Along with the toys, neckties and trinkets of traditional holiday gift giving, shoppers
around the world clicked on to "alternative gift" web sites this Christmas,
where charities offered innovative ideas like giving a water buffalo to a Cambodian
American Friends Services Committee coordinates a "water buffalo bank" in Sre Ambel. As part of their Internet marketing strategy, online shoppers can buy a buffalo for a Cambodian family.
The American Friends Services Committee, an NGO coordinating a "water buffalo
bank" in Sre Ambel, Koh Kong province, is listed in the Alternative Gifts International
mail order and online catalogue which lists more than 30 charities from around the
Instead of contributing to unwanted clutter, says Patricia DeBoer from AFSC, these
gifts are truly needed by those who receive them.
The alternative gifts movement is marketed on the idea that people buy a present
for someone less fortunate on behalf of a friend or family member.
This year, American shoppers spent an average of $730 each on Christmas presents
- more than twice the annual income of the average Cambodian.
DeBoer says that AFSC is expecting to have raised at least $25,000 from its 2004
Christmas campaign, enough to supply dozens of animals to farming families in Sre
Ambel in the new year.
Under its animal bank program, AFSC provides loans of two adult water buffaloes to
members of a village "warranty group", made up of four families, who then
share the animals to plough rice fields for cultivation and for hauling firewood.
Over time, each group is required to return two water buffalo calves to the animal
bank as "payment", allowing the gift to be extended to other families.
"Basically, each recipient then becomes a new donor as the buffalo calf is passed
on to a neighbor," said DeBoer.
Since the program was set up two years ago, AFSC has given away 56 buffaloes in Sre
In addition to improving agricultural production, DeBoer says the sharing of the
buffaloes also promotes the building of community ties and conflict resolution.
"Many poor farming families are also socially isolated," she said. "But
one of the surprising things we have found is that, simply by bringing families together
into small management groups, they are also building up social capital and a ready
social support network."
Sturdy draught animals remain a linchpin of food production for Cambodian farmers,
and few animals are sturdier or more reliable than the water buffalo.
An average buffalo weighs about a ton and costs around $400. Their diet consists
mostly of grass - instead of costly grains - making them an especially valuable long-term
For a family farm, a water buffalo can mean the difference between destitution and
economic security, says Sen Sovann of Heifer International, an NGO that provides
logistical backing to AFSC and other animal bank programs.
One of the key challenges for Cambodian agriculture, says Sovann, is to rebuild the
farming knowledge base that was once passed down from generation to generation.
With the donation of buffalo and other livestock through alternative gifts from abroad,
this learning can start again.
"The cost of poverty and war in Cambodia, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, is
that the farmers lost the knowledge, and there is a lack of resources," said
Sovann. "Because of poverty, the people came to be competing amongst themselves
and the resources are not being shared in the community.
"Through these programs, we aim to help restore the old Cambodian tradition
from the past, called sankahak kasekor, or 'farmers helping each other'," said
"Our philosophy says, 'Don't give me a cup of milk, give me a cow and then show
me how to care for it'."