Rice exports for the first half of this year were just over a third of the figure exported in the same period last year, marking a significant drop for the once-billed ‘ricebowl of Asia’.
Figures released by the Burmese government’s Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) show that exports fell from 750,000 tonnes in the first six months of 2009 to just over 270,000 this year.
It comes at a time when both global demand for rice is rising and predicted global exports are also increasing: the US Department of Agriculture puts global rice export projections for 2010/11 at 31.4 million tonnes, a six percent increase from the previous year.
The cause of Burma’s fall however can be largely attributed to mismanagement on the part of the military government, with 2009’s comparatively healthy figures following on the heels of cyclone Nargis in May 2008, which destroyed an estimated 1.75 million hectares of farmland, or 30 percent of the wet season rice area for Burma.
In the six months following the cyclone, Burma exported 105,000 tonnes of rice, but the government was heavily criticised by rights groups who alleged that millions were still going hungry in the Irrawaddy delta area. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned that it could take up to three years before the economy recovers from the cyclone.
One rice trader told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the nosedive in exports this year was a result of administrative failures in the country.
“Frankly, we traders have abundant rice in stock but there were some problems, including unreasonable delays in processing export licences during the peak export season, that is, the first six months of the year,” he said.
With current global rice supply exceeding demand, Thailand and Vietnam, the world’s largest and second-largest rice exporters respectively, have been forced to slash their prices. Thailand still managed to export 8.57 million tonnes in 2009, against Burma’s total exports for that year of 1.09 million tonnes.
Before military rule took a hammer to Burma’s economy and infrastructure, the country had been the world’s leading source of rice, exporting 3.4 million tonnes during its peak year in 1934.
The director of the Myanmar Rice Traders Association (MRTA), Dr Myo Aung Kyaw, predicted in November last year that Burma would soon match Vietnam’s rice output, which reached six million tonnes in 2009, but warned that the country still lags behind competing exporters in terms of modern equipment and maintenance systems.