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Cyclone Nargis and the rice crisis

Tai Kyaw

Jun 20, 2008 (DVB), When Cyclone Nargis struck Burma on 2-3 May, it was a natural disaster that affected not only Irrawaddy division but also the whole of the country.

Irrawaddy division is considered the rice bowl of Burma due to its high level of rice production. A decrease in rice production is inevitable if rice cultivation cannot take place in time (in June), resulting in a huge impact on the nation's rice supplies. The already unstable political atmosphere may progressively worsen through the scarcity of rice and the escalation of rice prices.

How bad and deep the problem will be depends on how the military regime handles the current situation and the amount of rice produced in this harvest season. We first need to know how much we have lost in the cyclone in order to assess the extent and severity of the rice crisis.

The previous farming and agriculture-related statistics issued by the regime are not reliable. After the cyclone struck Burma, systematic data collection with regard to the death toll and damage did not take place properly. The junta could not take care of the cyclone assessment itself and did not allow foreign experts to help. The ASEAN assessment team only began to collect data on the damages on 9 May, over a month after the cyclone ravaged the country.

According to the regime's data, rice production in the whole of Burma totalled more than 1400 million tin last year. The regime said domestic consumption was 1000 million tin and there were over 400 million tin of rice stockpiled. This means the country produced approximately one third more than its actual consumption.

The International Rice Research Institute based in Manila, Philippines, says Burma produces 25 metric tons of rice a year and is the seventh highest rice producing country in the world. If Burma is producing a rice surplus of more than a third of its needs as the junta claims, the country would be able to export 8 metric tons of rice a year. However, the reality is that even the export of tens of thousands of tons had to stopped due to the cyclone, meaning the statistics of the regime cannot be trusted.

The recently cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy division produces 430 million tin of rice a year, which is about 30% of the whole country's annual production. The regime's data stated that there were over 5 million acres of paddy fields in Irrawaddy division, of which over 1.3 million acres were destroyed due to the presence of salt water brought by the cyclone. Even though the calculation of rice field damage was based on satellite photos taken by international organisations, a guess can be made that approximately one third of Irrawaddy division's farmlands were destroyed.

In terms of the death of buffalo and cows, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation stated that about 150,000 died. However, at the International Donors' Conference held in Rangoon on 25 May, minister for National Planning and Economic Development Soe Thar said almost 300,000 cows and buffalo were killed by the cyclone.

The aforementioned differences in the data make it even more difficult to predict the forthcoming rice crisis in Burma.

In any case, a large rice-growing region of the country has already been badly affected. The authorities are aware of the potential rice problem caused by the devastation, which can lead to political unrest and threaten their power. Hence, they forced the cyclone victims back to their villages in order to work on their farms despite the fact that those people were in enormous trouble after having losing their loved ones and houses, and having no food and clothing.

In reality, all cyclone-affected farmers, fishermen and salt workers want to go back to their homes and resume their occupations as soon as possible. No one wants to live in a situation of virtual house arrest, having no freedom and being dependent on the donations of others. They just do not want to return yet because they don't have anything. They don't even have shacks with roofs and walls, or drinking water and food in their places.

There is a great need to revitalize the rice cultivation in the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy division. Farmer's families should be provided with secure places to live. Assistance should be given to obtain drinking water for locals, such as pumping out the water from ponds and lakes full of salt water and cleaning them.

Since farmers have lost their stockpiled rice that was meant for their own consumption, they should be supported with rice for at least 4-6 months. Instead of buffalo and cows, hand tractors for cultivation should be provided to farmers in good time. Fuel also should be supplied constantly. The most important is that farmers obtain paddy seeds for germination, which can resist salt water.

Rice experts have pointed out that about 2 million tin of paddy seeds for germination are needed to grow rice this year. They have also requested that the military regime import paddy seeds from abroad. Everything needed for rice cultivation has to be in place by June. Otherwise, the late cultivation will have an impact on production in the coming rice collection season.

The massive need for relief, reconstruction and revitalization efforts in Burma cannot be tackled by the military regime and domestic NGOs alone but also requires the effective support, participation and expertise from the international community. The international community has offered and is still offering to help cyclone victims but the generals have refused to welcome the assistance. The regime has asked the world to give them donations but does not want any outsiders to enter the country. They said they did not need any expertise and that they could manage the catastrophe themselves, and that's why problems have deepened with each passing day.

Normally, international aid comes into a country with its own rules and regulations over how much assistance is to be provided, to whom and for what reasons. It also requires verification to ensure the assistance actually reaches those who are meant to receive aid, and that it is effective. Furthermore, independent organizations monitor the effective distribution of aid. None of the international donors used to accept a government like Burma's military regime that tells them to only give money and materials and not to come to the country.

Now every day, people in Irrawaddy division as well as Rangoon and Bago divisions have to eat wet yellow rice prepared from grinding cyclone-hit paddy after it has been exposed. This type of rice is not healthy but people have to consume it because it is cheaper than the regime's ration rice that costs 700 kyat a pyi (approximately 4 kg). This indicates that rice problems from Irrawaddy division have gradually spread to other states and divisions.

No matter what the military regime thinks of its own citizens, there are those who cannot turn a blind eye and turn away from the suffering for their people. They are private donors from various walks of lives. They have been collecting money, buying hand tractors and looking for paddy seeds for germination, and giving them to needy villages. Prominent comedian and director Zarganar was even busy purchasing tractors and looking for paddy seeds up until the night he was arrested by the regime.

The way the military regime currently deals with farming and agricultural problems in Irrawaddy division is terrible. Buffalo and cows are needed for cultivation so the regime forcibly buys them from other states and divisions for low prices. Money is needed so the regime collects it from villages and families on order. As for paddy seeds, the regime puts pressure onto farmers from other states and divisions.

Although news about the regime's donations of hand tractors to farmers are often shown on TV none of the villages from any village has received them free of charge. Farmers have to pay for tractors by installment with interest. Furthermore, the regime still restricts international relief operations that would help ease farmers' survival while working on cultivation.

In any case, it is certain that Burma's rice production will be reduced in the coming rice collection season. Whether there is proper management by the military junta, the amount of international assistance received by farmers and the price of fuel will determine the size and the impact of the coming rice crisis.


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