THANDWE, Arakan State — On a recent morning, Zeyar Lin was tending to his watermelons, which he grows in the dry season after the rice harvest at his farm near the town of Thandwe in southern Arakan State.
The 35-year-old once worked as a farm labourer in Thailand, but decided to return to his native Thayet Taw village to rent a plot of land. He used his savings and loans to buy a small tractor to plough and harvest his crop.
Zeyar Lin has been able to gain extra income from renting out his tractor as few farmers in this underdeveloped region can afford to buy farming machinery, while manual labour is in short supply due to outmigration.
Though he has been able to turn this situation to his advantage, he says many farmers here suffer from the lack of labour, low mechanisation and poor market access for farm produce.
“Our country doesn’t have much technology or good markets, so the farmers face problems. It’s not easy for us to survive,” Zeyar Lin said.
“The lives of farmers would improve if the government teaches knowledge on marketing strategy. Now I have to find the market by myself.”
Others said the labour shortage was a major hurdle for their businesses. “While paddy prices are falling, we have to pay higher wages to get labourers,” said Myint Thein, a farmer from Ale village.
Than Soe, from Kway Chaung village, uses machines and oxen to plough his four acres of paddy. But like other farmers who have machines, he struggles to maintain his as there is little technical support from the government or the company that sells the machines.
“As we cannot easily find mechanics to repair or maintain these machines, we want to get training to repair them,” he said. “We sometimes experience delays in planting and harvesting as our machines broke down.”
Addressing such problems is a major challenge for the local agriculture department, while other structural issues, such as a lack of capital for farmers and poor road and irrigation infrastructure, also hamper development in this remote area.
Tin Win Maung, an officer at the Thandwe Township Agricultural Department, said his 14-member staff needed more resources and manpower to cover the area.
“As we are understaffed, we can only visit one-third of all villages in this township,” he said, adding that he was not expecting any increase in funding to expand his staff and training programmes for farmers.
Tin Win Maung said current agricultural extension programmes teach new farming techniques and focus on issues such as improving fertiliser and pesticide use.
“I have recently requested the state-level officer of our department to include a mechanics course for the farmers,” he said.
The department also provides some of the farmers with free rice seeds and chemical fertiliser. “We can distribute 1,000 baskets of high-yield variety paddy seeds to 16 villages every year,” Tin Win Maung added.
All across coastal Arakan State, one of Burma’s poorest regions, farmers and fishermen are struggling to eke out a living. The fishing industry has experienced a sharp decline, while income from farming in the isolated area, which is separated from central Burma by the Arakan Yoma mountain range, remains low.
“Rice is Rakhine’s [Arakan State’s] main crop, but yields are low and the quality is poor, in part due to salt-water intrusion, inefficient cultivation and poor post-harvesting methods and equipment,” noted the 2015 annual report of the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund.
Win Naing, an Arakan State parliamentarian from Thandwe representing the National League for Democracy (NLD), said the central government should do more to boost agricultural production in the area.
“More farmers should be supplied with high-yield variety seeds,” he said, adding that microloans should be provided to farmers and the marketing chain improved.
“We want to promote the agricultural and livestock sectors in the country, while creating new markets,” he said during an interview with Myanmar Now in the NLD’s Thandwe office.
Local farmers said they were eager to get more government support and some complained that so far few were benefiting from the programmes.
Than Soe said his village had been passed over for support, though farmers desired loans, farming inputs and training.
“We are not doing well. It would be good if we could also get assistance. We want the agriculture department to come to our village and train farmers and share knowledge,” he said. “The department should give assistance such as fertilisers and loans, then our lives would improve.”
Another farmer, Nyunt Hlaing, said the situation of many farmers was dire and they were financially vulnerable, adding that he hoped the government would help farmers in the region.
“The business is not good because of bad weather and a lack of market. I only send my products to Thandwe market. Farming is good only in the rainy season; we don’t have enough water in the summer,” he said.
“I will continue farming because this is the only work I can do,” he said. “We can survive but we don’t have extra money. If one of us gets sick, we have to borrow money.”
This story was originally published by Myanmar Now here.