Colombians Work to Reconcile Cattle Farming And Forests

Colombia's biggest project to make livestock farming sustainable is showing that farmers can raise cattle and even boost dairy production without destroying the forest.

Cattle in Alvarado, Colombia
Cattle in Alvarado, Colombia
Maria Paula Rubiano

BOGOTÁ — An ambitious project to make livestock farming sustainable in Colombia is yielding results almost a decade after its implementation in 83 districts. Its lesson so far is that livestock and trees can coexist, and farmers can make money without cutting down the forest.

Anyone observing the 43 million hectares Oxfam estimates are used as farming land in Colombia will see that the worst of its countryside's endemic problems are in livestock rather than crop farming.

Some 34 million hectares here are used for livestock farming, though the Agustín Codazzi Institute, a geographical research body, says barely 15 million hectares are actually suited to this activity. The rest of the land was formerly native forests that have been cut down.

The business is profitable enough for these "bare mountains' to be expanding countrywide. According to the Environment Ministry between 1990 and 2015, 60% of trees felled were by people using the land for livestock farming or "speculation." Deforestation increased 44% in 2016 alone, and government warnings and strategies to halt it have failed so far.

Against this background, the livestock farmers' union Fedegán joined with the World Bank, NatureBank, Britain's The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Colombia's Environmental and Childhood Action Fund and SIPaV, the Italian Phytopathological Society, to launch Colombia's biggest sustainable livestock farming project.

Livestock farming and trees have become antagonistic in Colombia.

It picked 83 districts in 12 departments located in north-central and northern Colombia that met three key characteristics cited by the project's coordinator, Andrés Zuluaga. These were that the areas were important livestock regions, contained different ecosystems and still had a good many areas of well-preserved natural lands.

The organizations gathered with 2,988 small, middle and large-scale livestock farmers to give them technical advice on turning their bare mountains into biodiversity corridors filled with trees, bushes and palm trees. Authorities paid extra money to 1,600 farmers located in key spots like near waterways or intact forests to perform environmental services.

"For cultural reasons," says Zuluaga, livestock farming and trees have become antagonistic in Colombia. Because "the current production system was inherited from the green revolution of the 1960s and 70s that used pesticides and herbicides and ensured the triumph of single-crop farming and intensive production. Its premise was that livestock farms must have grass only. We also copy the livestock farming model of countries with more temperate weather, which have very different conditions to those of the Tropics," he said.

The logic of the silvopastoral system is that more trees mean more productivity. They ensure cattle have more food and a more stable food supply, since food production does not decline as much through periods of drought.

If the benefits of this system are so evident, why are the country's 500,000 livestock farmers not changing their production system?

The results of monitoring the project in its first seven years, presented in recent days, showed that silvopastoral estates could support 24% more livestock in drought periods than standard farms.

Zuluaga adds that in addition to producing more food for cattle, "these trees and bushes often have better quality nutrition than just grass, with as much as double or triple the amount of nutrients like proteins." That raises milk production by 155% on these estates, he said.

If that were not enough, the trees also nurture the soil, provide wood and contribute to boosting biodiversity in surrounding systems. They provide food for birds and mammals and create links between native woodlands kept intact on some estates. Nationwide, it was found, their presence trapped a total of 1,229,910 kilograms of carbon dioxide every year.

If the benefits of this system are so evident, why are the country's 500,000 livestock farmers not changing their production system? The answer is simple: 80% of livestock farmers are subsistence farmers with fewer than 50 animals, and many believe they cannot afford the three million pesos (a little under 900 euros) needed to make the land conversion. Zuluaga says "our objective is for the state to consider this a development policy."

For now the closest thing to making conversions into policy is the creation of the National Table for Sustainable Livestock Farming, which created this project and has become a link between the environment and livestock sectors, and the Environment Ministry. Its task will be to start formulating national policies for sustainable livestock farming.

The first three steps to bringing cows and trees together, says Zuluaga, is to retrain professionals in farming regions, provide loans for farmers who want to convert their land and foment a generalized change of perspective on what livestock farming should be.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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