Monday, January 28, 2008

The Greatest Natural Clamity

I swiped the photo from this Web site because they were the only one to offer a photo credit which Google Translate helpfully renders:
1897 cattle plague raged in South Africa (image: Collection Onderstepoort)
Have you ever heard of Rinderpest? I hadn't until reading John Reader's Africa:A Biography of a Continent.
Rinderpest is a virus disease, very highly contagious, which manifests itself in fever, restlessness, loss of appetitite, blood-stained diarrhoea, and often nasal discharges. Some animals become maniacal; the great majority weaken rapidly and die.
Reader's book is really quite remarkable in providing a biography of Africa beginning with geologic and climatic detail and proceeding into human history. I found the book fascinating and engaging. Breezing through the customer reviews at Amazon you can get a sense for the problems some find; mostly the result of the sweeping enormity of the subject.

There are eight parts to the book each with multiple chapters. The brief few pages on riderpest are contained in Part 7 "The Scramble" and in the chapter "Resistance." The Scramble for Africa refers to the period between the 1880's and WWI as European powers competed to lay claim to the African continent. "Resistence" is a chapter dealing with the "tests" of colonial authority in Africa. Reader holds that a series of natural calamities "were no less influential" than the newly invented machine gun.

Reader's chapter's "Resistence" and "Rebellion" are shocking and depressing. As I read them I wondered how could it be that I'd never heard about suffering on such a scale. Somewhere I read about Adam Hochschild's impetus to write his book King Leopold's Ghost about the cruel exploitation of the people of the Congo Free State. In less than 40 years the population was depleted from more than 20 million to 10 million. He wondered why he hadn't heard about this tragedy?

I've read a few books on Africa or by Africans. I've made some African friends and follow some African blogs and Web sites. Most people have an enormous well of goodwill. It's heartening to see so many outside Africa take an interest. The more I learn, the more I understand how little I know. In order to create more collaboration for good in Africa, it's important to realize that the story we think we know is incomplete. And it's important to want to learn more.

Rinderpest has a long history, and figures prominently in Western history because outbreaks of the virus were spread by armies and their pack animals. The disease was brought to Sub-Saharan Africa first by Italian colonialist in Somalia by cattle they imported from India. The disease spread rapidly, cattle, sheep and goats were infected. The disease ravaged wild buffalo, giraffes, antelopes, and wild hogs. Reader writes:
In South Africa, drastic attemps were made to halt the advance of the disease. A barbed-wire fence, 1,600 km long, was erected from Bechuanaland to the Cape-Natal coast. Police patrolled the fence; disinfection points were established; infected herds were shot--in all, over 1 million [pounds sterling] was spent on trying to keep the disease out of South Africa, but to no avail. Two and a half million cattle died south of the fence; 5.5 million south of the Zambezi, and up to 95 percent of the cattle in Africa's pastorial regions generally.
The impacts of this calamity on people were obviously horrific. Reader cites South African scholar J. N. P. Davies in describing the rinderpest epidemic as
[T]he greatest natural calamity ever to befall the African continent, a calamity which has no parallel elsewhere.
Yet I had never heard or been told about it.

One of the connections that John Reader highlights about the great Rinderpest epizootic is that the results of the plague disrupted the ecological balance. Areas which had been grazed turned to scrub which allowed an expansion of the tsetse fly range. Tsetse flies in the process of feeding on the blood of animals transmit small single cell organisms called typanosomes. These organism create a serious disease in humans and animals, sometimes called "sleeping sickness." Reader notes that cases were reported in southern Uganda in 1902 and that the disease had killed 200,000 people by 1906.

Perhaps partly from understanding how the multiple plagues which beset Africa in the last century, we have a more ecological sense today; that everything is related to everything. One sort of side effect of thinking that everything is related is a feeling of despair that everything has unintended consequences and nothing will ever work out right.

African Agriculture is a wonderful resource for news about agriculture in Africa. The contact is for the blog is Chido Makunike, a Zimbabwean living in Senegal. The recent roundup of articles links to an article in the Seattle Times, Gates Foundation's agriculture aid a hard sell. The Gates Foundation along with the Rockefeller Foundation have created an initiative called Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, AGRA.

The Seattle Times article summarizes some of the criticism of the initiative:
But the foundation's nascent agricultural program is encountering more resistance than much of its other work, with critics concerned that its market-oriented, technology-centric approach will open the door to big agribusiness interests and genetically engineered food.
The answers to that criticism in the article and also gleaned from the excellent AGRA Web site impressed me and calmed some of my concerns.

The question is whether The Green Revolution is the right model. It's a good question, a question that bumps up against the difficult area of morality.

Steven Pinker had a widely linked to article in the New York Times Magazine earlier in the month called The Moral Instinct. It's a good article to check out for a number of reasons, but I mention it because Pinker points to Norman Borlaug as someone who's "most admirable." Borlaug is a plant scientist who's been called "the father of the Green Revolution." Borlaug also established The World Food Prize.

In 1999 the World Food Prize was awarded to Dr. Walter Plowright; from the WFP site:
Dr. Walter Plowright was recognized for his development of a vaccine that has resulted in the elimination of rinderpest, commonly known as cattle plague, from most regions of the developing world. His research has provided a practical means to re move a menace dating back 16 centuries.
The effort to irradiate rinderpest permanently by 2010 is ongoing, but realistically possible.

Pinker makes the case that it's very important to understand our habits about morals. He writes:
Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.
It's easy to say that we ought to strive to do the right things, but much harder in practice.

People must develop more ecological ways of thinking, to better imagine how the relationships which make are world are composed and interact. A part of that is understanding this ironic quality of moralizing can cloud our clear thinking and get in the way of doing good. That nowhere around the globe should the suffering caused by the rinderpest epizootic ever happen again is a good goal. That nowhere on the globe should people starve is a good goal too. How to achieve these goals and hundreds of others is the essential challenge for our time. To meet the challenge we must imagine that we are indeed capable of creating something good even while uncertain that we've hold all the answers.

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