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Old know-how, early warning November 22nd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In the Bolivian Andes, some officials are starting using local knowledge to improve their early warning systems for natural disasters.

For centuries, local farmers have used the signs of nature (clouds, stars, the behavior of plants and animals) to predict disasters like hail, floods and droughts, and to forecast the welcome rains that make crops grow.

Then, starting in 2004, Prosuco (a Bolivian organization) began to organize farmers with an interest in weather and organic farming. These expert farmers, called Yapuchiris, were encouraged to teach other farmers.

In southwest Bolivia, high on the Altiplano, the local government and the Technical University in Oruro are collaborating with some of these organized Yapuchiris to provide early warning, as Professor Gunnar Guzmán explained in a recent webinar. As he put it: the Yapuchiris, using local knowledge of nature, are excellent at making long-term predictions, three to four months in advance. Meteorologists cannot make such predictions, although they are quite accurate at about 4 days in the future.

Olson Paravicini of the Risk Management Unit of the government of Oruro added that the Yapuchiris’ knowledge is local, so that each one forecasts the weather for his or her own community. This matters in a place as big as Oruro. At 53,558 square kilometers, Oruro is about the size of New York state, bigger than the Netherlands. To apply local knowledge of weather over such a large area, Paravicini and colleagues are collaborating with groups of Yapuchiris, gathering their predictions to compile a departmental level forecast to provide early warnings of floods and other nasty weather.

One of the Yapuchiris, Bernabé Choquetopa, also had a slot on the webinar, explaining several of the signs he looks for. For example, when the leque leque (Andean lapwing) migrates back into Oruro in September, don Bernabé looks at its wing. If the patch on the bird’s wing is green, the rains will be good. Green eggs also mean good rain, and dark eggs mean drought. The signs reinforce each other, so after explaining that the ayrampu cactus was bearing lots of fruit and that the foxes had healthy coats, don Bernabé predicted that this would be a good, normal year for rains in his part of Oruro.

Professional weather observers are now paying attention to the Yapuchiris, who are increasingly organized and well respected. Guzmán thinks that some of the local signs of nature are 90% accurate, a probability that increases as several are used together.

Plants and animals that have evolved in a harsh landscape may have behaviors that reflect the coming weather. Observant local people have the wisdom to pay attention to the local patterns of life. I’m optimistic when I see local scientists who have respect for this knowledge. That alone is a good sign for the future.

Related blog stories

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Reading the mole hills

To see the future

Related videos

Recording the weather

Forecasting the weather with an app

Scientific names

Ayrampu: Opuntia soehrensii

Andean lapwing: Vanellus resplendens

Andean fox: Lycalopex culpaeus

Further reading

Unfortunately, I can’t find a recording of the webinar (16 November 2020), but the seminar, the speakers and the titles of their presentations were:

Seminario Virtual Saberes Ancestrales de Bioindicadores Naturales para la ReducciĂłn de Riesgos Agropecuarios

Ing. Naida Rufino Challa, SEDAG-GAD ORU (Servicio Departamental de Agricultura y GanaderĂ­a, Gobierno AutĂłnomo Departamental de Oruro). Mejoramiento del sistema de alerta temprana del sector agropecuario en el departamento de Oruro.

M.Sc. Ing. Gunnar D. Guzmán Vega, FCAN-UTO (Facultad de Ciencias Agrarias y Naturales, Universidad Técnica de Oruro). Efectividad de los indicadores naturales en la predicción climática en las comunidades.

Bernabé Choquetopa Rodríguez. Informante local. Pronósticos locales 2020-2021 del sur de Oruro.

Ing. Olson C. Paravicini Figueredo, UGR-GAD ORU (Unidad de Gestión de Riesgos, Gobierno Autónomo Departamental de Oruro). Bioindicadores y tecnología informática como sistema integrado de alerta temprana.

