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Home>News Articles>Agricultural News in Asia in 2015>Myanmar Farmers Dream of Making Asia’s Rice Bowl
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 April 13 2015
 

In this picture, a farmer works in his golden-and-green paddy field on the outskirts of Yangon.

By: Jerome Taylor and Nan Tin Htwe, Yangon, AFP

Dressed in Chelsea, soccer shorts and a wide-brimmed hat, Than Tun toils away in his paddy field on the outskirts of Yangon, sweat pouring down his sinewy arms.

Grueling work that once helped Myanmar become the world’s largest rice exporter is today a Herculean and often lonely job for farmers striving to return the impoverished nation to its former grain prowess.

“No one comes here and asks about the difficulties we face, the 40-year old tells AFP during his break, citing voracious insects, crumbling irrigation channels and greedy middlemen as just some of the challenges preventing him making a profit.

For much of the early 20th century Myanmar was Asia’s rice bowl. But after a nominally socialist junta seized power in 1962, decades of mismanagement shattered the agriculture industry in a nation where 70 percent of inhabitants still live in the countryside.

The quasi civilian reformist government, which took over the military in 2011, is determined to resurrect the country’s reputation as a rice producer.

But rotting stocks, creaking infrastructure, heavily indebted farmers and minimal foreign investment are among the hurdles it faces.

Yet many economists believe helping farmers like Thank Tun offers Myanmar one of the fastest ways to both alleviate poverty and turn around the country’s fortunes.

‘Low hanging fruit’

Improvements in agriculture are one of the genuine “low hanging fruit” of reforms that could do much, remarkably quyickly,” said Turnell, an expert on Myanmar’s economy at Australia’s Macquarie University.

This is just a theory—we can see Vietnam as a wonderful example of what is possible. A country that could barely feed itself in the 1980s now dominates various food and commodity categories,” he added.

Sergiy Zorya, a Bangkok-based expert on rice production at the World Bank, agrees it is high time Myanmar and and the international community did more to invest in rice farmers.

“A significant increase in rice productivity and yields over the next decade would offer a major opportunity to drive GDP growth, increase farming incomes, increase exports and reduce poverty,” he said.

Rice is a good poverty alleviation tool, he explains, because money actually filters down to poor farmers rather than resting in the hands of corporations or middlemen.

He points to Cambodia, which has heavily invested in improving rice production and exports. Over the past 10 years, each one percent increase in GDP has resulted in reducing the country’s poverty rate by 5.2 percent.

“But in Laos, an economy dominated by hydro power and mining, a one percent growth in GDP results in just 0.5 percent poverty reduction,” he adds.

Myanmar is fortunate to have both huge natural resources and farming potential. But it is the former that has piqued the interest of foreign investors scrambling to access the sector as the country opens up.

Foreign investment

On the northwestern outskirts of Yangon lies Shwe Pyi Tar, a dusty suburb of wooden shacks overshadowed by huge warehouses, where most of Myanmar’s rice harvest is milled.

Kwaw Win, who owns one of the area’s larger processing plants, is desperate for the government to clear the hurdles for foreigners to invest in the rice industry.

“Our farmers need more knowledge about how to harvest efficiently.; At the moment we are creating a lot of waste,” he says as workers haul heavy sacks of unmilled rice behind him.

Lack of good storage facilities means more farmers are forced to sell their rice shortly after the harvest—when prices are at their lowest.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s mills are notoriously inefficient—some are steam-powered—and produce low quality rice that is hard to export and sold on the cheap.

In one of Kyaw Win’s warehouses a group of Japanese technicians install a gleaming new US$3million mill controlled by a complicated bank of computers.

The rice wholesaler is one of the few businessmen with hard cash to buy new equipment in an industry where most find restrictive financial rules prevent them from investing in modern mills.

Kyaw Win says the largest loan he can access locally is around US1.5 million, which he would need to pay off during the year. But the entrepreneur is among the lucky ones already expanding his business.

“We have plans for a bigger plant, which we have already ordered. That will cost US$5.6 million,” he said, adding that foreign investment would help other companies like his bring Myanmar’s rice production back on track.

Than Tun ia also a better future, but he has smaller goals, starting with decent irrigation.

The system for his paddy fields, only 20 kilometers (12 miles) from fast developing downtown Tangon, was built in his grandfather’s time while his village Htaw Bo still lacks electricity.

The government is not helping the farmers much. We have to take care of the irrigation system ourselves,” he says admitting that he has never voted as taken little interest so far in the landmark election slated for later this year.

“From what I can tell, there is nothing offered for us,” he concludes.

“We just have to be on our own.”

And with that he returns to his field

In this picture, a vendor works on his rice stall at a market in Yangon.

Source: The Chinapost