Saturday, May 03, 2008

Blessings on the Camel Breeder

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Camels.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

Well that was the 1967 version, mono-verbally updated. See today's Financial Times for Camel demand soars in India.

Reporting from New Delhi, Jo Johnson tips us to where the invisible hand of economics is goofing on high energy prices.

Farmers in such Indian states as Rajasthan (red on the map below) are looking to mammalian power. Notoriously fuel- inefficient tractors suddenly cost too much to run. Ruminants do as much for less.

The other side of the supply/demand equation is proving out as well. The cost of camels is climbing and livestock types are breeding new living tractors as fast as they can.

The FT reports the highlights of the economics as:
  • At about 41 Indian rupee (Rs) to $1, entry-level tractors cost about Rs82,000
  • "A sturdy male" camel has tripled in price in the past two years, to as much as Rs40,000
  • That camel should live 60 to 80 years
  • The national camel population has dropped over 50% in the past 10 years (to about 450,000)
"Two years ago, a camel cost little more than a goat, which is nothing," said Ilse Kõhler-Rollefson of the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development. That NGO has a German headquarters and a branch in Rajasthan.

A fine report on a workshop on camels listed reasons for their decline. Most important was "shrinking grazing resources." Some land is in government hands for wildlife preserves. Other has been irrigated and turned into farmland.

Also there is insufficient veterinary care and medicine for breeders, "no organized markets for camel milk, wool and leather...(and) camel milk is discriminated against by the dairy cooperatives." Finally, until recently, camel breeding was considered low-status and backward. Simply, no one was encouraging breeding, caring for and feeding them.

Camel breeders are likely unintended beneficiaries of the petro cartels. As Kõhler-Rollefson notes, "It's excellent for the camel population if the price of oil continues to go up because demand for camels will also grow up."

There would be an elegance to camels supplanting machines. India, after all, is still a nation in which elephants remain integral to forestry, although there are fewer non-protected trees and many elephants are part of the tourist trade, used for rides.

So long as gas and diesel fuel stay expensive, a camel's wide-ranging herbaceous diet (including thorny plants) looks like a cheaper way to feed farm equipment.

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