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In Iraq, Herding Water Buffalo Is Once Again A Growing Industry

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Iraq, giant oil fields drive the economy, but there are also some more traditional ways to make a living.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BUFFALO MOOING)

KING: ...Including herding water buffalo. And it is an industry that appears to be growing again. Here's NPR's Alice Fordham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR BUZZING)

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: If it weren't for the outboard motors buzzing across the marshlands of southern Iraq, you could easily imagine you'd traveled back a few thousand years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR BUZZING)

FORDHAM: Long, flat boats, a bit like canoes, skim through deep channels between tall grasses full of chirruping toads and birds. I see two kingfishers in the dawn sunshine.

UNIDENTIFIED BOATMAN: (Singing in non-English language).

FORDHAM: Our boatman sings as we pass boats headed back to town laden with fish.

UNIDENTIFIED BOATMAN: (Singing in non-English language).

FORDHAM: ...While we pull up to an island with a large house built of woven reeds and about a hundred buffalo snuffling clouds of breath into the chilly morning air.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUFFALO SNUFFLING)

ALI AL GHALIBI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Inside the reed house with his wife and children, buffalo herder Ali al Ghalibi tells me about his typical day.

GHALIBI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He gets up at 5, he says, and prays and milks the buffalo.

GHALIBI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Then he feeds the baby buffaloes and sends the big ones swimming in the marsh to graze.

GHALIBI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Then he hops in a boat to the nearby town of Chibayish to sell the milk for the equivalent of about $15. He buys things like drinking water, comes back, gathers grass for the little buffaloes. This part of the world has been farmed for crops and animals since ancient times. Artworks show buffaloes here from about 2000 B.C.

During the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, rebels hid in the marshes, and he drained them, displacing buffalo herders and fishing families. But they were reflooded after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And gradually, people have returned to their traditional way of life. And they're making a living.

GHALIBI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Every year, Ghalibi says he sells maybe 10 or 15 buffaloes for the equivalent of $500 each. So he earns a bit more than, say, a teacher, but it's much more stable. Teachers and other government employees sometimes aren't paid when the oil price goes down. The government is trying to get people off the state payroll and back into agriculture, as Agriculture Ministry spokesman Hameed al-Nayef tells me in Baghdad.

HAMEED AL-NAYEF: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Agriculture is permanent, while the oil price lately fell to $10 a barrel, he says.

NAYEF: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: The government plans to strengthen agriculture. Last year, it banned the import of agricultural products, including onions and eggplants, to encourage people to buy from Iraqi farmers.

NAYEF: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: And Nayef says the number of buffaloes being farmed has increased from 285,000 two years ago to 385,000 now as the government works with the United Nations to support new buffalo herders with things like artificial insemination programs.

In the marshes, they've seen good years and bad years as the water levels ebb and flow. But they're not going anywhere.

GHALIBI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Ghalibi says his father and grandfather did this. He doesn't know any other job. His family does have a house in town with a fridge and electricity and all that, but it's clear where his heart lies.

GHALIBI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "I love life here," he says.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Chibayish, Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAHIM ALHAJ'S "TIME TO HAVE FUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.