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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Livestock for Livelihoods

Air Date: Week of

For the last 50 years, Arkansas- based, Heifer Project International has taken the small and local path to international development. Heifer Project donates farm animals to women, families and villages in poor areas around the world. Their aim is to eradicate poverty, jump start traditional farming, restore self-sufficiency and protect land and water. Evelyn Tully Costa reports on two Heifer Project sites in the Dominican Republic.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Eradicating poverty is a key goal of international development assistance, but it's not an easy one to reach. Too often, aid money winds up in the hands of those who don't need it. But for the last 50 years, the Arkansas-based Heifer Project International has built up an enviable record by avoiding cash hand-outs. Instead, the Heifer Project donates farm animals to poor communities. This way they say they can fight poverty, encourage small-scale farming, restore self-sufficiency, and protect land and water. Evelyn Tully Costa visited the Dominican Republic and has this report on the group's work there.

(Bleating kids; voices in the background with clucking and moos)

TULLY COSTA: On the outskirts of the small coastal city of Monte Christe, mesquite trees, cacti, dusty roads, and farms stretch as far as the eye can see. The region's nickname, We Die of Thirst, rings with parched truth as residents line up to buy high-priced drinking water from tanker trucks, which drive through town every day. But in a wooden corral, near palm- thatched houses, about 120 goats are kept by Emeliana Altagracia Veras and other members of her village.

(Bleating continues)

TULLY COSTA: Ten years ago Veras began this herd with 2 goats she received from Heifer Project International. For 50 years Heifer Project has been donating cows, chickens, pigs, oxen, water buffalo, honeybees, llamas, frogs, and rabbits to millions of rural people in over 100 countries. For Altagracia and her community, 2 goats made the difference between barely surviving and thriving.

VERAS: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Now I have something. Things are changed. I'm proud to say that I now actually possess something. I have milk and meat available. Before the project, no one here milked the goats. Now these goats are milk producers. I can get 5 quarts a day for the family and for sale, and enough for the baby goats. I've also generated income. Now I have hope, and I see the same thing happening around my community.

TULLY COSTA: In the past most people in this region scraped out an existence by illegally cutting trees from the nearly barren countryside to sell as charcoal, encouraging erosion and degrading the soil. This forced more people to move to cities seeking work as opportunities for this livelihood burned away. Carlos Zometa is an international program director for Heifer Project. On a site visit to Monte Christe, he says Heifer Project's mission is to stabilize lives and the environment.

ZOMETA: We stop the deterioration of the environment, and then we go back to the basics introducing what it used to be. And they are realizing that we're going back in time and space and things. That's the beauty of it.

TULLY COSTA: And in this tough climate, goats prove to be the best choice for producing food and income without further harming the forest. They eat pods off the plentiful mesquite trees. But Carols Zometa, who is also a breeding specialist, explains animals are just the beginning.

ZOMETA: We are not the animal project. We are the human development project, through animals. Because the animals are considered cash crops, readily available money.

TULLY COSTA: Altagracia Veras now has 15 mother goats. And, according to Heifer Project's requirement, has given away many of their offspring to her family and neighbors. It's called passing on the gift. And Heifer Project always builds in this unique sharing mechanism that strengthens community bonds and encourages accountability. Now, Altagracia Veras and her neighbors can feed themselves and send their children to school with earnings from goat milk and meat sales. Since 1984, almost 600 impoverished families or 5,000 people in this region have achieved greater economic independence with assistance from Heifer Project.

MAHN: I think Heifer Project International has learned, you know, what development is, why certain big projects don't work.

TULLY COSTA: Peter Mahn is the international coordinator for world hunger here. He says Heifer Project has earned a great deal of respect from the giants of international aid, such as the World Bank, US AID, and the United Nations agencies. According to Mr. Mahn, these institutions have used a one size fits all approach to development. They have ignored the local environmental, economic, and cultural conditions with disastrous results. These institutions are now looking to Heifer Project and other smaller, decentralized organizations, for guidance.

MAHN: One of the real lessons we've learned is that you have to begin with where communities are, with what their real needs are. And you've got to develop their own skills and work with their own skills and their own resources and especially, for example, the problems that women have in that community. Heifer is beginning to learn or has learned to work with the local communities, find out what their needs are and meet their needs. And then get out of the way.

(Bleating goats)

TULLY COSTA: In the village of La Horca, about 50 miles from Monte Christe, the women knew their children needed a more varied diet. La Horca has more water than Monte Christe, an active women's association, and the potential for fruit and vegetable production. So, Heifer Project tailored a program to fit these conditions. About 5 years ago the village drilled a well. Then Heifer Project brought in tropically adapted Katahtin sheep that can live off the local pasture land. With men herding sheep and women growing tomatoes, beets, carrots, okra, and citrus fruits, the villagers soon realized the manure piling up in the corral would be a great fertilizer for the community garden. So now, they gather and spread it together. Standing in the garden, bordered by mango and papaya trees with a herd of sheep grazing in the next field, 15 members of the La Horca Women's Association proudly show us what they've produced. Luz de la Santos is one of the group's leaders.

DE LOS SANTO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Here we're working each day to improve the nutrition levels of the children, who are missing a lot from their diet. Now we have green vegetables, including lettuce. We use no chemicals. It's totally natural. We use the cow manure. We stay away from chemicals. There is no need for it because it's natural, healthier, and cheaper.

TULLY COSTA: The villagers in La Horca are especially proud that last year they grew almost all the food needed for the Christmas festivities. Chatting with the women, Carlos Zometa is pleased these communities are discovering their own solutions to perennial problems. He says these families can taste the difference that Heifer Project International has made in their lives.

(Bleating goats)

TULLY COSTA: For Living on Earth, I'm Evelyn Tully Costa in Dajabon Province in the Dominican Republic.



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