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Wooing the Ethical Shopper Heifer Palooza
Heifer Palooza
by MARTHA ROSENBERG

Chicago.

Sheryl Crow fans at the Grazing on the Green fundraiser for Heifer International at Chicago’s Ravinia Park in August are in for a surprise.

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

Just don’t ask about Heifer’s aquaculture projects in Chicago in the 1990′s.

The idea sounded great–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.

Twice.

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.

P.S. 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.

At the Sheryl Crow gala in August, 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.

MARTHA ROSENBERG is staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at mrosenberg@evmark.org