Water buffalo aren’t the only species struggling to make a comeback in the beautiful rolling hills of Aschileu, Transylvania. The 1,841 poor farmers who live in these five verdant villages and were shoved off their lands under Communist rule are also fighting to regain a foothold in the local economy. Now thanks to Heifer’s first water buffalo project in Romania, the two may well help each other over the hump.
Water buffalo have been raised in this area since they were first introduced by the Turks during the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. Called the “poor man’s cow,” a water buffalo thrives on even poor fodder, rarely gets sick, makes a terrific draft animal, and will produce 5-10 liters/day of very rich, healthy milk that can be made into delicious cheese, sour cream and yogurt. (And Romanians are nuts about dairy.)
However, after the fall of Communism in 1989, farmers were encouraged to raise cows and the numbers of water buffalo dropped perilously by 80%, threatening the breed’s survival. To promote biodiversity, income generation and better nutrition; offer an alternative to strict EU standards that limit the sale of cow’s milk; and encourage peace & understanding between neighbors in the Hungarian Mera village and Romanian Aschileu village, Heifer started the Revitalization of Water Buffalo project last year, giving 36 water buffalo and trainings to needy Romanian families (who will Pass on the Gift to another 36 Hungarian families in Mera).
One of the first recipients of a water buffalo was Ion, Felicia and their nine children. Ion is one of 10 orphans whose mother died and were then abandoned by their father and left to raise each other in the village. Today, those 10 brothers are mostly illiterate and work as laboring farmers and shepherds, but each has managed to build a home, establish loving families, and amass a brood of livestock. Their self-sufficiency and dignity were palpable, despite how thin and wan Felicia looked ( and raising 9 children and 3 grandchildren, who wouldn’t be?)
As we climbed into the hills in a horse-drawn cart to visit the goats, cows and water buffalo herds that Ion tends on communal pastures, the views became more and more stunning and I felt more and more like I was in some modern version of The Sound of Music.
Lordana, Ion’s daughter, kept turning around to grin at me, her fingers tucked into her father’s thickly-tooled shepherd’s belt as we lurched across stream beds, and I kept thinking “What a hard life. What a beautiful life.”
With village milk collection centers and cooling tanks in place, and an ever-increasing demand for high-butterfat, high-protein, low- cholesterol buffalo milk, hopefully life here will become a lot less hard and a lot more healthy.