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Buffalo dominoes

Myanmar, July 18, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A water buffalo in Myanmar’s Delta region. Cyclone Nargis killed more than 90 percent of the region's buffalo; Mercy Corps is helping farming families buy buffalo and get back on track. Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps

During the eight-hour drive from Yangon to Myanmar’s Delta region, I’d seen lots of beautiful water buffalo hanging out in mud by the side of the dirt roads, flicking their ears lazily. Farmers across the delta rely on them to help plough their land, so they’re a common sight.

From inside the truck, I’d decided the buffalo were adorable. But standing right next to an extremely grumpy pair the following morning, they seemed rather less cute, and their horns considerably bigger (and much pointier).

The buffalo belonged to Aye Myint, a 53-year-old farmer who lives in Tha Pyay Kwin village in Myanmar with his wife and two children. He told me he grows rice and breeds chickens on his small eight-acre farm, using the two buffalo he bought at a buffalo market arranged by Mercy Corps last year.

“Before Cyclone Nargis in 2008 I owned five buffalo, but they all died in the storm," Aye Myint said. "Without buffalo I couldn’t farm, so I had to rent a power-tiller from another much richer farmer instead. It was very expensive and no good for my land. It was too heavy for the soil and didn’t work well.

"I much prefer buffalo as I can grow more rice with them. Because of the tiller and because I only have a very small farm, I didn’t make much money. I didn’t really make enough to cover our daily essentials, so I couldn’t afford to save up for my own buffalo too.”

Cyclone Nargis had a huge impact on the delta and more than 90 percent of water buffalo there were killed in the storm. Without buffalo to plough and with no seeds in reserve, farmers struggled to make even a fraction of their usual harvest in 2009. So Mercy Corps helped farmers like Aye Myint by providing grants, training, seeds and even buffalo markets to get things back on track.

The great thing about Aye Myint’s buffalo is that they won’t just help him — they’re buffalo dominoes.

He’s part of a group of five families who all share the benefit. Together they agreed that Aye Myint and his family would be the first in the group to get buffalo, but that he’ll give 60 baskets of the rice from the first harvest the buffalo help with to the group. With the profit from the rice, the next family will buy their own buffalo. And that family will give 60 baskets of rice from their first harvest to the next family so they can buy buffalo, and so on until all five families have the buffalo they need.

It’s a fantastic way to make the most of a small amount of help from Mercy Corps; for the price of two water buffalo, five families will get the income they need to look after their children for years to come.

Aye Myint chuckled as I kept my distance from his grumpy buffalo and told me: “Mercy Corps helped me by giving me money to buy a pair of buffalo at the market they set up close to our village. It was a big help and now it’s much easier to grow my rice and make enough money.”