SABERES ANTIGUOS, ALERTA TEMPRANA

Por Jeff Bentley, 22 de noviembre del 2020

En los Andes bolivianos, algunas autoridades han empezado a usar los conocimientos locales para mejorar sus sistemas de alerta temprana de desastres naturales.

Durante siglos, los agricultores locales han leĂ­do los signos de la naturaleza (las nubes, las estrellas, el comportamiento de las plantas y los animales) para predecir desastres como la granizada, las riadas y las sequĂ­as, y para pronosticar las queridas lluvias que nutren a los cultivos.

Luego, a partir de 2004, Prosuco (una organización boliviana) comenzó a organizar a los agricultores interesados en el clima y la agricultura orgánica. Se les alentó a estos agricultores expertos, llamados Yapuchiris, a que enseñaran a los demás.

En el Altiplano del sudoeste de Bolivia, el gobierno local y la Universidad Técnica de Oruro están colaborando con algunos de estos Yapuchiris organizados para dar una alerta temprana, como explicó el Ingeniero Gunnar Guzmán hace poco en un webinar. Según él, los Yapuchiris, con su conocimiento local de la naturaleza, hacen acertadas predicciones a largo plazo, con tres o cuatro meses de anticipación. A cambio, los meteorólogos no pueden hacer eso, aunque hacen buenos pronósticos a unos 4 días en el futuro.

Olson Paravicini, de la Unidad de Gestión de Riesgos del Gobierno Autónomo Departamental de Oruro, añadió que el conocimiento de los Yapuchiris es local, de modo que cada uno pronostica el tiempo para su propia comunidad. Esto es importante en un lugar tan grande como Oruro. Con 53.558 kilómetros cuadrados, Oruro es el tamaño del Costa Rica, más grande que los Países Bajos. Para aplicar el conocimiento local del tiempo en una zona tan grande, Paravicini y sus colegas están colaborando con grupos de Yapuchiris, aprendiendo sus pronósticos para compilar un sistema de alerta temprana a nivel departamental para predecir riadas y otros desastres climáticos.

Uno de los Yapuchiris, Bernabé Choquetopa, también habló en el webinar, explicando varias de los indicadores que él busca. Por ejemplo, cuando el leque rebinar vuelve a Oruro en septiembre, don Bernabé mira su ala. Si es verduzca, las lluvias serán buenas. Los huevos verdes también significan buena lluvia, pero los huevos oscuros significan sequía. Los signos se refuerzan mutuamente, así que después de explicar que el cactus ayrampu estaban cargados de frutos y que los zorros tenían buen pelaje, don Bernabé predijo que este año sería bueno y normal para las lluvias en su sector de Oruro.

Ahora algunos meteorólogos profesionales prestan atención a los Yapuchiris, que son cada vez más organizados y respetados. Guzmán cree que algunos de los signos locales de la naturaleza tienen una precisión del 90%, probabilidad que aumenta a medida que se usan varios indicadores juntos.

Las plantas y los animales que han evolucionado en una tierra inhóspita pueden tener comportamientos que reflejan el tiempo y el clima. La gente local tiene la sabiduría de observar cuidadosamente a los patrones locales de vida. Soy optimista cuando veo que los científicos locales ganan respeto por este conocimiento. Eso sí es una buena señal para el futuro.

Related blog stories

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Leyendo el nido del topo

Conocer el futuro

Videos sobre el tema

Hacer un registro del clima

Pronosticar el clima con una aplicaciĂłn

Nombres cientĂ­ficos

Ayrampu: Opuntia soehrensii

Leque leque: Vanellus resplendens

Zorro andino: Lycalopex culpaeus

Lectura adicional

Infelizmente, no ubico una grabaciĂłn del webinar (16 de noviembre del 2020), pero el seminario virtual, los discursantes y sus presentaciones eran:

Seminario Virtual Saberes Ancestrales de Bioindicadores Naturales para la ReducciĂłn de Riesgos Agropecuarios

Ing. Naida Rufino Challa, SEDAG-GAD ORU (Servicio Departamental de Agricultura y GanaderĂ­a, Gobierno AutĂłnomo Departamental de Oruro). Mejoramiento del sistema de alerta temprana del sector agropecuario en el departamento de Oruro.

