Illegally grown tissue culture bananas are making quick profits for some, but are also fuelling land conflict and environmental degradation.
By HEIN KO SOE and BEN DUNANT
THE FARMLAND that U Layang Hkawng Dau once owned is a half-hour motorbike ride from a turnoff on the highway linking the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, with Kanpiketee on the eastern border with China. As Frontier travelled deeper into the rural hinterland of Waingmaw Township, the scene either side of the road was monotonous. An unbroken vista of bright green banana plants followed us most of the way from Myitkyina.
This monotony is an essential feature of this revolution in plantation agriculture. These “tissue culture” bananas began their lives in laboratories, where suckers snipped from choice banana plants are sterilised and cloned into multiple saplings that develop in a soup of nutrients and plant hormones, passing through commercial nurseries before being transplanted into fields. This biotechnology produces uniform crops that can be harvested within a year and are in theory (though not always in practice) free of disease.
The quick profits that accrue from growing tissue culture bananas, almost all of which are exported overland to China, are being made at the expense of farmers such as Layang Hkawng Dau. The 40-year-old Kachin farmer told Frontier that his 10-acre (4.4- hectare) plot in Mukchyaik village was confiscated almost a decade ago on behalf of a Myanmar company, which is growing bananas with the help of Chinese investors. None of this is legal, he insists, but the appeals he had lodged with government departments and his local MP had gone nowhere, leaving him despondent.
Layang Hkawng Dau blamed the lawlessness of Kachin’s conflict economy. The power dynamic in the state has been shaped by decades of civil war and ceasefire arrangements greased with illicit money. Armed actors belonging to or in alliance with the Myanmar government, and those opposed to it, divide up the economic spoils and make the key decisions affecting the lives of the state’s 1.7 million people. Many have direct stakes in Kachin’s banana boom.
“We can’t ask these companies for our land rights because we might be shot,” he said. “There is no rule of law in the state.”
U Dawng Zau, another resident of Mukchyaik village, recounted a more recent story of dispossession. He told Frontier that in April 2018, a Chinese-backed company that wanted to grow bananas seized 119 acres that was used by villagers as a firewood plantation. When Frontier visited in October, a banana plantation was already flourishing on the community’s land, tended to by migrant workers from central Myanmar.
“It is not making money for any of us villagers,” Dawng Zau said. “Not one official will stand with the villagers and solve this problem.”
However, there were signs during 2018 that the Kachin State government was belatedly starting to address the rampant growth in plantations. An investigation team headed by state agriculture minister U Mya Thein, formed on the orders of Kachin State Chief Minister U Khat Aung, concluded in December that 36 companies had established banana plantations on 60,000 to 70,000 acres in government-controlled areas of the state. All of them are operating “illegally”, without the permission of the state government, and mostly with Chinese money, the team found.
Research by Kachin-based civil society indicates that the area covered by plantations is much larger. A coalition called the Land Security and Environmental Conservation Group has analysed satellite imagery and conducted field trips, and is preparing to lobby against the plantations as a source of environmental degradation as well as land conflict. U Brang Awng of the Kachin State Conservation Working Group, one of 11 member organisations, said the network had identified more than 100,000 acres covered by banana plantations in Waingmaw Township alone.
Brang Awng said the government’s Environmental Conservation Department had conducted soil and water tests in areas close to banana plantations but lacked the capacity to properly analyse results. However, anecdotal evidence points to severe effects on nearby communities, with the partial diversion of streams to the thirsty plants, and the contamination of soil and water sources from the routine spraying of plantations with pesticides and fungicides.
A staff member at the Kachin State Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, which was established in Myitkyina in mid-2017, told Frontier via telephone that although DICA registered companies, it was not concerned with their business activity and was therefore unable to comment on the number of companies involved in growing bananas. If a registered company wanted to invest in plantations, it would need the approval of the state agriculture ministry, she said.
DICA also said it had no record of some of the companies named in the investigation headed by Mya Thein, such as Myosat Kyeh Pwint, Chint Yin Kuu, Xing Shin and Shin Kyaing.
Mya Thein confirmed to Frontier that his ministry had given no approvals for banana plantations.
“The state government has not permitted a single banana plantation but Chinese and local businessmen are running a lot of plantations illegally across the state,” he said.
