Agents for Change in Myanmar

Traveling across Myanmar during the course really helped to highlight how much change the country is undergoing as its continues along with the political and economic transitions underway. Our visits helped to highlight the role of external actors to these processes, in particular by understanding some of the ongoing work of the US Agency for International Development and the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development in Myanmar (MIID).

One of the highlights of our meeting at the US Embassy in Yangon was the importance of USAID work in supporting access to credit and mechanization in the Ayeyarwady Delta Region. Given the range of informal work that we saw across Myanmar, it was very interesting to hear about the challenges that some farmers have faced with recruiting labor and how this has helped to fuel mechanisation in the Delta. I was glad that we were able to discuss some of the benefits and trade off to this approach and better understand how farmers are adapting to changes in the types of jobs that people in Myanmar desire.

Visiting with MIID in Yangon allowed us to better understand the organization’s work, building upon our earlier visit to an MIID project. One of the elements of MIID that stood out to me was the mixture of Burmese staff and foreign staff. I think that a lot of organizations in the international development sector are criticized for not adequately utilizing local staff, so it was great to see that leaders within MIID were Burmese. Having voices that intimately understand some of the communities that projects will be targets seeming as though it would help in the planning and implementation of effective projects.

Overall, the visits to these organizations left me with a sense of both how much development activity there is within Myanmar but also the many issues and challenges that remain. Hearing directly from farmers, highlighted that impact that organizations such as MIID can have with communities and the important work that they do. However, I hope that as Myanmar continues to develop that there is more government capacity to actively address some of the challenges faced by various communities in Myanmar. 

It’s organic! Or is it?

*Note: We’re not actually still in Myanmar! As others have mentioned, the internet there has not yet developed quite enough to cope with 40 students desperate to Skype loved ones, check the news, Facebook stalk, and get lost in Youtube videos, all at the same time. Hence I’m posting this post – written many days ago – from my home in Ithaca, where the internet is wonderfully rapid but the weather much more miserable and the beer vastly more expensive.


“All this food is locally produced! Delicious! Organic!” declared the manager of the restaurant we were eating at. He was referring primarily to the tomatoes that we had just seen being treated with pesticide on nearby hydroponic farms on Inle Lake. While some pesticides are organic, these ones definitely weren’t!

Throughout our travels in Myanmar, we have heard the word ‘organic’ used by all kinds of people; from farmers and extension agents, to university professors, researchers, and now restaurant managers. It’s interesting because there are some words that don’t exist in Burmese, so it’s easy to spot when a farmer is talking about organic methods and the use of chemical inputs because the English jumps right out at you! Sometimes the terms are used correctly but – more often – there are varying degrees of misunderstandings concerning organic farming. In one of our classes last semester, students were given slips of paper to pin along a line from 100% conventional farming to 100% organic farming. Even in this group of agriculture, plant science, veterinary, and international development students, there was some confusion; some conventional practices were grouped under organic, and vice versa.

A bag of conventional fertilizer spotted in a farming area described to us as “organic”.

It’s no different in Myanmar; the term organic seems to be used as a buzzword alongside “high quality”, “local”, and “safe”, rather than to describe the specific farming methods used. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), organic agriculture relies on ecosystem management rather than external synthetic inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, veterinary drugs, genetically modified seeds and breeds, preservatives, additives, and irradiation. Instead, farmers are encouraged to use site-specific management practices that improve long-term soil fertility and prevent pests and diseases.

It’s easy for things to get lost in translation over here, but to me it seems that most farmers in Myanmar associate the word organic with a complete embargo on pesticides and fertilizers. This doesn’t have to be the case though as there are organic pesticides (derived from natural origins such as pyrethrin or lime sulphur) and fertilizers (generally manure or vegetable matter). Conventional and organic farming – and their agricultural inputs – both have their pros and cons, and the methods chosen by a farmer will depend on their crop, market, farming history, and national regulations.

Most importantly though, actors in the agricultural sector should work to eliminate the confusion around organic farming methods, while the practice is still in the early stages in Myanmar. Farmers with knowledge of organic practices could then cultivate certified organic produce for sale at a higher price on the international (and potentially domestic market), while consumers would be able to make a more informed choice about the food they eat.

Reflections

Written a few days ago, having waited patiently for internet:

Yesterday my bags were full of half dried clothes after washing them in the sink and drying them in the room. This contrasted strangely with the lavishness of the hotel.

