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At the mercy of Mother Nature and Burma's generals

Famine forces thousands to do whatever they can to survive in Chin state ... On the surface, things can seem brighter than usual for villagers from Matupi in Southern Chin state of Western Burma, home to some 500,000 people ...

Famine forces thousands to do whatever they can to survive in Chin state

On the surface, things can seem brighter than usual for villagers from Matupi in Southern Chin state of Western Burma, home to some 500,000 people. Fathers, mothers and children are busy in the paddy fields reaping their new crop of rice, which has just ripened this past month. However taking a closer inspection of the situation, it soon becomes apparent that there is a serious problem, a lack of food security – adding to the woes in a state where, according to the Chin Mobile Backpack Medical Team, "malnutrition and child mortality is one of the highest in the country." In a sign of desperation, even children, along with their teachers, are forced to leave school in order to harvest crops, because of the fear that the plague of rats might at any moment destroy the very thing which is so fundamental to their survival - rice.

Background

Since 2006, Chin state has been hit by a plague of rats brought on by the dying of bamboo, a natural phenomenon occurring every 50 years in Chin state and the surrounding mountain ranges of northeast India. During the phenomenon, vast forests of bamboo covered jungle produce flowers and a type of fruit which attracts rats. The rats consume the bamboo seeds, which local people believe causes the rat population to rise exponentially.

In a twisted tale of bad luck, for a region which the World Food Programme describes as "one of the poorest and most isolated states in Myanmar," once the bamboo has flowered it dies, causing the plague of rats to turn on villagers' crops for survival. Village elders, who experienced firsthand the last mautam – as the plague is referred to in local jargon – in 1958, explained that this time the situation is much worse. Unusually strong winds have damaged crops, and the dying of bamboo forests at different times has caused the rats to shift unpredictably between areas.

Farmer turned rat catching expert

Local farmer Masie from Matupi is now highly experienced at catching rats. The previous night he caught eight rats, one of which his wife is cooking on the fire. By Masie's high standards, eight rats is a rather low count, as at the height of the rat infestation he caught over 40 rats in just one night. In trying to protect his fields, Masie has handmade over 150 rat traps, locally called, hmakhau, in addition to the more conventional traps he bought from a larger town three to four days walk away. He proudly shows off a collection of rat tails he has collected since this August, numbering over 1,000 so far. Masie describes how the rat infestation affected his family last year:

"Last year the rat infestation was much worse, and I wasn't able to build any rat traps, because I had never experienced this kind of huge rat infestation. I thought we could drive out and scare the rats and protect our crops with ease. But, just before the rice was about to be ripe for harvest the rats came and finished all the rice in the fields in only one night. We lost all our rice from the fields…we came home from the fields with empty hands."

This year things have improved, his family has collaborated with two other families to manage and secure their rice paddy fields. They have fenced in a six tin field area and added over 150 traditional hand-made rat traps alongside nine more conventional traps.

The villagers are trying to harvest very quickly, as they fear the rats might come again, similar to last year, and eat their rice. Masie hopes to harvest over 280 tins (one tin is approximately six kg of cleaned rice) for 18 family members. Unfortunately, even with the preparations of the villagers in protecting their crops – especially the rice, it couldn't stop the rats from wreaking havoc on the villager's cornfields. "This year our harvest of corn was totally destroyed and we harvested nothing," sighed Masie.

Bamboo shortage

Most villagers stay in the fields day and night as this helps to scare away the rats. Yet due to the mautam phenomenon of bamboo dying, there is a shortage of bamboo, which is traditionally used to construct shelter. Therefore villagers cannot construct appropriate huts for living in their rice fields. Instead, they have little alternative but to either walk to their fields for up to an hour each day, or stay in cramped pitiable huts.

Saichea is a crippled old widow staying alone in a small, confined hut. She tells of how her hut's roof is leaking, yet with everyone busy in the fields and a shortage of adequate bamboo, her roof cannot get fixed. "Every time it rains in the night I have to go to other houses to sleep, because my hut's roof is leaking," tells the old woman. When she was a child she sustained an agonizing accident, leaving her unable to use her right hand or foot or work to earn a living. Consequently, she depends on help from neighbors and church leaders. She displayed her meager food supplies of all she has left, consisting of one pot of rice and a few other essential foods donated to her, which she uses very sparingly.

