Empty Rice Baskets

Empty Rice Baskets

Empty Rice Baskets: An Analysis of the Causes and Implications of the August 2009 Flooding in Mon State
Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM)

Once known as the ‘rice basket’ of Asia, Burma’s long-standing reputation as a leading rice exporter has dwindled as its economy has collapsed after years of rule by several generations of military juntas. Within the country, the leading role of rice as a food product and commercial cash crop has persisted.

Yet despite its significant role in Burmese agriculture, the rice paddy farmers of Mon state, who have long been the backbone of rice production in Burma, are finding it increasingly difficult to continue to provide for their own livelihoods and those of their families.

The threat to paddy farmers is twofold, due to both man-made catastrophes as well as natural disasters. Due to the poor design and management of the Win-pha-non and Kataik dams, farms and villages throughout the area have been flooded as spillways running from the damn have failed. Thanks to excess rainfall, farmers in the 6 divisions of Mon State have lost hundreds of acres of rice paddies due to flooding. However, in addition to the destruction of their cash crops, paddy farmers face further loss of income and property from the abusive economic management practices of the Burmese government’s State Peace and Development Council’s (SPDC) agricultural programs.  Despite flooding, seasonal limitations, and lack of funding, government administrators demand that farmers replant their crops to meet government rice quotas.  While they are provided with no economic support, farmers are still expected to meet the quota or face the seizure of their land, and in some cases, forced manual labor.

Mon state is well known for its strong agricultural output and favorable climate.  Because of its value as an agricultural region, Mon state is home to 7 dams.  The 2 dams responsible for the widespread flooding that HURFOM has been documenting are the Win-pha-non and the Kataik dams.  Both these dams, according to sources close to the SPDC, were built to contribute to the prevention of flooding and to assist local farmers in the cultivation of rainy season and summer paddy fields.

In August 2009 particularly intense seasonal rains fell. In response, government administrators released excess water from the Win-pha-non and Kataik dams. In addition to widespread flooding from the excessive monsoon rainfall, the release of dam water has proved catastrophic, as water has been spilling over the poorly designed dam’s runoff canals around the area.

HURFOM estimates that within the 6 townships of Ye, Mudon, Thanbyuzayat, Kyaikmayaw, and Moulmein, in Mon state, there are about 160,000 acres that have been planted for the monsoon paddy season.  Of those acres planted, over 70,000 acres have been flooded by heavy rain in August 2009.

Concentrating on the causes, effects, and the potential long term impacts of this year’s flooding, HURFOM field reporters have met with nearly 100 farmers located near the Win-pha-non and Kataik dams, and throughout flood impacted areas in Mon State’s 6 Townships. Mon State SPDC authorities have provided no support or attention in response to flooding or to the farmers who have lost their paddy plantations. Farmers and area residents have voiced widespread concern that they will be unable to continue living in the area, due to the financial loss of their crops and the costs of having to replant. Besides individual losses, according to accounts from several HURFOM field reporters, residents and rice traders have predicted that the fallout from this crop failure will raise paddy and rice prices over the next few years throughout the country and precipitate a widespread food shortage. Rather then providing physical or financial support for the flooded region, the SPDC has responded by pressuring farmers to prepare their lands to replant their rainy season paddies in order to meet the state’s yearly rice production quota, despite the impossibility of a paddy crop ever reaching a mature harvestable state as the rainy season ends. Regardless, authorities have threatened farmers who are resistant or unable to replant their farms with land confiscation if they fail to replant their crop.

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