Chin farmers face uphill struggle to raise farm incomes
In Myanmar’s poorest state, farmers face challenges such as isolation and tough farming conditions as they seek to raise their incomes.
HTALAN YONG VILLAGE, Chin State - Htalan Yong’s villagers have long followed local farming traditions in order to live off the Chin State mountains’ sparse arable lands. Like previous generations, they changed farm plots regularly, cutting down forest for new cultivation, and leaving old areas fallow.
But in recent years, the farmers in Htalan Yong began to receive training and information from government agriculture offices and NGOs on how to intensify farm methods on terraced farmland and they learned how boost their harvests from permanent plots. Siang Cer, 38, and Ngun Cin Sung, 28, said they benefitted from the new methods and the harvests of each of their 1-acre fields doubled to about 60 baskets of rice. The production of vegetables, such as mustard leaf, beans and garlic, and fruits, such as pear and grape, rose too.
After a while, however, the Chin women realised they had another major challenge: finding sufficient demand for their surplus products. The nearest town, Falam, is 19 kilometres away and getting there takes 90 minutes by car on poor, winding mountain roads.
“If we don’t have a market, we can’t get more opportunity from higher yields and our crops will go bad,” said Ngun Cin Sung, a mother of two. “At present, we have to take a long time even to go to nearby areas.”
Siang Cer said, “The farming business is frustrating me at the moment. Although the yield is increasing we have a very limited market for our products.”
Isolation and lack of arable are among a number of challenges that Chin State communities face as they try to improve their desperately low living standards, which are the country’s worst.
Some 73 percent of roughly 478,000 population here live below the poverty line, according to the 2014 Census, while under-five child mortality is far higher than the national average at 90 per 1,000. Only 15 percent get electricity supply and the urbanisation rate is just 21 percent.
A World Food Programme 2013 assessment said Chin State’s main livelihood of shifting cultivation is under pressure and “food insecurity is therefore a cyclical and chronic problem.” It noted that, “The limited area of arable farmland on the steep hilly areas, and growing population of the state, shorten the shifting cultivation fallow period and lead to poor soil fertility.”
Climate change, irregular rainfall and deforestation also affect food production and raise the risk of natural disaster.
REBUILDING AFTER DISASTER
In 2015, massive landslides destroyed many villages and roads, and affected 23,000 people. Thousands of people were permanently relocated to safer areas by authorities and international organisations started projects to boost local incomes.
Harm Nawl Thang moved to Myothit Ward on the edges of Hakha, the China State capital, after his house and farm were affected by the landslides. Though his family is now safer, he said the new site has its problems.
“We get water here only two days a week, but in our former residential quarter we had water supply every day. The soil quality here is also lower and school is farther for the children,” he said.Following the disaster, the Asian Development Bank began a $10-million project to rebuild infrastructure and improve disaster risk management. Construction work on roads could be seen on roads at several sites in Chin State.
Ngun Cin Sung said she hoped Htalan Yong Village would benefit from better road connections and possibly electricity supply. The village’s current isolation meant that demand for her farm produce from traders in major towns such as Kalay, in Sagaing Region, is irregular.
“There is no guarantee for our livelihood. Although we grow crops, we have to sell them in low price when we have no demand from traders,” she said. “And when we face losses we have to borrow money at high interest rates.”
Kil Thu, operation manager of Chokhlei Organisation for Rural and Agricultural Development (CORD), said his NGO is training locals in 38 villages in northern Chin State in creating terrace cultivation, construction of water storage facilities and drainage systems, making organic fertiliser and improved vegetable farming.
Kil Thu said CORD is promoting terrace farming instead of shifting cultivation in order to stop deforestation, but the average arable amount of land is small and mountainside farming is difficult.
“More specific agricultural methods are required in this mountainous region when compared with the plains. And some fields of the terrace cultivation we helped set up were damaged due to frequent landslides,” he said. “But local farmers are patient when it comes to the damage to their land.”
Nugn Cin Sung, the Htalan Yong villager, said the programmes had helped farmers. “Before, grass and weeds were thrown beside the farm plots, but after the training courses we now turn them into compost,” she said. “We used to water the plants with buckets, but we now move water with drainage pipes. It saves time and work.”
A DIFFICULT EVIRONMENT
Kil Thu, of CORD, said NGOs and government also want to convince farmers to grow newly introduced seeds.“It takes more time to grow crops in mountainous area compared with the planes. So locals are interested in growing the kinds of plant they are already been familiar with,” he said. “It is therefore essential to distribute new seeds that can guarantee benefits to the farmers in this area.”
Hom Ki, an officer at Agricultural Department in Hakha District, said his office lacked enough rice seeds of different varieties for distribution to local farmers. He said the department wanted to promote orchards in the area, but so far it has only 5 acres of land to produce avocado, pear, lemon and chestnut saplings for distribution.
Salai Daniel Tun Tin, a deputy officer at Falam Township Agricultural Department, said he welcomed international aid projects, though he warned that Chin State needs structural, long-term improvements in infrastructure and agricultural production.
“Some NGOs… have a limited period of three or five years for each programme. When these groups left the area their programmes then stopped,” he said, adding that ways should be found to raise crop prices and improve their market access.