Mud, sweat and tears for Myanmar's rice farmers

At the mercy of the weather and in need of more government support, the farmers at the backbone of a rice export recovery are hoping for better times.

The rain that flooded the rest of the country only made the corn in the Shan hills grow taller. Sai Un is hard at work, but not in his fields. His 101-year-old father-in-law has died, and while other farmers scramble to harvest corn before they plant rice, Sai Un, his wife and two daughters have spent the week preparing a feast.

Sai Un’s father-in-law, U Ba Aye, was farming when Myanmar was the rice bowl of Asia. Now Sai Un, 52, is the elder statesman, and the new master is sending the old one off in style.

The land has now passed through generations, which not uncommon for the small farms that employ almost two-thirds of Myanmar workers. Myanmar was the world’s leading rice exporter in the 30s and 40s, and the agricultural sector is finally recovering from half century of isolation, tyranny and stunted development.

Official figures show that Myanmar produces 12.5 million tonnes of rice a year and is the world’s fifth biggest exporter of the cereal. Production of other crops, such as corn and soybeans is also on the rise, though Myanmar has long been a leading exporter of beans and pulses.

With little in the way of large-scale commercial holdings, the agriculture sector depends almost entirely on small-holder farmers such as Sai Un, who has three acres (1.2 hectares), six water buffalo and one family – now a little smaller.

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U Ba Aye was of royal Shan blood, they say. The family’s Hsipaw Township farm faces the Dokehtawady River and most of the mourners cultivate plots along the waterway. Sai Un’s village raised money for an enormous pig, and the guests swap yarns and memories over bowls of pork and sticky rice under colourful tents erected in Sai Un’s yard. A focal point at the rites is a white and gold tun tan lu, a frame made of strips of bamboo decked with money, food, cooking utensils and other offerings for the monks who will pray over the dead man as he enters the afterlife.

“You know he was related to Prince Kya Sang?” an elderly guest declares, green cheroot gripped between his remaining teeth.

“He was his nephew,” laughs Sai Un, who has forgone his muddy field longyi for a clean white shirt, though the straw hat remains.

He gets up to greet funeral guests at another table, and the elderly farmer fires up another cheroot. It has been an excellent year, he says. The season was wet enough to plant corn instead of soy, which usually yields double the return for farms near the river. And the flooding elsewhere is sending rice prices through the roof.

“I only feel bad for the farmers in lower Myanmar whose crops have been destroyed,” he says.

Almost all of the rice grown in Myanmar is for domestic consumption. Last year it exported only 1.6 million tonnes of the 12.5 million tonnes it produced, which was cultivated on about half of its arable land. Most of this land is south of the temperate Shan hills in the Ayeyarwady Delta, where fickle weather can spoil one or both of the two crops usually grown each year.

The massive flooding this year in the delta and in other major rice-growing areas is certain to affect the harvest and Myanmar’s place in the global market. A few bad years and concern about export performance will be replaced by worry about shortages of the country’s most important staple.

“[Famers] are very vulnerable. For the time being there is no safety net for them,” says U Chit Khine, chairman of the Myanmar Rice Federation, an industry advocacy and development group.

Farmer Sai Un with his father. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

Farmer Sai Un with his father. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

During the last few decades, Myanmar has gradually recovered from the failed economic engineering of the socialist period, helped by the introduction of a free market policy in 2004. Gone is the price fixing, prescriptions and brutal quotas that all but destroyed the industry, yet with basically no government involvement in the sector, many small-holder farmers are at the mercy of the markets and the weather.

“Most challenges now are related to working capital,” U Chit Khine says. “Technology, storage, infrastructure, expertise.”

Last year the government enacted the Farmers’ Protection and Empowerment Law, which subsidies farmers and offers financial safeguards. U Chit Khine says the law is yet to be implemented in any meaningful way. The Myanmar Agriculture Development Bank offers credit to small-holder farmers and industry groups such as the Myanmar Rice Federation, and a growing number of non-government organisations, are working to provide microfinance loans and technological assistance, but it may not be enough.

“They need to be given subsidies if they’re compete with other ASEAN countries,” U Chit Khine says.

Sai Un paid cash for the diesel-powered “iron buffalo” that ploughs his fields alongside his traditional grass-fed ones. The family covers their living expenses with a small sundry shop and a few sacks of rice saved from each harvest. The income from the crops they either save or invest in new equipment, fertiliser and imported seeds. Two years ago Sai Un installed power in his home and bought a cell phone.

