Farm debt rises as Myanmar floodwaters recede

By: Yola Verbruggen

KANBALU: Knee-high elephant grass has taken over the paddy where Pu Tin’s rice should now be growing. Like other farmers across Myanmar whose land was destroyed by floods, she now worries that she will miss the next rice harvest and her family will face crippling debt as well as hunger.

“If we have no rice, we can’t eat,” said Pu Tin, as she looked across her flooded farmland in Kanbalu Township in central Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, which was inundated for three days, destroying most crops.

One month after torrential rains submerged much of Myanmar, the floodwaters are finally receding. But the government says 773,000 acres of farmland were damaged, including nursery plots containing seedlings for the next crop.

Time is running out for farmers like Pu Tin. If they don’t get a crop into the ground within two weeks they will miss out on the harvest in November and December.

“If the seedlings are not provided in time, communities and rice farmers will have to rely on food assistance for the coming six months before the next harvesting season,” said Toily Kurbanov, Country Director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The government says it has set aside $1.2 million to supply paddy seeds in western Rakhine state, which took the brunt of torrential rains as Cyclone Komen spun out of the Bay of Bengal before making landfall in neighbouring Bangladesh. More than 123,000 acres of land have already been replanted in flood-affected areas throughout the country but help has yet to reach Kanbalu.

“There is no plan yet for providing seeds to farmers, but we have requested it from the state,” said Nyein Han, a project officer at the agriculture department of Shwebo District, which oversees Kanbalu Township.

King of the crops

While Myanmar is also a major producer of pulses like beans and lentils, rice is king.

A bed of rice provides the foundation for most meals, whether it’s a heavy dinner of pungent curries or a light lunch of fermented tea leaf salad. Government statistics show that rice accounts for 75 percent of the diet in Myanmar.

In the early 1960s, Myanmar was the world’s largest rice exporter, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But agriculture production declined along with other sectors of the economy during decades of mismanagement under military rule, which began with a 1962 coup.

Myanmar, which has been led by a quasi-civilian, reformist government since 2011, still exports rice, although the floods have put a temporary stop to that. Earlier this month, the Myanmar Rice Federation announced a suspension of rice exports until mid-September to prevent severe shortages in the country.

Shortages could drive prices of rice even higher than they have done so far. Some flood-affected areas have seen an increase of as much as 26 percent more than this time last year, according to New Crossroads Asia, a Yangon-based financial advisory and research firm.

In Hakha, the capital of Chin State, flash floods and landslides wiped out rice paddies as well as roads, cutting off routes used to bring rice and other supplies into the area.

“There is nowhere to buy rice. Some people have money, but there is nothing to buy,” said Tluang Lian Hnin, a relief coordinator in Hakha who has spent the past three weeks on food rations.

Debt relief?

Increased food prices will only add to the woes of farmers, especially if they cannot plant in the next two weeks and are unable to harvest this winter.

Many farmers in Myanmar are heavily indebted, often to banks as well as loan sharks who charge 10 percent interest – a crippling rate that makes repayments impossible to meet.

“It goes without saying that we are worried we cannot repay our loans,” said Pu Tin. “Even before (the floods) we struggled with repayments, because then the lands were too dry.”

Pu Tin said she has a US $545 loan with the state-owned Myanma Agricultural Development Bank.

UNDP is urging banks and other institutions to ease the impact on farmers by extending the repayment terms on loans, reducing interest rates or even injecting new working capital to help them get back on their feet.

“This is not business as usual,” said Kurbanov. “We hope that the lenders will consider softening their loans so as not to inflict secondary damage on the farmers, like going into default on their loans.”

Flood-affected farmers fear the worst if they cannot get some form of financial relief, as it might force them to take measures that would push them even deeper into poverty.

Ko Min Khaing said that three of his eight acres of rice paddy have been destroyed, leaving him unable to meet the repayments on his debt of about US $300 unless he finds the money elsewhere.

“We will have to sell our cattle or our other belongings,” said Ko Min Khaing.