February 15, 2005


 AVMA, Heifer International team up to bring tsunami aid

$1 million donation target set
By R. Scott Nolen
Posted Feb. 1, 2005  

The AVMA and Heifer International are collaborating to raise $1 million for long-term development in tsunami-ravaged countries of South and Southeast Asia.

The AVMA will solicit donations to Heifer International from Association members, industry partners, and the public, and provide matching funds up to a maximum of $500,000. As an initial challenge match, the AVMA has already contributed $100,000 toward its half-million-dollar commitment.

Heifer International strives to alleviate hunger and poverty by providing impoverished families with live agricultural animals and training in animal care and environmentally friendly farming. Donated animals provide a wide variety of benefits to recipients—nutrition, money for education, housing, and health care, and the beginning elements of a small business enterprise. For example, a single water buffalo provides milk and, as a draft animal, can increase crop production fourfold.

Currently, Heifer International operates offices around the world and has ongoing projects in 50 countries, including the United States.

The AVMA Executive Board approved the plan at a special meeting Jan. 14 during the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference and House of Delegates Informational Assembly in Chicago.

Following the vote, AVMA President Bonnie V. Beaver wrote a letter to AVMA members explaining the initiative (see insert between pages 520 and 521). "(W)e have all witnessed the massive destruction the South Asia tsunami has left in its wake. The loss of life is staggering," Dr. Beaver wrote.

"As veterinarians, we fear that the long-term effects of this tragedy will be worse. As a profession, we understand that the initial shock of this tragedy could be followed by massive public health crises and the realization that vital agricultural resources have been lost."

In the early hours of Dec. 26, a massive earthquake off the west coast of northern Sumatra triggered tsunamis spanning 32 feet in height and moving at more than 300 miles an hour. The waves wrecked coastal areas in several countries and as far west as Somalia in Africa.

According to the United Nations, at least 165,000 people in a dozen countries are dead, half a million injured, and one million displaced in what many are calling the most devastating natural disaster in recent memory. So great was the devastation that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan remarked, "What happened on 26 December 2004 was an unprecedented, global catastrophe. It requires an unprecedented, global response."

Soon after the disaster, the AVMA started receiving numerous inquiries from members and members of other associations about what the AVMA was doing to help. Some veterinarians wanted to know the names of AVMA-supported aid and relief organizations to which they could donate.

AVMA staff helped draft the proposal to partner with Heifer International, which Executive Vice President Bruce W. Little submitted to the Executive Board a week before the special meeting.

"With the ever-present news about the enormous magnitude of cash gifts, supplies, and medical assistance that have been sent to the area by thousands of generous donors, it seems appropriate that AVMA should take a longer-term view of the issue," according to the recommendation background.

Questions were raised about whether the American Veterinary Medical Foundation was better suited for the task. But, as Dr. Robert P. Gordon, AVMF chair, later explained, the foundation's mission is helping veterinarians to help animals, with an emphasis on disaster preparedness and relief. "The scope of services and assistance that we can provide is limited to the United States," Dr. Gordon added.

Dr. Jack O. Walther, immediate past president of the AVMA, introduced a clarifying amendment restricting AVMA donations to tsunami-affected countries.

Cynthia Hester is director of corporate partnerships with Heifer International, headquartered in Little Rock, Ark. A core principle of the organization's work is community building. "We help families work together as a community, make decisions together in a community way, and respect one another, especially in terms of gender-equity issues," she said.

"We train families in animal husbandry practices and meeting animals' veterinary needs," Hester said. "We also teach them about holistic environmental farming practices."

Each community selects the kinds of animals they receive, as well as which families get them, Hester pointed out. "We want to make sure they want those animals and that they've got the right amount of land to take care of them. We also want to make sure the animals are culturally and environmentally appropriate for each country."

Animals given by Heifer International quickly become vital resources. The eggs, and sometimes meat, are a source of protein in areas where diets are protein-poor. Beehives produce honey and wax that can be sold, and the bees can help to triple crop yields by pollenating fields.

Families are trained in sustainable farming practices, such as using manure for fertilizer and methane for fuel. The organization requires that the first female offspring of each donated animal be given to another family in the community. All this works together to make projects self-sustaining. "Our goal is to get the community to the point of self-reliance. We want our project partners to continue these projects on their own," Hester said, adding that a typical project lasts three to five years.

Dr. Terry S. Wollen, director of animal well-being for Heifer International, said each of the organization's 35 international offices includes at least one technical professional, usually a veterinarian or animal scientist.

Because organized animal health care systems rarely exist in many of the places where Heifer International works, staff make use of what's available. This, Dr. Wollen said, usually comes in the form of government extension employees or community animal health workers. The latter are villagers whom Heifer International provides with a basic medical kit and special training in animal health and husbandry particular to the region.

"We always try to link them to their country's government veterinary program because there's always the need for oversight," Dr. Wollen added.

Like many organizations, Heifer International is assessing the situation in South and Southeast Asia to determine how its livestock initiatives can best help countries recover and rebuild, both immediately and in the long term. The organization has already committed $1 million for training and livestock programs to aid tsunami victims on the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra and elsewhere in the region, Hester said.

Following an initial assessment of tsunami-affected areas, staff from Heifer International's Asia office recommended expanding existing projects in northern Sumatra.

Hester noted that the organization has been working with small farming communities on Sumatra for more than a decade. Established Heifer International projects on the Indonesian island are inland and were not directly affected by the tsunami.

Coastal communities on Sumatra are a different story, however, and are in desperate need of resources. Heifer International, Hester said, will help rebuild agricultural production and improve housing, education, and public health—all of which will work to increase family incomes and help ensure the long-term success of this humanitarian effort.