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International Sustainability: Natural Resources and Biodiversity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:16 pm on 4th November 2019.

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Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat 5:16 pm, 4th November 2019

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, for ensuring that we have this important debate today. I primarily want to address issues relating to biodiversity and DfID assistance in small countries, particularly Lesotho and the Gambia, but before I do so, I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, about the state of agriculture in Africa in general. I particularly echo his view on low tilling and crop rotation, which are vital if you are trying to deal with countries in which agriculture is the base for the survival of their population. The two small countries I want to talk about—I declare my interests as shown in the register—are very much affected by agricultural and land degradation.

In the Gambia, experts estimate that half the land in the country is degraded owing to poor land management. Increased temperatures and drought have also occurred as the effects of climate change have an impact. In the 1950s and 1960s, some places in the Gambia would record 2,000 millilitres of rain. Now, if rainfall amounts to 800 millilitres, that is regarded as a good season. Deforestation has also contributed to reduced rainfall, allowing storms and flash floods to wash away the fertile soils, bringing gradual desertification as sands roll in and turn once rich farmland into uncultivated dunes.

Lesotho has also suffered from the effects of climate change. It is a mountainous country with—this is a challenge for noble Lords—the highest lowest point in the world. In the highlands, there is snowfall during the winter months. It suffers both drought and harsh rain storms. The substrata of the country are hard rock, and the vicious rainstorms sweep away the thin covering of cultivatable soil and create huge gullies in the lower parts of the country. Droughts have withered the country, parching the rivers and producing widespread crop failure.

One of the increasingly frequent severe droughts is happening now. This very day, a large portion of the population is receiving food aid. At least a quarter of the population need food aid just to survive. Unfortunately, this is now a frequent occurrence. In 2017, for example, I observed families with wheelbarrows walking many miles up mountains to UN feeding stations to collect sacks of maize just to keep their families alive—and they are doing that today. Poverty is rife and directly linked to the severe land degradation, poor crop husbandry methods and reliance on rain-fed farming.

Both countries are members of the Commonwealth, both have democratic structures and both are small in population. Lesotho has the third-highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world, and life expectancy, while rising now, is still way below that of most other sub-Saharan African countries.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, suggested, there are solutions to the land degradation, which we can see in both countries. One of the simplest to explain is trees—not just any trees but the right sort of trees. The obvious problem is that wood is used for cooking and heating, and the issue is the need for cultural and economic change so that cutting down trees is seen as damaging family incomes. In Lesotho, the challenge is to plant and nurture fruit trees. The fruit provides nourishment while the tree roots hold back land degradation.

There are other micro ways in which families can grow the crops they need to survive. I should like to introduce noble Lords to Mrs Maleloko Fokotsale and her garden. It is not very photogenic. It looks like a jumble of rocks and dirt piled into a circle. However, this keyhole garden can feed a family of five for many months. It is about a metre high—roughly up to Mrs Fokotsale’s waist—and just wide enough so that she can reach over to the middle. In the centre is a compost hole in which waste and wastewater are placed, so that the nutrient-rich mix seeps through to the rest of the soil in the garden. It does not need much water, and any wastewater can be used.

There are many other solutions to these land degradation problems, but they require investment, skills, training and engagement. So where is DfID in all this? I am afraid it is virtually nowhere to be seen in either country, and for many in the support services it is a long-forgotten name from the past. Why is that? It is primarily because DfID’s needs-effectiveness index leads to support being provided for more populous countries. It has effectively hard-wired a systemic preference for larger countries. For example, the use of rates of poverty, rather than actual poverty numbers, skews the decision on where to spend towards those countries with larger populations. The largest focus for DfID assistance in Africa is in Nigeria and Ethiopia, closely followed by Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, which are numbers 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8 in population size in Africa. This has two effects. First, it excludes small countries with high development needs and, secondly, it implies that it is more effective to work in larger than smaller countries. Can the Minister say whether reconsideration of these effects has been considered recently by DfID when setting future strategies and budgets?

My second concern is about joined-up government thinking in where to place direct spend and how to do it. In recent months, the FCO has developed a governance programme for the National Assembly of the Gambia and has reopened its high commission in Lesotho. Both are small Commonwealth countries and these new developments are very welcome, but they cannot be seen as valuable new trade agreements in a post-Brexit world. They are a statement that this country and these interventions are dealing with some of the long-term issues facing those countries, which are mainly associated with poverty. If we are going to structure Foreign and Commonwealth Office activity in those countries, surely it would be better to match and work alongside it on both long-term and short-term needs, which are very important. Does the Minister agree that there is a need to bring together intangible and tangible support to build on the new developments that the UK Government are currently making and to establish a truly cross-departmental approach in countries such as the Gambia and Lesotho? DfID spend in Lesotho this year is £165,000, and that all goes on education. So there is an example of low spend, yet the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is investing hugely in the country, and we now need to make sure that that long-term and short-term aid and development process is brought together.

My third concern is that, where there is no in-country presence, DfID frequently channels its money through large multinational agencies. However, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me whether it has also considered using the Governments in Scotland and Wales to assist with efforts in countries where DfID does not have a presence. These Governments have their own access to skills and development sources, and they already provide small-scale funding to enable NGOs in Scotland and Wales to build projects in the developing world. Have the Government considered working with these other UK Governments? In so doing, they would be able to capture existing well-developed NGO supporters and developers. At the same time, the UK Government could be reassured that, as they are Governments themselves, the rigorous monitoring, governance and oversight capability, as exercised by DfID, would be in place in those Governments.

In conclusion, I should like to take a more hopeful message to Mrs Fokotsale, and I look to the Minister’s reply on the three issues that I have raised—small country assistance, bringing tangible and intangible support together, and using devolved Governments to help—to do just that. Armed with those answers, I hope that Mrs Fokotsale and thousands more like her can look forward to a better future.