We have visited several successful farming and processing operations, dairy, seedbank, agrifarming, coffee, and it was encouraging to see so much potential and reflect with professors and peers on improving livelihoods. But as Myanmar develops, will the new access be distributed equitably? How should international assistance promote the livelihoods of those whose lives would be most improved.

A tour of the kind we are doing however, has its drawbacks. It must be largely formal and remain somewhat superficial — we spend a lot of time on formalities at tables and engaging with the already-successful elements of the systems. We also visited an extension experimental farm that left us with many questions about their methods and rational, but it is difficult to investigate these with brief encounters and through a few translated questions. I was discussing with one of my peers how much more informative it would be to interact with one of the developing systems on a longer term basis. This of course would be a very different sort of field trip. Hopefully some of us will get the opportunity to engage in this way soon.

Our most recent stop, a simple night at Sky Palace in the the deserted capital city of Naypyidaw, was one of the more surreal experiences of the trip. The planned city is characterized by massive empty roads and extravagant buildings, filled mostly with a vigilant and eager-to-please wait staff with little to do. I read that the city has been described as feeling like an enormous film set. Officially designated as the site for ceremonies, international events, summits, and Burmese academy awards. It was no doubt designed in part for the cameras. Parallels could be drawn with the creation of DC as a strategic military location and city devoted to exhibition and politics.

I’m posting this now several days later, on the last day of our trip, at an opportune moment of brief internet connectivity. We had a beautiful night yesterday, a wonderful farewell dinner, and speeches, and conversation, and a silly and entertaining fashion show, and then we spent time on the beach. Earlier we were able to enjoy the university of our Burmese peers, and hear their delightful presentations about our trip. We also discussed our group papers for next semester, which will be about some aspect of development in Myanmar. We are leaving in an hour or so, so better start packing, but to end, for the most part all of us are excited about our new connection with Myanmar, after having arrived not knowing what to expect, and having a profound and stimulating experience here.

Pests and Pest Management in Myanmar

Throughout the past 10 days traveling around Myanmar, we have seen several different farms and businesses related to agricultural. We have seen everything from a small farm worked by a woman and her family, to larger farms with several hired staff. Throughout all of the farms, I’ve kept a close lookout for the pests that could be hindering the crop yield but unfortunately it is not hard to see. Several of these places follow, or say they follow, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) which stops them from spraying large amounts of pesticides on their crops, leading to more insect and fungal damage. However, the GAP standard here seems quite different, or possible just a buzzword used, as several of these farms were spraying pesticides with the workers using no protective equipment and it being fairly close to the harvest season.

That being said, it does vary quite drastically from these small village farms to larger, almost company ran farms. These larger farms seem to have much less of a pest problem, and we were able to see them spraying for fungus when we were there. They used an interesting tactic of mixing four pesticides together for a blanket fungal control, something that would never fly in the US. So, you can see that they keep things closely monitored. The small farms seem to have much more difficulty. One woman, when asked how she uses pesticides, she answered by saying she doesn’t really know because the instructions are in english so she is unable to use the proper amount. She made a small circle with her hand, slightly larger than a bottle cap and said she uses this much with a gallon of water. Not knowing what it is, this could either be way too much or not nearly enough to protect her crops.

One of the largest pest problems observed was at a village. The cabbage fields were swarming with cabbage white butterflies whose larva had done considerable damage to the plants. Due to the remoteness of the village, they did not really have access to a proper pest control measures. Another large pest problem was at a research station, which held trainings and grew plants to sell to farmers. Looking at there crops you could see a lot of larval damage to the leafy crops. Inside at there hydroponic greenhouse, there were aphids on every plant. Again, due to them following GAP, they could not spray to control these aphids. Additionally, I inquired about biological control, which is something that the universities are starting to look at and try and get going. But the problem is that biocontrol here is expensive and takes a lot of time to get in as there are not really any companies or even universities who rear the natural enemies of pest for use in green houses and agriculture in general.

YAU and seed bank

Today, we visited Yezin Agricultural University in Naypyitaw. YAU is the only agricultural university in Myanmar. At YAU, we attended the annual symposium and went around the convocation hall for the tour. At the convocation hall, there was senior researcher showing the demonstration of hydroponically grown lettuce and other green vegetables as well as a display of various insects and plant pathogen specimens. While looking at those specimens, I saw some plant pathogen that is quarantined in the States which was fascinating, but a bit worried about its potential danger. This whole tour of symposium showed the enthusiasm of Burmese researchers and professors in agriculture.

