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Beasts and Burdens

Trends: Once a vital farming tool, water buffaloes are now more likely to end up on your plate rather than pulling a plough.
From Suthon Sukphisit, Bangkok Post

It's well known that as Thailand's forests shrink, many of the animals that live in them disappear too. But it might not be so well known that water buffaloes, which have played a central part in the lives of Thai people for centuries, are also rapidly disappearing.
The relationship between people and water buffaloes has been such a close and durable one that there is an entire culture based on it. For much of Thailand's history, the scent that characterized the countryside combined the aroma of the earth and buffaloes.
But about a decade ago, the country's farmers began using agricultural machinery on a larger scale, and water buffaloes lost their age-old role as partners in the fields.
Instead, they became food for people living in the cities. They were herded into the slaughterhouses in huge numbers.
All that is left of the join-in Thai culture of men and buffaloes are fading images that might one day be lost forever. The rate at which this is happening is startling: in 1981 there were 6.1 million water buffaloes in Thai fields.
By last year the number had dropped to 1.2 million. In.18 years, 4.9 million water buffaloes had disappeared - an average of 272,000 a year.
If their numbers continue to drop at the same rate, they will all be gone in four years and five months. Then, the bond between people and buffaloes will survive only in photographs and works of art.
Accounts of the way farmers and buffaloes worked together is well documented.
The work day started at around 5 a.m.
and ploughing would begin before sunrise until about 11 a. m.. Work had to stop then as it got too hot.
If there was more work to do, ploughing would resume between 3 and 5 p.m. after which farmer and buffalo would head home and the animal would be lead to a pond or stream to wallow in water - an image caught in many photographs.
After this, the buffalo was led to the pen, usually under the stilted house or adjoining it.
A fire would be lit to chase away mosquitoes and gadflies that feed on the animal's blood, and to keep them from disturbing the family.
In the cold season, dogs would also sleep around the fire and help guard the animals against thieves.
When it was time for harvest, the water buffaloes would carry the cut rice to the yard around the house, where farmers would thresh it. The animals would trample the stalks to free the grains. The rice would then be loaded onto a cart and the buffaloes would, pull them to the rice mill.
None of this could have been done without the help of the water buffaloes.
And so, farmers never considered eating them; besides farm families simply didn't eat that much, and there were plenty of fish and chickens around to satisfy their needs.
If an animal died from natural causes, the farmer would use only the skin, which would be cut into long strips to tether carts or boats, or to tie things together. The horns would also be kept and used as house decorations. The meat would be left for the vultures.
Thailand's old water buffalo-based culture was rich in interesting details. When a buffalo came into the possession of a family they had to register it with the municipality - the way owners of a new car do nowadays.
Each time an animal was registered, a description of it would be recorded. This practice seems strange, because to the untrained eye all water buffaloes look the same.
But one detail differs from animal to animal: the khwan - the little spirals of fur found on its hide. These are specific to each animal just like a fingerprint to a human.
Folk wisdom also offers a myriad of uses for buffalo's droppings.
For example, a threshing area would have a mixture of buffalo dung spread on it to create a flat, thick surface that would be free of dust. It was also spread on woven bamboo walls of a silo to keep out insects and protect the rice from mould and fungus. In addition, it was excellent natural fertilizer for plants.
Each part of Thailand has its regional language, and the differences between them can be great. But the words farmers used to communicate with water buffaloes were the same everywhere. Thoon meant turn left, and thaad, turn right. If a farmer wanted his buffalo to stop, he would say, yaw and if he wanted the animal to move ahead, he'd say huy.
The many examples of buffaloes featured in songs and stories show how strong the bond between humans and the animals once were. But the link has been broken.
Now many farmers in the Central Region, in places like Ayutthaya, Ang Thong, Sing Buri and Suphan Buri, don't want to work with the animals because modern farm machinery is plentiful and available for hire.
With machines they can plough fields five times faster. And harvesting and threshing is also quicker. Today, raising and caring for buffaloes is considered a burden.
Even though machines are not cheap, buffaloes are considered tiring and inefficient - so when slaughterhouses offer to buy the animals, farmers are invariably ready to sell.
With water buffalo numbers falling so drastically, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives' Department of Livestock Development has initiated a project called Development of Livestock Production at the Small Farmer Level.
The objectives of the project were described by one of its formulators, Anchalee Na Chiang Mai. She said: "Thailand is traditionally an agricultural country and original methods depended on water buffaloes.
Under this system, the farmers and the buffaloes helped each other, because cultivated land covered huge areas and it was rich in grass and weeds that were useless to the farmers, but which animals, including the buffaloes, could use as food. When they ate and digested these plants, they converted them into dung that made good fertilizer.
But as the country shifted emphasis from agriculture to industrial production, workers began selling their labor to factories, or switched to crops like sugar cane, tapioca, and sweet corn for export.
Some land was left to grow food for local consumption, but the farmers were older and didn't have much strength left. Laborsaving machinery came to be used, and as time passed, more and more of it appeared.
All of it was expensive to obtain and operate, but it was fast and efficient.
Once you are accustomed to that kind of convenience, it's hard to go back. And in the old days there were always children around who were responsible for taking care of the water buffaloes in the fields. Today, all the children are in school and they are continuing their studies for longer. When they finish studying, they don't go back to the fields.
When buffaloes are not working, they are food! Thailand's population is growing fast, and meat consumption is increasing rapidly."
Ms Anchalee said according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization predictions, Thais will each consume six to 7.4 kilograms of meat this year, and by 2010 the figure will increase to 10.1 to 14.8 kilograms.
The buffalo's new role as a source of food is the reason for it's quick decline.
"Although we can't reverse this trend and restore the water buffalo to its original place in Thai agriculture, we can work to give it a role as a regional animal, and that is why we have initiated this project.
Our first objective is keep farmers and water buffaloes together longer, with the animals placing no burden on their keepers. One way is to ask farmers to keep female animals, and when they give birth, to encourage them to retain the female young.
If they want to sell the males, we don't have any objections.
We're initiating our project this year. It's starting as a pilot project in Isan, focusing on Si Sa Ket, Yasothon, Ubon, and Kalasin. We chose those provinces because many farmers there still use water buffaloes, and they are likely to be willing to cooperate.
After that we will try to increase the numbers of superior animals. We will start by buying 500 females and 20 males, choosing the best ones to produce the best young. We'll give them to selected farmers in our chosen provinces to raise. This will be done as a loan, letting them take the animals in advance to mate with the water buffaloes they already own.
Once the farmer has had them for three to five years, there should be many new buffaloes born. When they sell some o17 them, they will be able to pay for the buffalo that they 'borrowed' from us.
Besides preserving superior animals, we can increase the number of buffaloes and keep them from disappearing as consumer demand for the meat grows.
And it will also provide a new source of income for farmers. The project will run for nine years."

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