Tatmadaw units are also visibly profiting from the business, though it is hard to gauge the scale and precise nature of military involvement. “Even in military compounds, people are doing business with banana plantations,” Mya Thein said. On the drive to Mukchyaik village in Waingmaw Township, Frontier saw a banana plantation in a compound occupied by the 85th Infantry Battalion under the Myitkyina-based Northern Command.
Vacant, fallow or virgin
Despite identifying widespread illegality, the state government has not articulated a clear plan of action in response. Comments to Frontier by the state agriculture minister suggest that the government has little appetite to curb the plantations. Instead, it may try to use widely criticised land laws to give the plantations a legal footing and turn them into an industry to be regulated and taxed like any other.
“We can legitimise [the plantations] using the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law,” Mya Thein said.
The state investigation team found that most of the land used for banana plantations is formally classified by the government as vacant, fallow or virgin, bringing it under a 2012 law that was amended in September. The amendment to the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law requires anyone occupying land so classified – whether a poor Kachin smallholder or a well-connected company – to apply for a 30-year permit from a government management committee, or face up to two years in jail and a fine of up to K500,000 for trespassing. An October 30, 2018, notification set a March 11 deadline for applications.
Despite its designation as vacant, fallow or virgin, much of this land is actively managed by communities as farmland, orchards or productive forest in accordance with customary law and practice. This is particularly the case in Kachin where, according to the Department of Agricultural Land Management and Statistics, 43 percent of land is deemed vacant, fallow or virgin. Those using such land usually lack formal documents for it and are probably unaware of the implications of the 2012 law. Although the amended law exempts “customary lands designated under traditional culture of ethnic people”, customary tenure is still not legally defined in this or in any other law, leaving decisions over what counts as “customary” to administrators who may themselves be implicated in land grabs.
However, banana plantations seem to have already been moved down the state government’s list of priorities since the investigation team finished its work. Mya Thein told Frontier, “The state government is busy with other issues in the state. [We] have not yet decided how we will act against these illegal plantations.”
Behind the banana plantations is an obscure nexus of Chinese investors, armed groups, administrators and Kachin-based companies; anyone wanting to enter the business would require the services of a well-connected advisor and fixer. One entity that has provided advice and practical assistance under the banner of fostering Kachin entrepreneurship is the Ruby Dragon Foundation, the charitable arm of the Ruby Dragon Group.
The conglomerate, which emerged after a 1991 ceasefire with the Pa-O National Organisation in southern Shan State, has interests in mining, manufacturing, real estate, hotels and agriculture. It has had stakes in Kachin’s jade mines since the 1990s, and the chairman and founder, U Nay Win Tun, formerly represented Kachin-9 in the Amyotha Hluttaw. U Khat Htein Nan, who chairs the foundation, previously held the Kachin-2 seat in the upper house, and is the younger brother of Khat Aung, the Kachin chief minister.
Ruby Dragon Group’s website said the foundation was begun with “the aim of helping small business enterprises get a head start and to promote regional economic development”, including by helping them to register as companies and “obtain concessions”.
Khat Htein Nan told Frontier that the foundation had so far helped 35 “local Kachin companies” that are now operating banana plantations in Waingmaw Township in partnership with Chinese investors – only one short of the number of companies identified by the state government’s investigation. He confirmed that the Ruby Dragon Foundation had helped Myosat Kyeh Pwint, one of the companies named in the investigation.
However, he stressed that the foundation’s assistance was limited to helping with business registration and early development, and that their advice was concerned with the general business environment in the state and not with banana plantations or any particular sector.
Khat Htein Nan also denied that the foundation had a role in attracting Chinese investors. “The foundation has never introduced Chinese people to the companies we assist,” he said.
Asked about the state government’s recent finding that most plantations were operating illegally, Khat Htein Nan said the “government has to think about how to legitimise them. The government has to review them according to existing laws, by-laws and regulations.” He also said the plantations were more extensive in areas controlled by non-state armed groups, where companies that the foundation assisted did not operate.
State agricultural minister Mya Thein said he was aware of the indirect part that the foundation may have played in the expansion of banana plantations, and that the government would “look into” the role of the Ruby Dragon Foundation, among other actors.
NLD lawmaker U Naw Li, who represents Waingmaw-2 in the Kachin State parliament, told Frontier that he had been urging the state government since 2016 to take a position on the banana plantations, and to disclose what information it had about them. Despite the recent investigation, Naw Li doubted that state authorities would be able to overcome the powerful interests involved, at least in the short term.
