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Special Reports Last Updated: Aug 8th, 2008 - 00:47:42

Controversial charity plans Sheryl Crow gala
By Martha Rosenberg
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 8, 2008, 00:20

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Sheryl Crow fans at a fundraiser for Heifer International on August 10 at Chicago�s Ravinia Park are in for a surprise.

In addition to hearing the singer and sampling �locally grown food,� they�ll hear former University of Miami basketball star Will Allen talk about how Heifer-supported aquaculture in Milwaukee is giving youth a �future and sustainable lifestyle.�

The �living machines� of indoor, farmed fish are providing �a way for people to feed themselves,� we�re told.

Just don�t ask about Heifer�s aquaculture projects in Chicago in the 1990s.

The idea sounded great, too -- poor kids living in the Chicago Housing Authority�s Robert Taylor Homes would learn aquaculture.

Not only would the tilapia -- a fish bought for 5 cents each from Illinois State University and capable of growing to 2 feet -- provide nice fillets for housing project dwellers, the project would provide young people, �job readiness skills and learning to become stewards of the natural environment and their community,� enthused Heifer International�s Alison Meares Cohen.

The �natural environment� of fish squeezed into 55 gallon drums could even be extended to Chicago 70,000 vacant lots and start including sheep, goats and cows said Heifer.

And don�t forget the nice income the local restaurants scrambling to buy the fish would provide residents.

Unfortunately the entire population of tilapia was killed.


In 1999, all the fish froze to death when the heat and power was cut to the building, some say deliberately.

And in 2001, the fish died of heat when power went off during a storm, some leaping �out of their barrels trying to escape accumulating ammonia and rising temperatures,� according to the Chicago Tribune.

Not one fish was sold to a restaurant.

Few charities enjoy the print-the-press-release media coverage of Heifer thanks to Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bill and Melinda Gates, Beatrice Biira of Beatrice�s Goat fame and the ubiquitous photos of children hugging their live bequests.

Nor will you hear of Heifer flocks and herds dying of disease or in transit while Heifer�s online shock troops, reminiscent of the Moonies, patrol the Internet and conduct viral marketing. (MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey was even forced to expose one online �educator� as posting comments from an internal Heifer International IP address on his personal blog in 2007.)

Even Heifer�s cloudy overseas ownership, as reported by Mondaq Business Briefing, and non-sustainable food model fly below the press� radar.

How do destitute families feed the animals?

If they can�t �grow enough feed� a Heifer newsletter says, �Families are taught the best substitutes to buy locally� -- skirting how the poor can �buy� anything or why they would grow animal feed rather than edible crops.

What happens when animals get sick?

Families can use �local natural substances that are known to provide specific medicinal benefit,� says Heifer. Maybe they�ll �buy them locally� too or grow them next to the animal feed.

What about the destructive effect of grazing?

Families should build sheds to house the animals says Heifer, using locally available materials.

But philanthropist Philip Wollen, winner of the 2007 Australian of the Year (Victoria) award and the 2006 Australian Humanitarian Award, doesn�t buy Heifer hype.

�This so called �aid program� is killing people, animals, and the planet. It is an obscenity dressed up in dollars and dross,� he says. �Worse, it is entrenching more cruelty, more environmental carnage and more ill health in poor communities.�

Nor is former Indian minister for social welfare and animal protection Maneka Gandhi a fan.

�These charities woo the ethical shopper with pictures of goats wearing Christmas hats and promises of helping the poor in developing countries,� but within two years the communities �have an even poorer lifestyle,� she says.

Even the Department for International Development (DFID) which manages Britain�s aid to poor countries concluded after a study of 280 communities and 4,000 poor households which included Heifer International input, �the majority of animal health projects were not having their intended impact on the poor,� and, �the track record for all forms of livestock development is less than enviable.�

At the Sheryl Crow gala on August 10, speaker Will Allen will probably talk more to guests and local philanthropists about jobs for youth and poverty programs than Heifer�s aquaculture ventures in Milwaukee.

Not only is aquaculture inefficient, wasteful, polluting, dangerous to wildlife and a source of disease -- images of kids hugging fish don�t sell.

Michael James, an Englishman, is a former freelance journalist resident in Germany since 1992 with additional long-haul stays in East Africa, Poland and Switzerland.

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