M.Sc. Ing. Gunnar D. Guzmán Vega, FCAN-UTO (Facultad de Ciencias Agrarias y Naturales, Universidad Técnica de Oruro). Efectividad de los indicadores naturales en la predicción climática en las comunidades.

Bernabé Choquetopa Rodríguez. Informante local. Pronósticos locales 2020-2021 del sur de Oruro.

Ing. Olson C. Paravicini Figueredo, UGR-GAD ORU (Unidad de Gestión de Riesgos, Gobierno Autónomo Departamental de Oruro). Bioindicadores y tecnología informática como sistema integrado de alerta temprana.

The wine rose November 15th, 2020 by

When experts say that a wine tastes of berries or has a floral scent, I believe them. When I hear of “toffee notes” or a “cigar nose” I grow slightly skeptical. But when I read of a wine that comes on like “a street-walker,” I give up. Is there any objective truth to such descriptions?

A nifty set of experiments by Ilja Crojmans and colleagues suggests that naming a wine does not help to remember its smell. In one experiment, wine experts were distracted by being asked to remember some numbers while smelling different wines. Ten minutes later they were asked to sniff a larger set of wines containing the original varieties. When the experts were not given a memory task, their minds were free to give each wine a mental label, but they did not remember the wines any better than when their minds were distracted.

This study suggests that experts do not use language to recognize the aroma of wines. Yet, in an earlier experiment, Crojmans and Asifa Majid showed that wine experts can describe the odor of wine more accurately and consistently than novices, but only marginally so, suggesting that one can learn to recognize different flavors in wine and describe them.

This reminded me of my days as a volunteer novice in a wine tasting experiment in Tucson, Arizona, in 1983. Linguist Adrienne Lehrer invited me and 11 other graduate students, colleagues and friends into her living room to taste different wines. We were chosen because we liked wine, but didn’t know much about it. We each got four glasses holding 50 ml (just enough for a taste), and a set of cards to write a short description of each wine.

A few weeks later Professor Lehrer asked us to come over again. We sat around the same tables as before with the same unlabeled wines we’d tasted previously. Each wine had a letter, which we were asked to match with the description we had written earlier. I recall reading my cards while sipping the wines and feeling no real connection between what I had written and what I was now savoring. Yet one person in four did correctly match each of their own descriptions with all the different wines. Just as important, those people were certain at the time that they were right. Wine can be described, if you have the knack for it.

Wine really is complex, with over 800 volatiles affecting its smell and taste, but one’s skills at recognizing and describing these subtle differences may improve with training and practice. Lehrer points out in her book, Wine and Conversation, that the more florid descriptions are commonly found in wine magazines, and most new metaphors are only used once. (The Economist says that “gravel” and “wet tennis balls” are recent offerings). Flamboyant descriptions are mostly word play. Wine scientists (vinologists) use fewer, but more accurate descriptors, like “vanilla”.

Culture influences how we drink and talk about wine. There is the ritual of clear, stemmed glasses, only half full, accompanied by sniffing, sipping and pronouncing on the merits of the wine. But you can drink wine in completely different ways, as I learned while living among smallholders in Portugal, whose ancestors had been making and drinking wine for centuries. They had their own evolved wine etiquette and ritual.

Wine had to accompany food, and was usually poured into white, ceramic bowls, sometimes as large as half a liter. At a large lunch, sometimes two or four people would share a bowl of wine, refilling it from a ceramic pitcher on the table, replenished from a 500-liter wooden keg.

