YWAR THAR AYE, Myanmar (AlertNet) - Thein Win has been a rice farmer since the age of 15 in this lush little village on the Irrawaddy delta. Now 63, he has a simple wish.
“Before I die, I’d like to see this lane become a little concrete road linking our village to the main road,” he told AlertNet, sitting on the floor of the wood and thatch house he rebuilt after surviving Cyclone Nargis four years ago.
The lane runs behind his house, a clean, narrow stretch of earth zigzagging through neighbouring villages till it reaches the main highway. It was built in 2010 by a Myanmar non-profit organisation, Proximity Designs, as part of efforts to help the area recover from Nargis that killed more than 130,000 people.
The lane revolutionised the villages by providing better access to trade, healthcare and jobs. A motorcycle-friendly concrete road, Thein Win reasoned, would be even better, allowing them to transport their rice and sell directly to traders at a better price than through third parties.
The days when Myanmar’s rulers were criticised for their slow response to the massive humanitarian needs brought about by Nargis are long gone. Reforms over the past year have won near-universal praise and led to the suspension of sanctions in one of the world’s poorest countries just emerging from half a century of brutal military rule.
Myanmar’s new, reformist government says agriculture, which employs almost two-thirds of the country’s 60 million population, is key to alleviating the country’s poverty. More than a quarter of Myanmar’s citizens live on less than $1.25 a day, food security is a concern in many areas and conflicts have displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
But Myanmar’s farmers are struggling to make ends meet. Lack of basic infrastructure and low rice prices combined with the losses from Cyclone Nargis and years of drought have pushed many of them into serious debt.
RICE BOWL ISOLATION
For generations, Thein Win’s village and neighbouring hamlets relied on a waterway that snakes through the area. Before the earth road was built, villagers were cut off from the rest of Myanmar in the summer because low water levels make it impossible for boats to navigate.
There is little reason why they should be so isolated. The delta is the rice bowl of Myanmar - and it led the world in rice exports in the 1960s – and is just three hours’ travel from commercial centre Yangon.
But their plight is symptomatic of what is happening in farming communities across the country.
As well as lack of basic infrastructure and low rice prices, farmers are suffering from high fuel and fertiliser prices, and a crippling lack of credit. Official lending is woefully insufficient while unofficial moneylenders charge up to 15 percent a month in interest.
A lot of farmers are now forced to plant smaller areas or only plant during the rainy season, leaving landless labourers with little income.
To make matters worse, developers close to the government and army have been accused of land grabs, triggering regular protests.
Many youths have left farming altogether for jobs in other parts of the country or abroad, often enduring exploitative working conditions.
All of this poses serious concerns for experts and aid workers. A November report by Harvard Kennedy School said farming faces “a crisis of insolvency and illiquidity” and warned of worsening food insecurity.
David Dapice, co-author of the report and an economist at Harvard Kennedy, said a strong domestic currency - currently 874 kyats to the dollar compared to 1,000 in 2010 - has depressed paddy prices and made it difficult for farmers to export rice.
“If they don’t get the exchange rate to a level that reflects costs and so on, I think they’re going to have real problems,” he told AlertNet.
This could mean more abandoned farmland, fewer farmers, more indebted and hungry people and more opportunities for large-scale land acquisitions.
“If rice prices in the world goes way up, I think some of the larger businessmen would want to accumulate rice land which would not be hard with highly indebted farmers,” said Dapice. “I understand even foreign funds are thinking of buying land.”
Experts say not only would this destroy the livelihoods of millions of families, it could also affect some of the political reforms.
“In the past, one of the reasons the ceasefires (with ethnic rebels) have failed is because the young men with guns have nothing to do (afterwards),” said Dapice.
STILL RECOVERING FROM NARGIS
Kyin Than, a 55-year-old with 15 acres of paddy in a village near Phyar Pon town in the delta region, lost his entire harvest in May 2008, plunging him deeper into debt.
Like many farmers, he has to sell his harvest as soon as possible to repay his debts instead of waiting to see if the price of rice will rise. On average it costs him about $230 per acre to grow his crops, and he fetches just £281 per acre.
He’s planning to use fewer labourers for this year’s monsoon paddy.
“Previously a farmer could feed about five landless labourers because we could pay their wages,” he said. “After Nargis, we couldn’t do that anymore because we have no money ourselves.”
Landless labourers are perhaps most vulnerable, said his neighbour, Myint, a casual worker and 53-year-old mother of two. She has had no income since March. Her sons, abandoning the fields for a more stable income, work at a fish market in Yangon.
“I’m willing to do any job but there are none,” she said, spitting betel nut juices down a crack on the wooden floor.
She is now living with her grandchildren in a house with three walls.
“We lost our home in Nargis. We rebuilt it but it was not strong enough so we had to rebuild it again,” she said. “But we don’t have enough money so we’re missing one wall.”