Myanmar’s farmers need more than quick fixes.
Living in the poorest country in Southeast Asia, they bore a double whammy in the last six years: Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history, and land grabs resulting from widespread economic reforms.
In Myanmar’s fast-changing, volatile economic landscape, farmers with small plots of land must prove themselves vital to the mainstream economy, or else risk being shunted aside.
Villages in the Laputta township were some of the hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The storm flooded more than 5,000 square kilometers of land with seawater, killing at least 84,500 people, gutting buildings and washing away topsoil. The groundwater is still so salty in some places that crops can’t survive.
Rice farmer U Hla Tun lost his house, seeds and livestock in the cyclone.
“Cyclone Nargis destroyed the embankments that hold back the seawater from our fields,” Tun said. “The storm also killed the mangroves, and the soil quality is much lower than before.
"I don’t have enough capital to produce as much as before the storm,” he continued.
But joining a farmers’ association is helping Tun get back on his feet.
Tun’s association is one of more than 4,000 that farmers have formed with support from Mercy Corps. Farmers are identifying and collaborating on the challenges they share, like repairing missing embankments, controlling pest infestations and accessing nearby buyers. They 'e also organizing profitable ways of sharing equipment, like tillers, harvesters and water pumps.
Forming associations is the first step toward amplifying the voices of farmers with small plots of land in Myanmar, an urgent need now that economic and political reforms have opened the country’s closed economy after 50 years of military rule.
Although Myanmar’s growth rate is projected to reach 6.8 percent this year, expansion threatens those with few resources.
Foreign investment and infrastructure projects are creating powerful new demands for land. Farmers are facing forced relocation. In a prominent unresolved case, 10,000 villagers in Sarlingyi township are fighting the loss of their land in 2011 to a copper mining company.
To protect themselves, farmers are beginning to build strong economic connections to other local industries, like the mills that buy their rice. In a promising pilot effort in nine villages, Mercy Corps is helping the associations sell their rice collectively so they can earn more income.
In the pilot, farmers harvest their rice and sell it to their local association, receiving income immediately to pay off current debts. The association stores the rice until the low season when prices can double, then sells it in bulk to mills. Mercy Corps has also helped farmers arrange agreements with the rice millers, reducing risk for both sides by guaranteeing the amount and quality of rice to be sold. By selling collectively, farmers access larger buyers and earn greater incomes.
SEE MERCY CORPS' PHOTO ESSAY
In another effort to better connect farmers with local markets, Mercy Corps hosted five business forums where companies could showcase their wares to hard-to-reach farmers.
Browsing fertilizers, seeds and machinery, farmers got a chance to learn about new technologies. One company, for example, offers flatbed dryers and hermetically sealed plastic bags to protect rice and seeds from heavy late monsoon rains, an increasing reality as climate change is experienced in the delta.
The forums resulted in more than $233,000 in sales.
So far, 49 percent of the farmers who worked with Mercy Corps have seen their incomes grow. The organization hoped for more, but its efforts are focused on long-term sustainability rather than immediate gains that might be lost.
“Working with Mercy Corps, our farmers’ group received agricultural training and gained access to improved seed, farming equipment and fertilizer from local suppliers, so we can not only increase production, but also the quality of the rice,” Tun said.
Unfortunately, many Laputta farmers still have no reliable sources of agricultural and business training, especially outside the program. To ensure companies and the government fill this void once Mercy Corps leaves, the organization is demonstrating an easy way to connect with rural farmers: radio. Mercy Corps commissioned a four-part series, airing this April and May, that discusses topics like harvest techniques and quality standards with top local experts.
The stakes are high. Without continuing market access, Myanmar’s changing times threaten to leave farmers behind.