No work party was complete without wine, to thank the neighbors who had gathered to help with the big farm jobs. When we took a break in the field, we would hold a snack in one hand, and chug a bowl of wine as fast as possible. Other people were waiting to use the bowl, and they didn’t have all day. There were potatoes to harvest.

When these hardworking folks talked about wine it wasn’t the flavor, but the color that caught their imagination. Speaking of a wine that they had made themselves, the farmers would say with pride and deliberate emphasis “it leaves a rose in the bottom of the bowl.”

Why should a roundish red stain be so important? In northwest Portugal, farmers made vinho verde, a fresh, light wine. This community in Entre-Douro-e-Minho was on the edge of the designated zone, where it was difficult to make a superb wine. The dissolved solids in wine (and alcohol) make up what we call “body”. The crimson stain in the bowl said “a full-bodied wine”.

There are many ways to imagine and discuss wine, some earthy, some refined and some pretentious. You can do worse than to drink wine from a bowl in the shade of a grape arbor, sitting on the ground with fellow workers, washing down a roasted sardine and a chunk of sourdough corn bread.

Related blog story

The pleasure of bread

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Croijmans, Ilja and Asifa Majid 2016. Not all flavor expertise is equal: The language of wine and coffee experts. PLoS ONE. e0155845.

Croijmans, Ilja, Artin Arshamian, Laura J. Speed, and Asifa Majid 2020. Wine Experts’ Recognition of Wine Odors Is Not Verbally Mediated. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000949.

Lehrer, Adrienne. 2007. Can wines be brawny? Reflections on wine vocabulary, Chapter six. In, Barry C. Smith (Ed.) Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine. Oxford. Signal books.

Lehrer, Adrienne. 2009. Wine and Conversation. Oxford, UK: University of Oxford Press. Second Edition. See page 169 for the tasting and writing experiment.

Wine and bottles. The Economist. 17 October 2020.

Reviving soils November 8th, 2020 by

Globally an estimated 20 to 60 million hectares of land in developing countries are acquired by foreign companies and investors. This so-called “land grabbing” has taken place for various reasons. The most obvious one is the hunger for maximising profit. The devastating effects on deforestation for the expansion of biofuels, sugar cane, palm oil and soya bean for animal feed are well known. A less visible reason is to secure food by those who have seen large areas of land in their home country become unsuitable for farming. This is particularly the case for India and China, where the Green Revolution model of industrial farming has been promoted for decades. Today, due to this industrial model of farming about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water. According to Dave Montgomery in his book Growing a Revolution, half of the soil carbon in the midwestern USA has been lost. At EU level, soil erosion affects over 12 million hectares of land – about 7.2% of the total agricultural land – and leads to €1.25 billion loss in crop productivity.

As people have seen the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished at will to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that help plants to take up the nutrients in organic matter, and soil minerals. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

While acquiring land in other countries as a strategy to secure domestic food supplies has created its own problems, it is hopeful to see that more sustainable initiatives triggered by civil society are gaining momentum, and receiving support from their governments. President Xi Jinping recently announced on television that China wants to stop destroying natural resources and instead become a global leader for green technologies. Through his speech he formalised the rising aspirations of Chinese civil society for healthy food.

For several years, the central government in India has strongly advocated “zero budget natural farming,” a form of regenerative agriculture that restores the health of soils without external inputs. By ending the reliance on purchased inputs and loans for farming, natural farming also aims to solve extreme indebtedness and suicides among Indian farmers. Many Indian states have adopted policies that support various forms of agroecology.

When one of our Indian partners produced a farmer training video on how soils can be revived with good microbes, a traditional practice that is now being widely promoted, I thought this would be helpful for our garden as well. When we moved into our house in north-eastern Belgium, some of the land had been under intensive cultivation for decades. The soil was hard and dead. Even though I had mixed some cow manure into the planting pits before planting my fruit trees 4 years ago, they have struggled during summers that seem to have become dryer and hotter year after year.