Sai Un’s iron buffalo is resting during the funeral, but the mechanical cultivator of his neighbour is working overtime. If his neighbour can get his rice planted early he can expect the best prices he’s ever received. The neighbour and some day labourers are rushing to pluck rice seedlings from a nursery plot while a group of women, knee-deep in mud, plant them in nearby paddy fields.

A shortage of casual day labour is becoming a big problem for rice growers during the planting and harvest seasons. The casual labour rate has risen to about K5000 a day as unskilled workers abandon long days of backbreaking toil in the fields for the lure of manufacturing jobs in the cities.

One of the men stops. There aren’t enough work gloves to go around and bundling the sprouts is rubbing his fingers raw. The man says he makes a living as a carpenter, but does farm work for extra cash. Some people in Hsipaw survive on seasonal labour, he says, but many have left for Mandalay.

Even many landowners are following suit, says U Chit Khine. In lieu of government incentives or financial safeguards, simply trying their luck in the expanding manufacturing and industrial sector is becoming an ever more enticing option for small-holder farmers. If you’re going to be poor, you might as well do it in the shade.

***

“We had to sell to the government at their price. It was about half what the crops were worth, but we couldn’t argue. And if we didn’t sell, they would take our land and give it to another farmer. They would tell us what to grow and if we didn’t grow enough, they would take our land.”

***

Thick, dark clouds are rolling in. At the farmhouse, the monks have finished their funeral chants. As the young men dismantle the tents and tables, a few old-timers lounge on Sai Un’s porch to smoke cigarettes.

Sai Un’s wife, Pa Mat, brings tea and seizes a chance to sit down. “I was sad at first, but then I was too busy to feel sad,” she says, her eyes still red from weeping.

Her father was one of the most prosperous farmers in Hsipaw. He hired Sai Un as a field hand after the young man’s father sold his land for cash after his wife left him. Sai Un was a simple, honest, and hardworking man, Pa Mat says, but he was clever and smiled a lot and told jokes. She gradually fell in love during their years working together in the fields.

Sai Un just smiles and shrugs. “She had to have someone to rely on.”

Those were the best times of the worst years. After the military seized power in 1988 and crushed a national uprising, the Shan civil war was a distant dread, but the government was a daily peril.

“We had to sell to the government at their price. It was about half what the crops were worth, but we couldn’t argue,” says U Myat Thein, one of the farmers on Sai Un’s porch. “And if we didn’t sell, they would take our land and give it to another farmer. They would tell us what to grow and if we didn’t grow enough, they would take our land.”

The district officials were just as bad. They would send henchmen to collect contrived taxes or blatant bribes. They were at the mercy of corrupt doctors who would demand triple or quadruple the prices for treatment and medicines.

With no one looking out for farmers, they looked out for themselves. They loaned to those who fell short of government quotas and pooled their meagre earnings to help out when someone had a medical emergency.

Sai Un speaks up. “Before they could do whatever they want, but now we can report them to the township officer, or one of the party offices… Only a few years ago there was a corrupt doctor demanding too much for services, but he was fired.”

Local governments and party offices are offering political leverage for farmers,

yet the scars are slow to heal. Regardless of subsidies and modernisation, U Chit Khine says one of the greatest challenges for the government has been resolving long-standing land ownership disputes.

Sai Un remains wary. “The government can never do as they did before, but we still never believe them,” he says. “We didn’t even need to vote in the last election, because everyone knew who would win.”

Militias don’t worry the farmers (“We don’t care if they’re fighting or not. We do our own job, they do theirs,” Sai Un says.), but they long for a strong Shan leader who can represent them in the emerging democracy – or protect them when their interests are threatened.

“If someone needs a machine, we all pitch in and loan him the money for it. If he needs a buffalo, we give one,” Sai Un says.

The village, which has about 80 households, serves as its own insurance. Villagers help one another with medical expenses, disaster relief and even combine aid and microfinance credit from NGOs. Like many other villages far from the big cities, it is a community forged by a century of foreign rulers, civil wars, coups, counter-coups, isolation and tyranny, and the single thing farmers can trust.

“We help each other any way we can,” Sai Un says. “We have to.”

The day after the funeral will be Sai Un’s first as the oldest man on the farm, and he, Pa Mat, their daughters, sons-on-law and a handful of hired workers will head back to the fields to pick, plough, chop, dig and plant as fast as they can.

“We won’t even have time to dream at night, only sleep,” he says.

There will be a few relaxed months of growing, then the harvest followed by more planting. It hasn’t always been easy, but is the only life Sai Un has known, and it will be the one he leaves for his own sons-in-law when he finally joins old U Ba Aye. For now at least in Hsipaw, life is good.

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