Pakistan's Silent Workforce
I wrote this feature for an issue of Vegan Life Magazine last year, while working with Brooke and photographer Freya Dowson. It's not easy to read about the traumatic, tiring lives these beautiful creatures lead, but if you are compelled to help, details for how to donate to Brooke, the equine charity dedicated to helping improve living standards for horses, donkeys and mules around the world, are at the end of the article.
Donkeys are used for manual labour in developing countries because they work until they collapse. To understand why Pakistan’s poorest mining communities overwork their donkeys, you have to first understand the situation these men are in. Hours away from their families, earning £1.50 a day, they can’t afford to return home and see their wives and children more than once a year. They sleep beside their donkeys in breeze-block rows. They hope that if they work hard enough, maybe they can afford to send their son to school so that he doesn’t end up as a miner too.
They are unhappy, lonely, poor and angry. Some men have been working underground for twenty years, others are just 14 year old boys. Being angry with the situation doesn’t help. Removing the donkeys from the equation doesn’t work. Communities can’t afford to mechanise the mines, so if this generation of donkeys were removed, the miners would buy more donkeys.
Animal welfare charity Brooke understood that the most effective solution was to improve the lives of the men and the donkeys, collectively.
Brooke’s vet, Dr Nawaz, and his team travel across Pakistan’s network of coalmines educating miners about first aid. Over the four years of their project in Pakistan, Brooke have introduced water troughs for the donkeys, taught miners about nutrition and shelter, the importance of giving the animal workforce regular breaks and letting donkeys socialise with each other.
As the donkey’s welfare improves, so too does the miner’s. They feel a community spirit and self-worth. It’s not a quick solution, but it is working.
Founded by Dorothy Brooke in 1934, the charity has become the world’s leading force in improving welfare for equines. Having loved horses since childhood, Dorothy wondered what had become of those who had survived the horrors of World War One. Approximately eight million horses perished alongside millions of men in the brutal war, but many survived. Dorothy was determined to find ex-warhorses of the British, Australian and American forces, sold into a life of hard labour in Cairo.
Dorothy was appalled to find hundreds of once proud and noble horses now emaciated and desperately in need of help. Writing to the Daily Telegraph back home, she exposed their plight in a letter appealing to the British public who donated generously (as they continue to do to this day). Dorothy was inundated with donations totaling approximately £20,000 in today’s monetary terms.
She founded the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo, promising free veterinary care for all the city’s working horses and donkeys. Today, Brooke works with animals, owners and governments across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, reaching over two million working equines.
In Mexico alone, for example, there are an estimated 12.8 million working donkeys, horses and mules. Millions of livelihoods depend on these gentle creatures, yet many people lack the knowledge and resources to look after them. A happy, healthy donkey might live for 37 years, but the average lifespan of a donkey in Mexico is just 14 years.
Brooke campaign for better understanding of what working equines endure on a daily basis in developing countries. They estimate that there are approximately 100 million working equines in the world’s poorest countries, supporting the livelihoods of communities across numerous sectors, including agriculture, construction, tourism, mining and public transport.
These 100 million working equines help around 600 million people globally, often the most poor and marginalised communities. Brooke can’t hope to reach every animal through their direct programmes, so they also work with governments and international bodies to improve animal welfare from the top down, reviewing regional and national policy so that equines are no longer neglected or ignored by animal welfare laws and policy.
Brooke East Africa has developed an animal welfare bill template which is now being used by 13 county-level governments to develop animal welfare bills. Brooke India has successfully lobbied for the inclusion of equine first aid in para-vet training courses. Before this, equine medicine was generally excluded from vet training in India.
Inside Pakistan’s Abid Coalmine is a natural water source. The miners had never considered that the donkeys might like a refreshment during a shift, but after Brooke’s community sessions began, miner Aqal Zaman thought to put a trough under the water source, so donkeys no longer have to go through an eight hour shift without hydration. Small changes, big difference.
Until such a time as the world’s poorest communities no longer depend on animals, Brooke Action for Working Horses and Donkeys will continue to protect and improve the lives of working equines. Around 100 million of these animals give those in the developing world the opportunity to work their way out of poverty. Without healthy working horses, donkeys and mules, 600 million people wouldn’t be able to put food on their tables, send their children to school or build better futures for themselves and their families. Brooke works with owners, communities, governments and international organisations to make lasting improvements to animal welfare.
Photo-journalist Freya Dowson specialises in documenting the reality of life for humans and animals in developing countries. Having descended into several mines over the last four years, she has witnessed what Pakistan’s donkeys go through.
Freya said: “Crawling through tunnels, I felt complete sensory deprivation. The air was stale and dank, the darkness was endless, interrupted only by my head torch or a miner’s cigarette.
“Three years ago I travelled to Pakistan for the first time but the thought of not going down the mines never crossed my mind. My photos might tell a story that raises awareness of the terrible conditions Brooke are working so tirelessly to improve.
“I’ve returned to the mines four times over the years and every time, I see huge improvements in the way donkeys are looked after. They are better fed, hydrated and rested, carrying lighter loads and enjoying more social time. In turn, the miners are happier too. They’re so receptive to education about animal welfare, it’s not that they wanted to treat their donkeys badly, they just didn’t know any better.
“Brooke’s projects are working. Now, I see a hive of activity when a shift ends and the men appear from underground taking the load off the donkeys, feeding and watering them. The men are beaming proudly because their donkeys are happy and healthy. Mines are claustrophobic and dangerous places, but I’d go down a mine again tomorrow, if I thought it would help change lives for the better.”
Brooke’s current appeal tells the story of Chittoo the donkey. Chittoo works in the coal mines, breathes in the deadly dust and feels the heat and pain of his harness, working day in, day out. A £4 a month donation goes a long way. 18p pays for saddle care and repair, £1.75 buys a first aid kit and £2.07 pays for painkillers.