully tackling the problem.

Death by Foot and Mouth
For some eight years now Ngamiland has been riddled with an unabating outbreak of FMD.  It has meant that cattle and products derived from them cannot be traded out of the so-called ‘red zone’ i.e. most of Ngamiland and Kasane, and as a result farmers on some of the richest pasture-land in the country are simply unable to make a living. The proximity of the cattle in Ngamiland to wild African buffalo in the Okavango is the major source of the FMD problem. Over the last eight years the Department of Veterinary Services has been working tirelessly to eliminate this FMD outbreak. Thousands of cattle have been repeatedly vaccinated, fences have been built and strengthened but yet this outbreak has not been beaten through the traditional strategy of mass vaccination and physically separating cattle from buffalo by fencing systems.

So what can be done to stop the haemorrhaging of money and good people from what should be one of Botswana’s richest and most productive regions? The problem is that the approach used by Botswana’s Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) to manage FMD no longer works effectively. Fortunately, there are ways of mitigating the trade impacts of FMD even though managing the disease itself remains problematic.  The down-side is that these possibilities are not accepted by our current trade partners. For years Botswana has complied with the geographically-based trade standards of World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) as found in the OIE’s Terrestrial Animal Health Code, i.e. the need to create zones free from FMD in both livestock and wildlife. This approach is blindly accepted throughout southern Africa – vaccinate against the disease and physically separate cattle and buffalo to create FMD-free zones; and if that does not work just do it more and better, i.e. more of the same without stopping to consider whether there may be more cost-effective strategies.

As long as it is properly prepared, there is no significant danger to people or animals associated with beef derived from cattle in FMD endemic areas as long as the cattle are not diseased at the time of slaughter. This is founded on scientific studies initiated in the 1940s which showed that matured, deboned beef from which lymph nodes have been removed is a ‘very safe product’. This has been confirmed by an OIE-sponsored risk analysis published in an international, peer-reviewed scientific journal. The bottom line is that safe beef can and is being produced in a number of locations in southern Africa irrespective of the FMD-status of the locality of production. Furthermore, the OIE has provided an official international trade standard based on these facts.
Nice Idea but why aren’t we doing it?

This raises an obvious question: If this approach is so effective and covered by an international trade standard why has it not been implemented? The simple reason is that those who set policies  in our two main markets (EU & South Africa) do not accept that importation of deboned beef is safe (despite independent scientific assessment and an appropriate international trade standard set by the OIE). The EU is doubly unreasonable, some say protectionist in its FMD trade policy in that not only does it require beef to be derived from FMD-free areas in southern Africa, it also requires deboning and maturation as an additional condition for import (but not required of South American countries), i.e. a ‘belt and braces’ methodology is demanded of southern African countries. Apparently commercial interests in South Africa, our other main export market, would prefer to ‘beneficiate’ (i.e. fatten) Botswana’s weaners rather than buy our beef. This is all in spite of SADC’s Phakalane Declaration supporting non-geographic standards for regional trade in animal commodities.

A commercial fly in the ointment
Veterinarians throughout the world have been trained to believe the tried and tested way to deal with endemic FMD is to eradicate it through animal movement control i.e. fences and mass vaccination (the system that has been failing in southern Africa for more than a decade now – most outbreaks have occurred in vaccinated cattle populations). But the role of wildlife in FMD in sub-Saharan Africa and the growing importance of wildlife conservation makes  the creation and especially maintenance of FMD-free zones impossible, as witnessed by Ngamiland. More seriously, what has not been taught is that eradication of FMD is not a pre-requisite for safe trade; there are other more effective strategies that achieve ‘equivalence’ (a World Trade Organisation principle to ensure flexibility in compliance with so-called sanitary standards). However, in this respect we are confronted by two factors: (1) apparent ignorance or disinterest on the part of veterinary authorities locally and abroad and (2) commercial (protectionist) interests. Adopting non-geographic standards for animal disease risk management requires unlearning concepts which have been blindly accepted throughout the world and propagated to developing countries as ‘best practice’ by international agencies for many decades. It takes particularly independent-minded officials to see the light and adopt the new alternatives that have become available.

Everyone, it seems, wants to protect their country’s farmers from competition and if you accept beef trade based on the new non-geographic system, countries with endemic FMD and massive cattle populations which are currently excluded from exporting to, for example, South Africa or Botswana, e.g. Tanzania and Ethiopia, will soon be selling beef in supermarkets in Johannesburg or Gaborone at prices that are attractive to consumers but not your local beef farmer. It is largely this commercial fly in the scientific ointment that provides the reason why there has been no change and why the vets will talk about non-geographic systems but are dissuaded by commercial interests from walking the talk.

How do we help Ngamiland?
So what good would it do Ngamiland if we adopted available non-geographic trade standards when the two main markets for our beef, i.e. the EU and South Africa, simply refuse to accept that approach? The proponents of non-geographic trade standards argue that the solution lies in part in having Ngamiland supply Botswana with beef for local consumption and have the beef from the green zones supply the EU and South African export markets. The only problem is that under current rules we cannot transport deboned Ngamiland beef into the rest of the country (apparently a demand of the EU but one that can be shown to be unreasonable). If we could do this it would provide an immediate safety valve for the commercial catastrophe currently happening in Ngamiland. A way to proceed would be to separate local and export supply chains and show by independent assessment that the separation is effective. The only problem with this proposal is that of traditional ‘taste’; in Botswana and much of Southern Africa the preference is for brisket and rump on the bone for the braai.

Zimbabwe which used to have amongst the best FMD control systems in southern Africa watched them collapse over the period of its economic crises of the last two decades. They are now the first country to abandon the geographic approach and have moved over to alternative non-geographic standards and have been rewarded by sales to Angola. Is it not time for Botswana’s DVS to implement policies for the benefit of Ngamiland based on alternative trade standards for FMD risk management and BMC to identify markets that accept those standards? That this is possible is shown by India which has recently become the global leader in beef exports by volume (larger than Australia, Brazil or USA). India is not a FMD-free country and has no recognised FMD-free zones! If they can do it why can’t Botswana?
These are the views of Professor Roman Grynberg and Dr Gavin Thomson (virologist and FMD specialist) and not necessarily those of any institution to which they may be affiliated.