Myanmar farmers dream of making Asia’s rice bowl

By Jerome Taylor and Nan Tin Htwe, AFP

YANGON — Dressed in Chelsea soccer shorts and a wide-brimmed hat, Than Tun toils away in his paddy fiezld 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 from 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 Than 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 quickly,�� said Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar’s economy at Australia’s Macquarie University.

��This is not just theory �X 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 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 a 0.5 percent poverty reduction,�� he adds.