Nobody in Ma Haung village in Kachin state in Myanmar (Burma) really anticipated this: the fertilisers and pesticides, which initially proved to be so beneficial, boosting the rice harvest and controlling pests, simply stopped being effective. Yet worse still – the fields and soil seemed constantly to deteriorate, and the autumn harvest was no longer enough for the families to survive all year round.
More and more chemicals
“Our farms were in a sorry state. We had no idea about the catastrophic effect of chemicals on the fields. But we noticed that every year we were needing more fertiliser to produce a respectable harvest”, says rice farmer, Tu Aung. Many families were forced to arrange loans at bad rates to find the money for the fertiliser. In no time at all they were caught in a spiral of debt leading to even deeper poverty. The situation was worse for those families who owned no land at all.
War, hunger and debt
The constant food shortage, debt and lack of access to fair loan terms weighed heavily on the shoulders of the local people who were already shaken by decades of civil war in the northern state of Kachin. To tackle the root causes of the multiple problems, a tailored support package was called for, which the “Anglican Development Department (ADD)”, a partner organisation of SWISSAID and also known as “Aung Sett Kyar”, delivered to the north-eastern villages in this state. The “Farmer Field Schools” that have been established are particularly successful. At the field schools, farmers are learning a new method of rice cultivation (Systematization of Rice Intensification, SRI), and to treat the soil more gently, which promises even bigger harvests. “I’ve been a volunteer teacher at the field school since 2011. We demonstrate the benefits of SRI to the other farmers, as well as organic fertiliser and natural pest control methods”, remarks teacher Tu Aung. If they have any questions about organic agriculture the farmers share their ideas in learning groups outside the classroom.
At the farmer field school
Farmers like Tu Aung, who is particularly keen to innovate, assume a pioneering role in the “Farmer Field Schools”. Here, they act as teachers to demonstrate the benefits of currently unfamiliar methods to their neighbours. “I have been a volunteer teacher at the field school since 2011. We opened the school thanks to SWISSAID’s support, and we show other farmers the advantages of SRI, organic fertiliser and natural pesticides.”
Harvest (almost) doubled
The conversion to new arable farming methods means there is a lot at stake for the farmers. As their livelihood and that of their families mainly depends on rice cultivation, it is important to minimize the potential risk of failed harvests. A model farm therefore offers a neutral practice ground. “Along with nine other farmers, I planted half a field on the model farm using the new SRI method, and I treated it with organic fertiliser. Instead of the usual 25 to 30 baskets from this area we managed to harvest 50 baskets of rice. We earned a bit of money by selling the surplus,” rice farmer La Ban Naw Rain proudly comments.
Working together instead of in isolation
Such positive experiences at the field schools also clearly show La Ban Naw Rain and his colleagues how working together with other farmers can be truly worthwhile. They are also becoming more influential as a lobby because their input is important when negotiating higher prices with the buyers of their products. SWISSAID supports the farmers to contact traders so they can also sell the farmers’ products outside the local village market.
Landless families need more support
Farmers without land or scarcely owning any land require a bit more support – apart from their working animals that help them to do their daily work. These farmers are right at the bottom of the social ladder. Sometimes they have to pay the richer farmers high rents for the privilege of using the land and animals to cultivate their own food supplies. Since the ADD provided landless families with working animals, the situation is noticeably improving and they are slowly managing to break away from their dependency on the landowners and creditors. Thanks to the manure, which is used as fertiliser, the fields also give higher crop yields.
Loans promoting independence
Access to fair loans in particular gives the women the flexibility they need. They no longer constantly toil to cope with the most urgent challenges. They can now concentrate on activities, which put a few kyats in the family coffers, for example to pay for the children’s schooling.
Farmer Si Mar Sai explains, “I received a sow from SWISSAID. One year later she gave birth to six piglets. I sold three piglets and earned 105,000 kyats (120 US dollars). That’s enough to send my children to school. I use pig manure as fertiliser for my garden.” Breeding animals and cultivating market gardens close to the house bring substantial benefits relatively quickly for the families, as well as perfectly complementing each other: not only is food cultivated in the garden, but also green fodder for the sows. Their manure, in turn, ensures that everything in the vegetable beds grows and thrives prolifically.
Focus on animal welfare
The breeders attend courses to learn everything there is to know about animal husbandry. Several farmers are also completing training as local vets to vaccinate all the animals and, if necessary, to call in at the family farms. The breeders know that it is important to look after the sows so that they remain “lucky pigs”.
Project code: MY 2/14/04
Partner organisation: Anglican Development Organization
Direct beneficiaries: 7,600 men and women