Improving harvests in a cyclone's wake

Myanmar, November 28, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Benny Manser/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Half of Tun Myint's acreage will yield high-quality rice seed, provided by Mercy Corps. Photo: Benny Manser/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Benny Manser/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Tun Myint has been farming rice since the age of 15. Photo: Benny Manser/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Benny Manser/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Tun Myint's rice fields are only a few weeks from harvesting. Photo: Benny Manser/Mercy Corps

It takes three hours by boat from the Mercy Corps offices in Laputta town to reach the village of Kyu Taw in Myanmar’s Irawaddy Delta. Bamboo bridges across narrow creeks connect the 300 households who live here. To an outsider, it’s hard to tell this village was badly hit by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 — until you talk to farmers like Tun Myint.

Tun Myint, 61, has been farming since he was a teenager. Smiling broadly under a bamboo hat, he greeted us and was eager to take us to see his 20 acres of rice fields. The stalks were starting to gradually change shades from a light tinted green to golden brown. In two weeks he’ll start harvesting, employing locals to help him.

Such a bounty was difficult to envision after Cyclone Nargis, which destroyed rice fields and killed 138,000 across the region. Tun Myint lost 10 relatives to the storm.

"Nearly all of my rice I planted in May 2008 — prior to the cyclone — was destroyed,” said Tun Myint, explaining that the cyclone hit during rice-planting season. “I needed to find seeds from other neighboring villages, after I was able to collect some I was able to start replanting. Compared to other villages we were lucky in the sense that in my village there was not too much saltwater washed in from the sea to the paddy fields, so I could resume planting quite quickly."

Since the cyclone, Mercy Corps has been helping Tun and 131 other rice farmers in Kyu Taw by creating a seed bank. Each participating farmer member received 60,000 Kyat — about £48 U.S. — for seeds and fertilizer. After each harvest, they put some of their rice seed into storage as insurance against future crop failures. So far, all of the farmers have contributed their share.

Tun Myint is also part of a Mercy Corps effort in 96 villages in the area to increase the quality of rice seed. He was given enough high-quality rice seeds to plant five acres worth of rice. The goal is to convince farmers to pay for better (non-GMO) seeds that yield more rice and show better resistance to droughts and pests.

These seeds are for future rice seed production only, not for eating, so the idea is that farmers growing these high-quality seeds can make money selling them to neighbors. Mercy Corps is helping finance these purchases.

Tun Myint was initially apprehensive. "I was worried at the beginning of the rice seed production as it was really risky and I wondered if it could bear fruit, but now I am really happy with the result.” He says he’s been able to grow an extra 210 kilos of rice with the high-quality seeds — about 17 percent above normal.

We left Kuy Taw to the sound of distant thunder and the sight of ominous clouds — a reminder of the vulnerability of these rice farmers to nature’s whims. But with the insurance of rice seed stockpiles, and the introduction of higher-quality seeds, Mercy Corps is doing what we can to ensure the harvests are regular and plentiful.