Cattle ban will mean food shortage for Indonesia’s poor

Alan Oxley, The Age

It’s deplorable to put the welfare of cattle above the welfare of people.

WHAT do animal activists hope to achieve with a ban on exports of live cattle to Indonesia? They think it will pressure Indonesian authorities to introduce humane slaughtering methods. The government’s decision to ban exports will increase the price of meat, a staple for Indonesia’s poor, by more than one third. The ethical implications of a ban surely warrant attention, as does how Australia wants to be regarded in the Asia-Pacific region – as an empathetic, good neighbour or as an unsympathetic bully.

Australian cattle account for more than a third of the meat consumed in Indonesia, a country in which nearly 40 million people live below the poverty line. Surely it is more inhumane to use the leverage of inducing food shortages among the poor than to see animals mistreated.

The reality is that a ban is not going to bring about a sudden change in Indonesian practices. It is a very large country and administration is devolved to provincial and district levels. An edict from the central government will not produce changes overnight.

The rational response is for Australia to offer aid for a program to train slaughterers to use humane methods. Unfortunately, it is seen as acceptable to threaten to reduce the economic welfare of a society to pressure it to do something an interest group in another country thinks is important.

This deplorable ethic is not restricted to animal welfare. Environmental groups and the Greens want Parliament to enact bills banning products using illegally logged timber and require any product containing palm oil to be labelled.

In the first instance, this is supposed to halt illegal logging in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in particular and, in the second, to limit production of palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia to protect orang-utans.

Analysis commissioned by the government verifies that illegal logging is much less prevalent than is claimed by anti-forestry activists and the amount coming into Australia is negligible. The amount of palm oil Australia imports is likewise negligible. Calls to label its presence is simply a ploy to identify products which anti-palm oil activists can target to pressure retailers to stop stocking. The campaign is also based on a canard – that palm oil is the leading cause of habitat loss of the orang-utan. Malaysian representatives demonstrated this effectively to a Senate inquiry last month.

As with animal welfare in Indonesia, the same ethical counter-challenge posed by poverty applies in these cases. The timber plantation and palm oil industries in Malaysia and Indonesia are recognised by international development agencies as major drivers in reducing poverty, and poverty is widely acknowledged as the leading cause of deforestation.

Poverty is eliminated and biodiversity protected not by restricting trade, stopping commercial logging and demonising palm oil, but by development of programs to conserve biodiversity and sustainable management of forests, both of which are practised in the industries in south-east Asia

Trade bans undermine, not support, efforts to raise living standards. When applied by Australia, they risk generating political ire among its Asian and Pacific neighbours.

Like civil society in Europe, non-government organisations in Australia tend to argue that Australia has a moral obligation to press these issues on developing countries. There are two key differences. In Europe, aid is now considered a key tool to change social values, not to raise living standards. Priority is given to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing corruption, advancing human rights and ensuring gender equity. Increasing economic growth and reducing poverty are now second-order goals in European aid programs. This is not conceded in Australian aid policy.

Second, Europe’s neighbours are Europeans. Being a good neighbour is being a loyal member of the like-thinking European Union. Australia’s only like-thinking neighbour is New Zealand. The 600 million people in the ASEAN economies, of whom about 90 million live below the poverty line, are primarily concerned to see an end to poverty.

If ethics warrant a ban to protect animals, why is there silence about the welfare of Indonesian cattle? What message does that send?

Alan Oxley is chairman of the Australian APEC Centre at RMIT University.

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