About 5mins away from YAU, we visited seed bank. We went into the short-term seed storage facility where there are hundreds of germplasms stored in alphabetical order. A germplasms can be stored in the short-term facility for up to 10 years. After 10 years, they are sealed and moved to the medium-term storage which can be stored up to 25 years. It was surprising that when they seal germplasm, they just dry seeds up to 7% moisture content without usage of any desiccant or some other preserving method for a better quality of seeds. We also saw many collection of rice and bean germplasms that are native to the Myanmar. Their endeavor to keep the germplasm was incredibly valuable and to be grateful for, especially wild and primitive cultivars. A germplasm is one of the most important resources for keeping genetic diversity and for the next generation.

The Roads of Myanmar

Traveling for over a week in Myanmar has made some serious realities come to light. The many roads that connect the cities and towns of this nation are in many cases quite different from comparable roads in the United States. Roads are built using much more manual labor than in the United States, our bus has passed multiple job sites with very little road paving equipment but many laborers with hand tools laying asphalt. Good roads seem to be centered around military and industrial centers, as they would take priority in the transportation network. Our flight to Bagan to Mandalay took less than 30 minutes once we were in the air but saved us over 4 hours of driving by bus. Travel is slow overall by road with a 40 mile drive back to the hotel taking 2 full hours. We reached a speed of over 50 miles per hour yesterday on our way to the capital and it felt like we were flying! Speaking of the capital, Naypyidaw has a 16 lane highway running through it to handle exceptionally large amounts of traffic, except there is no traffic due to the remoteness of the city in regards to Yangon. Overall the roads will hamper growth in Myanmar unless they are addressed.

What we can learn from the interaction of Cornell and Burmese students

I think what sets this course’s excursion to Myanmar apart from any other international field research trip has a lot to do with having Burmese agriculture students traveling and learning alongside us. There are 12 students from various universities across Myanmar, including Yezin Agriculture University and Pathein University to name a few, joining us for our exploration of their home country. They are here not only to learn more about improving the agricultural sector of Myanmar with us, but to learn more about Cornell students, and how we can learn from our experience with American agriculture.

I remember feeling a bit intimidated walking into the Yangon airport and being greeted by the students and Dr. Khin Mar Cho. They were so kind and excited to meet us, but I couldn’t help but feel incompetent beside them. I hadn’t grown up in Myanmar and I just felt that all that I had read, researched, and learned about in class every Friday this semester would not compare to the actual experience they had walking around and living in the country. These students had that slight advantage over me, and I focused in on that insecurity a lot the first two days of the trip.

However, what I failed to take into account was that the Burmese students were just as intimidated, if not more, as I was. I’m writing this post at the tail end of Day 9, and I can say now after speaking to more and more of the Burmese students at various events throughout the trip, I’m beginning to relate our initial insecurities. I didn’t really think about how nerve-wracking it must have been on their end to greet 50 enthusiastic Americans, all who are obviously fluent in a language they didn’t feel too comfortable speaking regularly. And then on top of that, to spend almost every second of the day trying to improve their language skills, make friends, sightsee, and focus on retaining all the significant information about the people we listened to, the plants you’ve seen, and the level of development found in each region– things you can only understand and appreciate by being immersed in a foreign land with foreign people.

I can truly say that I’m more than pleased by having the opportunity to meet and befriend a lot of the Burmese students. I’m learning so much more from them than just “How do you say ___ in Burmese? (which I do ask A LOT). I’m learning that people come from all diverse backgrounds in all different corners of the world with such varying elements and livelihoods, but what unites us is that we can all come together to talk about and appreciate the things we are passionate about– improving development, the environment, bettering people’s lives, and producing a food source that is safe and healthy in quality and in practice. But even beyond that, I’m learning how to become a better person: how to relate to others, how to be more aware, and what I can do myself to make others people welcome and invited in my presence.

I have learned and feel confident that I will retain so much more information and skills than probably any other course I have taken at Cornell. Being able to apply your certain expertise on an immersion field trip like this is so rewarding and exciting because you really feel like you are on to the next greatest discovery or innovative idea. And having the Burmese students here as a resource, reference, and, finally, as friends makes it all the more enjoyable.

