For Christmas the year before last, my godmother Susan gave my family a water buffalo. Big animals, water buffalo. They weigh 1,800-2,600 pounds.
Their size comes in handy, though, as they're often called upon to plow fields, birth calves and provide milk for both human and bovine young. Presumably, our water buffalo has been doing all of these things, but we're not really sure because it lives with a family somewhere in Nepal. Or Cambodia. Or some other place in Asia, where water buffalo are wont to reside.
It's a highly convenient situation, given that our various homes were too cluttered with the loot of Christmases Past to leave much room for a room-filling bovine. And unlike us, the family in Nepal (or Cambodia or wherever) actually happened to have a fairly great need for just such a beast. Susan bought the buffalo through the Heifer Project International. It's one of a growing number of organizations dedicated to sustainable gift-giving -- that is, spreading the benefits of giving beyond the immediate recipient (or some vague sense of "giving the economy a boost"). Often, sustainable giving means giving to someone truly in need in the name of someone who isn't.
Heifer Project gifts help feed and fund families in desperate straits all around the world, from Vermont to Vietnam. Our water buffalo can plow the steep slopes of the Tibetan Plateau four times faster than a farmer working alone. Plus, it can carry the resulting crops to market; produce milk and cheese for the farmer's kids (who might not otherwise have any form of protein to eat); and help fertilize the farmer's land merely by doing what comes naturally. Heifer Project chickens produce eggs for food and for sale for families all over the world. Heifer bees boost crop yields (through more efficient pollination) while producing honey, wax, income and social status for women in Ghana. Hardy Heifer goats give milk for cheese and wool to sell in regions unsuitable for keeping cows.
In all, Heifer livestock have improved the lives of literally millions of people in more than 115 countries.
It's really an expansion of the old "give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach the man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime" theme. The Heifer Project traces its roots to a man who saw the need to teach a lot more people around the world to fish -- and to start by providing them with fishing poles. In the 1930s, Dan West traveled to civil-war-torn Spain with his youth group. As he poured cup after cup of milk for hungry children on both sides of the conflict, the thought occurred to him that what these families really needed was "not a cup, but a cow."
A Midwestern farmer, West contacted friends and family back in the States and asked them to donate heifers (young cows that haven't yet borne calves). West asked each family that received a donated heifer to give its first calf to another family in need. Today, "passing on the gift" is a central component of the Heifer Project's work.
The gift extends far beyond a particular animal or its offspring, however. Each family or community that receives a Heifer gift also receives training in sustainable agricultural practices such as humane livestock management, pasture improvement, soil conservation, reforestation and safe water-harvesting techniques. Ultimately, the Heifer Project aims to improve not just the financial and physical well-being of gift recipients, but also the global environment.
But this year, the Heifer Project's mission seems, if possible, more daunting than ever. The organization has been providing livestock for Afghan refugees in Pakistan for more than five years. In the past month, however, the number of refugees fleeing either Taliban oppression or American bombs has exploded. The Heifer Project estimates that more than 800 refugees are crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan each day. And every one of them needs food to eat and clothes to wear. The Heifer Project plans a drastic expansion of its current program in the area, increasing the number of locally adapted chickens and goats provided (along with the training to care for them).
So if you've been wanting to "do something," as most of us have since Sept. 11, here's one way to go about it -- and get your Christmas shopping done, too. You can send 10 chicks to Pakistan (or some other part of the world) for just $20 -- less than the cost of a DVD or a pair of faux-fur-trimmed bedroom slippers. A hive of bees runs $30, a water buffalo $250, and an actual heifer $500. There's no gift wrapping involved (so you save a tree, too), and no chance of choosing the wrong size or color. For more information about Heifer Project International, visit www.heifer.org, call (800) 422-1311, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If livestock isn't your thing, check out the Abundant Life Seed Foundation. This organization's mission is similar to the Heifer Project's, except that Abundant Life focuses on providing (you guessed it) seeds and agricultural training to people in need. You can contact them at PO Box 772, Port Townsend, WA, 98368 or (360) 385-5660.
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