Vets Impoverishing Namibia and Botswana

In India they do the opposite, they encourage trade in bovine meat – FMD or no FMD. In Africa we impoverish our people by discouraging trade without any scientific justification whatsoever.

It is hard to imagine a group of people who are more innocuous and of all the professions amongst the most highly regarded. After all it is the vet who often saves what are ‘man’s best friends’ and treats cattle, the source of traditional wealth in both Namibia and Botswana, when they faced deadly diseases. So how can a group of scientists who are the pillars of their community be the cause of poverty in vast swathes of Zambezi Region (northeastern Namibia) and in Ngamiland (in western Botswana).
For almost a decade now both regions have experienced increased frequency of occurrence of foot-and-mouth (FMD), which is a result of poor vaccines and apparently increasing proximity between cattle and buffalo, which are the main source of the disease in Southern Africa. If your cattle were raised in an FMD area then their meat cannot be sold to the EU, the USA, China or even in parts of your country that is recognized free of the disease. The traditional way in which all our vets have been taught in their studies in throughout the world to deal with FMD has been through separation of animal populations and vaccination against FMD. When an outbreak occurs, you stop movement of cattle and you vaccinate – set up a containment area of up to 60 km around the diseased animals and you wait six months until after the last case before you allow exports of beef to occur again. The only problem is that it no longer works. For a decade the Kavango-Zambezi region, which stretches across five countries, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe has been suffering from increasing frequency of outbreaks of FMD. The old way of resolving this problem is causing financial chaos in the effected regions and impoverishing the people of Zambezi and Ngamiland.
But vets, like most scientists are creatures of intellectual habit and have simply advocated the same response to FMD – more fences, more restrictions on livestock marketing and more vaccinations but the people of Zambezi and Ngamiland have suffered terribly as a result. They have not been able to move their cattle freely, often for many months and have experienced worsening poverty as a result. At least in Ngamiland there is an abattoir where cattle from FMD areas can be slaughtered and traded. The government of Botswana has provided massive subsidies to keep an otherwise unprofitable abattoir going because if it closed the cattle would be worthless except for domestic use or smuggling.
This is precisely the situation facing farmers in Zambezi Region where the abattoir at Katima Mulilo has been closed since August 2015. An abattoir is a factory and needs to run at a high and constant rate of utilization to make a profit. Because of the FMD, the lack of economies of scale and the regular closures of the abattoir due to FMD, the people have no external market for their beef. It can only be sold for local consumption or, more commonly smuggled across borders to make something of a profit. Since August this year Meatco has started a system of mobile slaughter in Kavango East Region and the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry is constructing a $110 million abattoir and meat processing facility in Rundu, which is near completion.
So in response to the problems confronting farmers the response is the development of another facility in Namibia, which proceeds without much policy analysis, or thought that perhaps the best way of dealing with this regional problem is through regional co-operation rather than pouring more money into the same type of responses. But the solution is for vets to adopt the changes to international standards in the Terrestrial Code of the World Organization for Animal Health, known as the OIE (acronym from its previous French name, Office International des Epizooties). Ironically, the vets have requested for these changes based on studies conducted in Namibia and they voted for them at their OIE General Assembly in May last year.
FMD does not cause any disease in people. It is also entirely possible to safely trade meat from an FMD area but the meat has to be maturated, deboned, and the major lymph nodes removed and handled hygienically. This beef can be traded and consumed safely without any risk to other animals. Angola imports large volumes of such beef from India, where FMD is endemic and is yet the world’s largest exporter of beef. Unfortunately Botswana tried to export beef from Ngamiland, an FMD area, to Angola but was blocked, without an iota of scientific justification, from even transiting Namibia for a few hours in seal-secured and leak-proof refrigerated trucks from Shakawe under escort to Katwitwi via Rundu. Beef from Ngamiland, although it is derived from cattle that were raised in an FMD area,  is produced under the OIE standards rendering it safe for trade.  This decision of the Namibian Veterinary Authority is indefensible, has no basis in science and has caused real bitterness and mistrust on the other side of the border. Now Botswana can only make shipments to Angola via Beira Port in Mozambique, this despite having a dry port at Walvis Bay.
This alternative way of allowing meat to be moved and traded from endemic FMD areas is well known to the veterinary services of the region, which have in many places, including Namibia, been the main block to change. The instant FMD is mentioned our vets instinctively shut down livestock movement and trade. In India they do the opposite, they encourage trade in bovine meat – FMD or no FMD. In Africa we impoverish our people by discouraging trade without any scientific justification whatsoever.
It is absurd and outrageous that African nations block each other from trading with each other, and in the process allow India to dominate a trade that we can easily supply. But what it requires is a different mind-set from the region’s veterinary services and intervention by our health and trade ministers. The nations that border this Kavango- Zambezi basin urgently need political intervention from the Agriculture and Trade ministers and not from the vets to make real progress. It requires ministers to sign a protocol that would allow commodity-based trade, which is supported by OIE standards requested for and voted in by the Chief Veterinary Officers of OIE member countries including Namibia and Botswana. The benefits to Namibia and Botswana of such co-operation are potentially enormous. We waste enormous resources building national infrastructure and rather than allowing cross border trade e.g. from allowing cattle from the FMD areas of the Ngoma and Kasane triangle to be slaughtered say in Katima Mulilo, Namibia, which is a stone throw away.
Or allowing cattle from far eastern parts of Kavango East Region to be slaughtered in Maun, Botswana. All of this intra-regional trade is entirely possible but now requires ministerial intervention.
The people of the Kavango-Zambezi region suffered greatly during the long war against apartheid. They deserve better than to be impoverished by vets who are living in another century. The Trade and Agriculture ministers need to act now to allow trade and to facilitate international co-operation in beef  and cattle or they, and not the vets, should be held responsible for their peoples’ suffering.
These are the views of Professor Roman Grynberg and not necessarily those of UNAM where he is employed.