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What Burma (Myanmar) needs to fill its rice bowl

In Burma (Myanmar), once the world's leading rice exporter, indebted farmers are losing their land or cannot afford quality seeds. More aid and credit are available these days, but not nearly enough, say development experts.

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In one respect, Kyaw Myint has an advantage over many poor Burmese: he owns land. A 2009 study by Harvard Kennedy School found that between 50 percent and 70 percent of families in the Irrawaddy Delta are landless, usually due to foreclosure on unpaid loans. These families rely on jobs on farms and fishing fleets, both of which took a huge hit from the 2008 cyclone.

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“Farmers are employing fewer people and paying lower wages to those they do hire. There’s not enough work to go around,” says Andrew Kirkwood, country director of Save the Children, a British charity that works in the delta.

Glimpses of growth

One sign of change is a new rice industry association set up last year. It represents farmers, traders, millers, and agriculture companies, who can band together to lobby the government. In a break from Burma’s autocratic style, it elects its local officials in secret ballots, though its chairman is a government appointee.

Traders are keen to unlock Burma’s potential to export more rice after decades of erratic restrictions that deterred buyers, says Tin Maung Thann, an adviser to the association. He said some millers are already investing in new equipment in anticipation of a more market-based system. “If you can integrate our rice economy into the world economy, then I don’t worry (about the industry),” he says.

Some farmers also have access to new lines of credit. Up to 30 newly formed agricultural lending companies have begun extending loans to farmers at interest rates of around 2 percent a month, much less than that of loan sharks or rice merchants. Experts say that this private lending is still small, only applies to farmers with 10 acres or more, and isn’t a substitute for an overhaul of the undercapitalized government agriculture bank.

International aid officials say a turnaround in the delta’s rice industry must be matched with attention to other rural areas, where poverty and malnutrition is, if anything, even more acute. On average, 1 in 10 children in Burma die before they reach five, the fourth worst child mortality in the world, according to the UN.

Vulnerable areas include war-torn ethnic border regions and the dry zone in central Burma where farmers rely on cash crops such as beans, garlic, and peas. As aid workers get more access to these areas, the extent of the crisis has become clearer, says Chris Kaye, head of the World Food Program in Burma.

“It’s a chronic slow burn,” he says. “The fundamental problems in the rural economy, the lack of access to credit and inputs, and the erosion of livelihoods, are really coming home to roost.”

[Editor's note: Correspondent's name withheld for security reasons]

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