I watched the good microbes video from the Access Agriculture video platform and downloaded the factsheet. All I needed was fresh cow dung, cow urine, molasses and chickpea flour. But we don’t have cows, only a few sheep, and to have cow dung loaded with good microbes one would have to approach an organic farmer. So, I decided to collect fresh dung from our sheep and give it a try.

Jeff wrote in an earlier blog that farmers and farmer trainers in Bolivia mix dung with their hands without any reservations. Likewise, I have often witnessed during my interactions with farmers in South Asia how respectful they treat dung, as if it were gold. Hence, I started to mix the ingredients. The days before setting up my experiment I had collected my own urine, and because I didn’t have molasses to feed the good microbes I settleed for what we had in the house, brown sugar.

Farmers in India also mix leaves of the neem tree into the solution to help control insect pests and diseases. I replaced neem with a strong-smelling medicinal plant that we have in our garden, called “boerenwormkruid”. After having added all in 10 litres of water, I placed the drum in the shade, as good microbes don’t like direct sunlight.

For 10 days, I let the mixture ferment to increase the number of good microbes, stirring it twice a day to release the gases that could inhibit fermentation. The sweet-sour smell was a good indication that fermentation was successful. The result was a home-made variation of commercially available effective microorganisms, and an Indian recipe adapted to Belgian conditions. I kept the filtered solution in recycled plastic milk bottles. Every 2-3 weeks I mixed one of the bottles into 100 litres of water to then pour the solution around my 30 something fruit trees with a watering can, each tree receiving just enough to moisten the mulch around their base.

Seeing is believing. And doing it yourself adds conviction. In just 6 months the soil around our fruit trees has become black, soft and crumbly, keeping rainwater much better. I am confident that the humus and rich soil life will help the trees cope much better with the changing climate.

While we have destroyed much of our farm land for decades, the solutions to revive our soils are available. Green technologies spread faster when there is political goodwill and when farmers have the opportunity to learn from their peers, across borders. That is what Access Agriculture tries to achieve through its rich video library.

Scientific name

Boerenwormkruid is Tanacetum vulgare. The English common name is tansy.

Credit

The top photo from soil erosion in Ethiopia is by Pascal Boeckx.

Related videos

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Good microbes for plants and soil

Human urine as fertilizer

Some 200 farmer training videos on ecological farming in 85 languages can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  www.accessagriculture.org

Related blogs

Trying it yourself

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Friendly germs

A revolution for our soil

Out of space

From uniformity to diversity

Further reading

GRAIN — GRAIN releases data set with over 400 global land grabs”. www.grain.org.

Montgomery, David R. 2017 Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. New York: Norton. 316 pp.

Panos Panagos et al. 2018. Cost of agricultural productivity loss due to soil erosion in the European Union: From direct cost evaluation approaches to the use of macroeconomic models. Land Degradation & Development, 29(3), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ldr.2879.

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The Navajo rug, creating a tradition November 1st, 2020 by

Anthropologists shy away from the word “traditional,” because even traditions that seem ancient may be creatively evolving. In the southwestern USA, nothing says “traditional” louder than a Navajo rug, woven from handspun wool on a hand-made loom.

The Navajo people arrived in the Southwest from the north, sometime between the 1200s and 1400s AD. They probably learned to weave from long-established peoples like the Hopis, and Zuñis. In the 1600s, Spanish colonists brought sheep to New Mexico. Native people soon began herding them and weaving their wool, warmer and more abundant than some of the previous fibers (like human hair, and strips of rabbit fur).

In 1863 the US Army cajoled and bullied much of Navajo Nation to move to Bosque Redondo or Fort Sumner, in New Mexico. The Navajos packed their horse-drawn wagons and herded their sheep to the fort, about 300 miles (480 km) from the heart of Navajo country. The Navajos were given land, but crops failed due to drought, floods and armyworms in the hot, unfamiliar climate. The Navajos ate almost all of their sheep to survive. But while confined, the Navajos also acquired a taste for certain foreign goods, like wool Pendleton blankets, velveteen shirts, metal axes and cooking pots, not to mention coffee, sugar and flour.

