On 12 September every year, the United Nations Day for South-South Cooperation highlights technical cooperation among developing countries. In the wake of South-South Cooperation Day 2017, the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development is pleased to share a mini case study on South-South and Triangular Cooperation, which demonstrates the rich potential of extending technical cooperation beyond sectoral, national, and regional boundaries. The study recounts how a local farmers’ association, supported by South-South and Triangular Cooperation, brought the declining Sicilo-Sarde sheep back into business. It demonstrates how Southern and Triangular partnerships have the potential to deploy rich, innovative, and diversified development practices in service of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The Decline in Sicilo-Sarde Sheep: an Environmental and Economic Challenge

The Sicilo-Sarde breed, the only breed of milking sheep native to Tunisia and North Africa, is raised to produce milk that is then processed into cheese. Livestock play an important role in improving and sustaining the livelihoods of the rural poor. The milk, cheese, and meat they produce provide a vital source of nutrients for rural families and ensure a stable source of income all year round.  Local breeds of livestock such as sheep and goats are important because they are often adapted to harsh environments and extreme temperatures, a trait which is particularly valuable in the face of weather fluctuations brought about by climate change. Yet, despite their value, many native breeds are under threat of extinction due to a lack of suitable breeding strategies, indiscriminate crossbreeding or their replacement with exotic breeds that are more productive. The Sicilo-Sarde breed is no exception: in the space of just five years, scientists recorded a dramatic eightfold drop in the population of Sicilo-Sarde sheep in Tunisia, from 200,000 ewes in 1995 to 25,000 in 2000.

Alarmed by these findings, scientists from the National Institution of Research and Teaching in Agriculture (IRESA) in Tunisia and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria set out to identify the reasons behind this decline. The team worked closely with the Association of the Sicilo Sarde Breed, a group of Tunisian Sicilo-Sarde sheep farmers who formed an association in 2003 in an effort to protect the breed from further decline. The team discovered that a low price for sheep milk on the market, combined with the growing numbers of farmers moving from dairy sheep farming to dairy cattle farming, were the main reasons behind the population drop.

Initiating a Locally-Led Solution

Together with the Sicilo Sarde Breed Association and the Tunisian Livestock Development Agency (OEP), the scientists worked to bring the Sicilo-Sarde breed back into business. The existence of market demand for both lambs and milk for cheese is a precursor of sustainability of local animal breeds. Led by a local entrepreneur, the association managed to bring together small, medium and large-size producers to save and promote their breed. Selling sheep milk through the association allowed the farmers to double its price in the space of just one year because they were able to negotiate the market price for milk through the association and not on an individual basis as they had previously done. Additionally, the breed association embarked on the industrialization of milk, in order for the producers to get a greater benefit from the milk produced.

But a remaining challenge in this process was the low productivity and quality of the animals of the flock. To address this, the scientists considered a technical solution in which improved genetic material from the Island of Sardinia, Italy, would be transferred to Tunisia. This was based on the fact that the Sicilo-Sarde breed has a genetic connection with the dairy Sarda sheep from Sardinia, a breed widely produced by genetically improved animals and specialized sheep milk production systems. However, a number of conditions would have to be met: ​​1) successful negotiations with the producers of the Sarda Sardinian sheep in Italy, to acquire frozen semen to inseminate Sicilo-Sarde sheep; 2) granting of special permits to import this material to Tunisia; 3) development of a precise protocol for the insemination, which is highly complex, and; 4) the active participation of interested producers. Based on experiences in other countries, the most difficult condition to surmount from the above list was point 2), obtaining the needed permits for importing germplasm. This could be a very lengthy process. The scientists concluded that although the solution was clear, its implementation was unfeasible.

However, the energetic Sicilo-Sarde Association President felt otherwise. The scientists had advised him on the four conditions and shared their pessimism about obtaining the permits, but he urged them to proceed nonetheless – particularly on areas that were more within their control, such as negotiating with Sardinian sheep producers in Italy, and developing a precise protocol for insemination. To their great surprise, after a period of negotiations, they were informed that the permit for importing the necessary material to Tunisia was granted.

Technical Support from Southern and Northern Partners

Once the necessary permits were secured, the semen was transported in tanks from Sardinia to Tunis. Meanwhile, the insemination protocol was organized. This entailed synchronising the ovulation of mature ewes, by hormonal means, so that they could ovulate and be inseminated at precise times. A multidisciplinary team of researchers and livestock development agencies coordinated the arrangements with the breed association. In a triumph of Triangular Cooperation, which is defined as ‘Southern-driven partnerships between two or more developing countries, supported by a developed country(ies) or multilateral organization(s), to implement development cooperation programmes and projects’, the initiative engaged veterinarians from Indonesia, Argentina, and France, who were specialized in intrauterine insemination.

The offspring of the inseminated flocks were born and with them, the future of the breed and its integrity were assured. Moreover, there was a substantial productivity increase by ewe and flock basis, from 70kg/ewe/year to 140kg/ewe/year. 

The Sicilo-Sarde success story shows that solutions to problems of animal genetic resources are not necessarily found in institutional spheres associated with agricultural production. The solutions can be found in local champions who are capable of surmounting considerable barriers, with the support of South-South and Triangular Cooperation. It is a small yet powerful example of countries of the global North and South working together, pooling resources and talent, and bringing ingenuity to solving real development challenges.

Do you want to deepen your understanding of the key concepts and principles of South-South and Triangular Cooperation, as well as the tools and methods for practical support in mobilizing partnerships? Join our next edition of the training on ‘UN Catalytic Support to South-South & Triangular Cooperation in Implementing the 2030 Agenda’, which will take place in Bonn, Germany from 17 to 19 October 2017. For more information, please click here.