“I don’t think the state government could solve this problem right away because the plantations are already so widespread, and the government has no power to influence armed groups and prominent businessmen,” he hold Frontier.
Notwithstanding land conflicts, he maintained that the plantations delivered little in the way of social and economic dividends to the state or country. “The [plantation] workers get very little money. Also, the Chinese never share their technology,” he said, referring to the tissue culture biotechnology that Chinese investors provide along with crucial oversight.
The plantations seen by Frontier were being worked by migrants from the Bamar heartlands of central Myanmar or from Rakhine State. In Mukchyaik village, Frontier met 10 workers from Magway Region, who each had to tend more than 8,000 plants.
U Kyaw Htun said he had moved from Magway with eight family members in 2016. Chinese company officers closely supervise his work, he said. “We don’t know how much fertiliser and insecticide to use on the plants, so the Chinese people tell me through a translator.”
He said the Chinese bring all the chemicals and most of the other inputs from China. Frontier saw cartons of chemicals bearing instructions only in Chinese strewn over the ground in the plantation.
The Chinese investors and overseers mostly hold border passes given out at the Kanpiketee border crossing, which are valid for two weeks. However, Mya Thein said his investigation team was unable to obtain a number, or even an estimate, of how many were regularly entering Kachin to engage in the plantation business.
Some banana plantations are also known to be on land formerly occupied by people displaced by fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army, which resumed in 2011 after the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire. More than 90,000 people live in 131 camps for internally displaced people (IDP) in Kachin State and most fled their homes before the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land and 2012 Farmland laws took effect.
A May 2018 study commissioned by the Durable Peace Programme, a consortium of international and Kachin-based NGOs, found that most people in the camps formerly had access to land in their place of origin, mainly through customary tenure or informal purchasing arrangements. It also found that most had made a living from agriculture and that most wanted to return to their villages.
However, the continuation or threat of armed conflict, the presence of landmines and the need to pass through Tatmadaw checkpoints have prevented many from keeping a close eye on their land, leaving it open to appropriation. For instance, applications by companies and individuals to use vacant, fallow or virgin land trigger a 30-day objection period, with a notice displayed outside local government offices. Many residents of IDP camps would be unlikely to see these notices, let alone act on them with the required “evidence”.
Even land registered under the Farmland Law is liable to be declared “fallow” if left unused for a number of years, making it eligible for commercial concessions. Although the market-friendly provisions of Myanmar’s land laws grant vague exceptions for “exceptional” or “disaster” circumstances, they do not explicitly protect the land rights of people displaced by conflict or offer adequate guidance for the restitution of land and property.
Some of those displaced by conflict who have been able to visit their land have found it covered by banana plantations. In Gara Yang village of Waingmaw Township, the new crop has overrun community forestland, said displaced resident U Tu Nang, who lives in an IDP camp along the Myitkyina-Bhamo highway in southern Kachin.
Plantations in the area had expanded rapidly in the last year, he told Frontier. However, this often happened with the consent of desperate, poorly informed camp residents who formerly used the land. This consent is negotiated by brokers hired by Chinese investors and their Myanmar partner companies, who visit the camps and try to convince residents to sign leases for their land.
“Why don’t you at least earn some money from your land?” the brokers tell them, according to Tu Nang, preying on widespread pessimism that camp residents will be able to return to their land any time soon. Tu Nang said the brokers also claim that leasing land to banana planters would prevent it from being permanently seized by the government or armed groups; some even promised that the banana growing companies would help displaced people get official land certificates. However, these leases are paper agreements without legal force; little would stop the companies from then seeking land use permits from the government for themselves, out of sight of the original owners.
“That is how they trap displaced people,” Tu Naing said. “Land is the only hope we have, and now companies are going to grab our land. Our hope has been destroyed by tissue culture bananas.”
He added that the plantations have spread in tandem with, and possibly been enabled by, the militarisation of the area. “There are many military checkpoints on the way to our village. We have to get army permission to enter.” Why, he asked, is the Tatmadaw giving companies planting bananas seemingly free rein, while restricting the original residents?
Back in Mukchyaik village, Layang Hkawng Dau said, “Chinese [businessmen] don’t worry that any action will be taken by the government. They do what they want because they are friends with armed groups and even government officials.
“I want to get my land back from the Chinese company,” he said. “Banana plantations never bring benefits for the Kachin people.”