Learning Burmese

For the first few days of the trip, I was content with knowing only two phrases in Burmese: hello (roughly pronounced “min-ga-la-bah”) and thank you (roughly “jay-zu-bah”). Though I love learning languages and the world of communication and opportunity that they open, I hadn’t yet convinced myself that I had the necessary brain power to learn Burmese on top of participating in all of the trip activities and getting to know the other 50+ students and faculty during our short stay in Myanmar.

Earlier this week, however, I came to my senses. Putting in the extra effort to learn a language is always always worth it. I could and would engage and learn a few words at the very least. My bus buddy and roommate, Yoon, graciously agreed to help me.  She’s a Burmese PhD student at Yezin Agricultural University and, as I experienced that day, an excellent language tutor. For an entire hour-long bus ride, Yoon patiently taught me the Burmese pronouns (roughly “che-ma” = I/me, “ni” = you, etc) and how to say “I want to eat” (we were on our way to dinner), as well as several other useful phrases such as “I’m well” and “It’s nice to meet you”. As we worked through the pronunciation over and over, I began to get a feel for it. Turns out a bit of brain power goes a long way when you have the right teacher!

I’m looking forward to continuing our lessons as the trip continues. Until then, “ta-dha” (bye!)

Today we were asked to write a post…

 

Today we were asked to write a post, so here I am writing the post.

We visited Yezin Agricultural University in Naypyitaw, and attended to their professor’s speech for 5 minutes. The professors gave the speech in English, even though both the professors and the student audience were Burmese. My first reaction is that “Why is he speaking in English? Is it necessary to speak in English when all the audience were Burmese students? How much language barriers are there?” Then we were told that Myanmar students are taught in English but always discuss in Burmese. Because their textbooks and exams are in English, students have to remember everything by heart without fully understanding the concepts.

We also visited a frozen vegetable company, Myanmar Agri Food Co. Ltd. This company uses technologies from Japan and export frozen vegetables to Japan. We tasted their boiled vegetables that were kept frozen for two years, and the texture and taste was great. Farmer were given seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and training to grow vegetables. However, I don’t think this should be the end of looking for solutions for small-scale farmers. They’re still used as cheap labors and working on their one-acre farm from day to night.

Both education system and export business are transiting along with the changes in Myanmar. I hope Myanmar can succeed in its own way, rather than blindly following the path of developed countries.

 

A different rural take on the ‘urban promise’

Throughout our explorations here in Myanmar, I’ve had many chances to think critically about how some of the major concepts in international development take shape in the Burmese space. We’ve engaged in conversations about labor, land, resource access, climate change, and a smattering of other important themes that have built on the perceptions and opinions I’ve accumulated in my still-brief experience in international development projects around the world – but one thing that has really taken a unique meaning for me during this trip is the notion of resilience.

In Myanmar, as in other parts of the world, those engaged in agricultural labor are often among the poorest, and their options the fewest. Globally, farming communities have made unique, inspiring efforts to innovate and adapt to an ever-changing political, social, and physical environment. Indeed, farmers here in Myanmar and elsewhere are relentlessly inquisitive, and constantly driven to improve their livelihoods for the sake of themselves and their communities. That, I suspect, is a true example of resilience.

A homestead at sunset near Mandalay.

What I’ve found to be specific to the Myanmar context with respect to resilience is that, unlike my observations in some other parts of the world, the villagers we’ve interacted with have not cited the promise of urban sector labor as a desirable way to achieve security on the long term. In countries such as India, for example, many farmers view agriculture as an undesirable, unprofitable livelihood, and encourage their children to pursue other, “greater” opportunities in cities – whether nearby or afar.

In fact, in my research for this class I’ve learned that Myanmar, too, is experiencing an upswing in urban migration for similar reasons. But this is not what I’ve witnessed so far in context. I’ve gotten the impression that, contrarily, farmers in Myanmar view long-term resilience for rural communities as coming from development and opportunities in the communities themselves. They wholly wish for enrichment of their longstanding agricultural traditions, rather than relocation for the sake of stumbling upon vague opportunities in Mandalay, Yangon, or Bangkok.  If this is truly the case, I imagine that communities might be more receptive to extension and outreach services, local education opportunities, and adoption of improved agricultural techniques/technologies than communities that are highly reliant on remittances from urban migration as a critical source of income.