When the Navajos were finally allowed to go home in 1868, the army gave two sheep to each man, woman and child. The Navajos were practiced pastoralists, and within a few years they once again had large herds.

White traders began moving onto the reservation, living in isolated “trading posts,” small general stores that sold cloth, tools and groceries with a long shelf life. They also bought wool and crafts from the Navajos. An autobiographical account by one of these traders, Franc Newcomb, explains how in the 1910s and 20s, one of the main trade goods was a wool blanket, known in the Southwest as a “Navajo rug”. Over the years, the traders who bought these rugs gave the Navajos advice on how to make the rugs more attractive for the tourist market. It was in the traders’ enlightened self-interest if their Navajo customers had more money to spend. The rugs gradually became bigger, more carefully woven, with more interesting patterns. http://www.aritearu.com/pic/HosteenKlah1.jpg

Franc Newcomb, and her husband, Arthur, were befriended by their neighbor, Klah, a renowned medicine man and weaver. Klah allowed Franc to attend his healing ceremonies, an art form as complex as the opera. A ceremony takes three or four years to learn. It lasts for as many as nine days and nights and is accompanied by myths, chants and intricate illustrations of divine figures, made by carefully pouring colored sand between one’s fingers.

Most visual arts are made to last a while. Not the sand painting. The patient enters the one-room log house (called a hogan) and sits on the sand painting, destroying it, while absorbing its healing power. Franc would sit up night after night at the ceremonies, and she loved the sand paintings. Franc thought the sand paintings deserved to be recorded. She had a nearly photographic memory, but she gave Klah colored pencils and paper, and he sketched the sand paintings, to make sure every detail was accurate. Franc, a former school teacher, painted Klah’s drawings onto large sheets of heavy-duty wrapping paper from her store.

Eventually Franc suggested that Klah weave the sand painting designs into rugs. He hesitated to weave such a sacred image, but eventually he built several 12-foot by 12-foot (4-meter) looms, using logs he cut in the mountains. He began weaving large rugs of the Yeibichai (spiritual beings). His mother, sister and two-nieces also joined him.

Klah decided that such special rugs had to be made from a soft, tan wool from the belly of the sheep, and Franc’s husband, Arthur, drove Klah to trading posts all over the reservation to buy the rare wool.

Klah and his family couldn’t keep up with the demand for Yeibichai rugs, and soon other weavers were copying the idea. I inherited a small, almost miniature Yeibichai rug from my grandfather, who probably bought it at a trading post. The winter of 1978-79, I lived at a Navajo trading post in Lukachukai, Arizona, and always thought of the Navajo rug as a traditional artform, although I was aware of some changes. Bright colors from chemical dyes were introduced mid-century, only to be replaced again by softer, plant dyes in the 1960s and 70s, when nature became cool. But there was much more innovation than that, especially the creation of large, tapestry-style weavings, illustrating the sand paintings with their spiritual figures. Like much creative change, the Navajo rug has evolved in response to market demand, and thanks to collaboration between people with vastly different experiences.

When Klah was a boy his horse slipped and fell off a canyon wall, kicking Klah a few times on the way down. As Klah’s great-aunt slowly nursed him back to health, she saw that Klah was a hermaphrodite. Instead of subjecting Klah to ridicule or surgery, the Navajos thought he was special and powerful and they encouraged him to do men’s things, and women’s things. The openminded acceptance of his community helped Klah to become a creative artist, as he blended a male artform (sand paintings) with a female one (weaving). When Klah died in 1937, at age 70, he was one of the most respected people in the Navajo Nation.

Some Navajo terms

Hogan. An eight-sided or round house of logs or occasionally stone. From the Navajo hooghan.

