Saturday, October 24, 2020

 Will Botswana ever win the fight against Foot and Mouth?

From as far back as the 1930s, the northern parts of Botswana have been grappling with persistent outbreaks of FMD. The outbreaks have had dire consequences for the cattle farming industry – a primary contributor to the agricultural sector and the rural economy.

The outbreaks have at varying times consequently led the country to lose the lucrative European Union (EU) market which sustains the government’s wholly owned parastatal of Botswana Meat Commission.

The persistent outbreaks of FMD have negatively impacted the agricultural sector’s contribution the overall Gross Domestic Product which has plummeted to around four percent to date.

In a 2008 working paper titled “Botswana’s Foot and Mouth Disease and Beef Trade Policy”, the authors observe that escalating costs of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) compliance mean that in highly competitive global market, the country’s beef exports may be squeezed.

“Seeking alternative markets is a priority and one that may require some basic restructuring of the industry and associated government support. While everyone recognizes that the beef industry remains critical to the Botswana economy, how it contributes through what market routes and with what control and food safety mechanisms may need to adapt to new circumstances”, observed the working paper authors.

At the height of the outbreak in Zones 6 and 7 in 2011, former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Dr Micus Chimbombi concurred with the authors of the working paper despite maintaining that government has clear cut programmes to fight any outbreak.

Dr Chimbombi explained that that the measures ranged from separation of diseased animals from non-infected areas through erection of cordon fences to vaccination of cattle in the affected areas.

Given the gravity of the economic impact of the outbreaks, Botswana Vaccine Institute (BVI) went an extra mile to produce anti-purified vaccine to fight FMD.

The production of the purified vaccine saw the government slowly moving from killing all the affected animals which came at a great cost in restocking exercises. In the event of an outbreak, the affected area is declared a red zone. Such a declaration disqualifies export from the affected area to the lucrative European Union market which is the BMC’s life blood.

In order to contain the spread of the disease in the area of breakout to non-affected areas, government imposes cattle movement restrictions with the zone. In instances where all the cattle have to be killed as a control measure, government reimburses the farmers through an expensive restocking.

In order to ensure compliance with the restriction, human resource is deployed in form of security agencies to enforce the restriction measures.

Although the government is trying all the best to fight FMD, some areas especially the Ngamiland is one area that has suffered the most.

Following the outbreak of the disease in the Segongwana crush in the Hainaveld West Protection Zone, farmers and tribal leaders in the area are reported to have asked the Minister of Agriculture Patrick Ralotsia to institute a commission of enquiry into why FMD continues spreading despite the massive resources invested to control.

What seemed to have irked the farmers most is the fact that the outbreak followed another outbreak in the Kuke area of the same district.

The farmers’ anger seemed justified. For quite a long time, their cattle have not been eligible for sale to the lucrative EU market as their district has been declared a red zone. In effect they have not been selling until a market was found in Zimbabwe. The recent outbreaks led to the suspension of live cattle to the Zimbabwe market.

The farmers, who share their area with wildlife are also reading malice in government accusing it of conserving wildlife especially elephants to the detriment of their cattle rearing industry. It is their feeling that government wants to rid the area of cattle in order to preserve the area for wildlife.

Government has however refuted the claims and passed the blame to the farmers who fail to heed control measures by not reporting suspected cases of the outbreak to veterinary officers fearing that government could decide to kill all the cattle in the area including those that are not infected.

For as long as wildlife and cattle co-exist, the blame game will never end. For government, wildlife tourism is an alternative engine of economic diversification. This is especially so given the current slump in the commodities markets.

Government has projected a budget deficit of almost P2 billion for the 206/17 financial year on the back of falling commodity prices. If the commodity prices do not recover quickly, government will be forced to draw down on the foreign reserves to keep the economy afloat.

It is not only farmers in the Ngamiland who are worried by the persistent outbreaks of FMD. The current drought problem has seen a migration of elephants from the neighbouring Zimbabwe into Botswana. The elephants are reported to be destroying cordon fences and thereby defeating the cattle movement restrictions.

Farmers in Zone Six and Seven who still reeling from the effects of the last FMD outbreak of 2011, are apprehensive that very soon the disease will recur in the areas which were recently restocked.

A farmer in Matsiloje village in the North East District of Zone Six who lost more than 200 cattle in the 2011 FMD outbreak has decried that government is not doing enough to protect their cattle from FMD infection.

“It is clear that government measures to control the spread of the disease are not effective. While government is quick to kill our cattle, it does not do the same with the wildlife. It appears as if wildlife is more precious than our cattle. Very soon there will be an outbreak in our area and they will kill all our cattle. To compound matters, the compensation we are given is not commensurate to market prices”, lamented the farmer.

He further accused the government of having delayed with the restocking exercise. “It took government more than two years to restock our area although it had been declared free of FMD. We were supplied with very young cattle some of which have not yet reproduced as we speak”, lamented the farmer.

After the outbreak of the disease in Zones Six and Seven, government extended its vaccination campaign into Zimbabwe where the disease was alleged to have spread from.

FMD was first reported in Botswana in the early 1930s. The country became infected through the spread of the disease from the then Rhodesia.

The disease was eradicated in 1934 only to reappear sporadically through the 1940s and in the second half of the 1950s.

Documented outbreaks by SAT types of FMD virus occurred in 1977 in Ngamiland (SAT 1) and Nata Gweta (SAT 2) and in 1978 in the Chobe areas (SAT 2). In 1980 an outbreak was recorded in the central region in Zones 8 and 9.

The ap77/78 outbreaks followed cattle movement routes to the abattoir in Lobatse and the country did not experience any further outbreaks until 2002 when an outbreak of the disease by SAT 2 was confirmed in the Matsiloje extension area. The virus strain was found to be related to the SAT 2 virus caused FMD outbreak in Zimbabwe in August 2001.

In 2005/06/07, three separate outbreaks of FMD were reported in eastern and western areas of the Chobe and Ngamiland districts. As cattle in the Chobe area did not constitute the regional and international markets, the outbreaks did not affect beef exports. And the control measures adopted was vaccination instead of destruction as vaccination is intended for eradication and resumption of sale to international markets.

Another outbreak was reported in Zone 7 area (Bobirwa sub-district). These were to be followed by the 2011 outbreaks in Zones 6 and 7 in 2011.

According to the authors of the working paper, an FMD outbreak is considered a national disaster and as such its control measures require huge expenditure which the relevant department does not maintain in its accounts. Additional funds are therefore re requested Ministry of Finance and Development Planning in accordance with the set rules.

The country has been divided into two main FMD control zones, the FMD free area where vaccination is practiced and FMD free area where vaccination is not practiced as defined in the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code.

The zones are maintained by disease control fences which are maintained by government.

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