Klah. The old Navajo names were sacred, and only the closest family knew a person’s real name. People were known by nicknames, which could change as they aged. Klah (Tł’a, or “left-handed”) was known by this nickname in middle age and beyond. I assume that his real name died with him.

“Navajo” and “Navaho” are both correct spellings. Academics prefer “Navaho”, but folks from the Southwest write “Navajo”, following the Spanish spelling.  The Navajos call themselves “the people” (dinĂ©).

Yeibichai. From yé’ii bicheii, maternal grandfather of giant, dreaded spirit people.

Spellings checked against:

Young, Robert W. and William Morgan 1980 The Navajo Language: A Grammar and Colloquial Dictionary. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1,069 pp.

Further reading

Newcomb: Franc Johnson 1964 Hosteen Klah: Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.  227 pp.

Photos

The photo of Klah was taken before 1923 by an unknown photographer. Source: http://www.aritearu.com/pic/HosteenKlah1.jpg

The mall Yeibichai rug, made with synthetic red dye, was ollected about 1950 by LeRoy Bentley. Photo by Jeff Bentley

The poor get richer and healthier, finally October 25th, 2020 by

Recent papers on the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study for 2019 show that before 2000, the economy of wealthy countries grew at a faster rate than poor ones. But things are changing. Since the turn of the millennium, poorer countries have become healthier and wealthier at a faster rate. Wealth was long been linked with lower birth rates. “The rich get richer and the poor get children,” wrote F Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, a novel first published in 1925. Yet birth rates are declining in poor countries and people are living longer, healthier lives.

From 2000 to 2019, the poorest fifth of countries added an average of nine healthy years to the life of each person, while the wealthiest 20% of countries added just two years. Articles in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, attribute the change to increased investments by governments in women and children, in health, development and education, as part of efforts to meet the United Nation’s Millennium Goals.

Measuring health improvements in populations used to be an inexact science. Since the introduction of disability-adjusted life-years (DALY), or years lost to death or disability, it’s become easier to monitor changes. According to the study, DALYs declined worldwide from 1990-2010 by 2.3% per year. In other words, people got healthier. The annual decline increased to 4.0% from 2010 to 2019, thanks largely to reductions in incidence of major diseases that kill children, such as lower respiratory infections, diarrhea and meningitis by more than 60% between 1990 and 2019. New treatments also meant that the health impact of other infectious diseases declined. The number of people with HIV/AIDS peaked in 2004 and has fallen ever since.

Despite on-going news reports about health crises, global health has steadily improved over the past 30 years. When the DALY is statistically adjusted for age (as people live longer), some of the poorest countries see an average yearly decline of 2% in the rate of death and disability. Good news for the people of Ethiopia, Angola, Burundi, Malawi, Sudan, Myanmar, Laos and Bangladesh, for example, and a powerful reminder that lives are improving.

Population growth is slowing. The world’s population is estimated to peak in 2064 at 9.73 billion, and to decline to 8.79 billion by 2100. Girls and women are spending more years in school and contraception is easier to get.

As middle-income countries develop and urbanize, improving their well-being will depend less on combatting infectious disease, and more on adopting healthier diets, getting exercise, and reducing tobacco use. For countries that are still poor, continued improvements in health will demand “doubling down on policies and strategies that stimulate economic growth, expand access to primary and secondary schooling and improve the status of women (Lancet 2020; 396: 1135).”

It is fashionable in some circles to mock the efforts of formal development. But government and international investments in health and education are improving the lives of poor people in measurable ways.

Further reading

Abubakar, Ibrahim 2020 The future of migration, human populations, and global health in the Anthropocene. The Lancet 396: 1133-1134.

Murray, Christopher J. L. and collaborators 2020 Five insights from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. The Lancet 396: 1135-1159.

Murray, Christopher J. L. and collaborators 2020 Global burden of 369 diseases and injuries in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. The Lancet 396: 1204.1222.

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