Food crisis destroying communities – villagers flee to India

Since the start of this year, at least 11 households from a border village in Matupi, Burma, have left for neighboring villages across the border in India's Mizoram state. Some villagers departed in secret as it is seen as a disgrace to leave their village and community. Traditionally, the village elders used to kill a pig to compel them to reconsider leaving. However, village elders stated that some villagers who were offered the meat did not accept it, instead insisting on leaving the village.

In the same village, at least ten households last year faced the problem of finishing their rice early, forcing them to find work in India to try and support themselves. Due to job availability, many of the family members have to work apart, some in Saiha in Mizoram, the largest town closest to southern Chin state. They take up any work offered, usually jobs which the local people do not want, such as carrying wood, working in paddy fields, farm cleaning, constructing roads and digging holes for toilets.

Teiko is one such individual that has had to go to India to earn money, working for approximately 15 days at a time. He has been working on the construction of a bridge over the Kaladan River in India. With this money he then buys rice and carries it back to his village in Burma, over two days walk away. He explains his family's situation:

"Last year we could only harvest 30 tins, which lasted only two months. We survive by earning money in India. Because of the struggle for food we could not send all our children to school, our youngest daughter had to stay to work in the fields. She cried, pleading with us to send her to school, but we couldn't afford to.

This year we have nearly finished our harvest and expect 80 tins, but for one year we need at least 140 tins. When I was in India earning money, my wife borrowed rice from villagers, and we had to pay back the rice once I returned from India.

Working in India, luckily I didn't face any problems with getting paid. Most of us are dependent upon earning money in India. It's the only way to solve our food problems. We are struggling for life, but by the grace of God our health is good."

Limited aid assistance to Burma

Teiko's village has received some limited aid (35 rice bags in total, for over 250 people) from neighboring villages across the border in India, but the real need is substantially greater. Therefore, regretfully, there is no alternative for villagers but to find work in India to keep their families alive.

Chihu is a mother with two daughters from a neighboring village in Mizoram, India, an approximately five hour walk from Burma. She also was not spared the destruction of the rat infestation, yet some assistance is reaching them. She elaborates:

"Usually two fields give a crop of 150 tins, yet all our corn and rice fields were destroyed last year. This year we harvested only 50 tins, which lasted only one month, as we host many guests. In some fields the villagers harvested nothing due to the rats, only in some fortunate fields the rats didn't touch could rice be found. Luckily we are in a better condition than our brothers and sisters in Burma, because of help from NGO's from foreign countries. We received this June, 40 kilos of rice, four liters of oil and eight kilos of dal per household."

However, in an extremely positive development, DFID (Britain's Department for International Development), has offered assistance to six out of nine townships in Chin state, with an initial budget of US$ 1,083,450 for the six months from October 2008 – March 2009. An estimated 55,000 people will benefit from the undertaking. DFID's immediate aim is to improve the food security situation of farmers and their family members affected by the rat infestation and crop destruction, in addition to enhancing rural transportation and communication systems through work for food/money programs.

Yet, because the aid will have to come through Rangoon and the Burmese military government's Ministry for Development of the Border Areas and National Races and Ministry of Agriculture – in collaboration with the UN and other organizations active in the country – it is questionable just how much assistance will actually reach the most affected people. Exiled Chin groups based along the Indian-Burmese border have welcomed the aid, but are calling for a much broader relief approach, including cross-border aid, having set up their own food relief committees, including CFERC (Chin Famine Emergency Relief Committee) and CHRC (Chin Humanitarian Relief Committee.) These groups have a proven track record of being able to provide assistance to the most vulnerable victims, targeting over 70 villages.

However, due to a lack of financial capacity, local relief efforts are currently unable to have a sustainable impact and reach all the targeted villages.

Tlaiko, a father of four children from one of the worst affected townships in southern Chin state, passionately relates his thoughts on the aid proposal from Britain that will see all efforts first routed through Rangoon:

"You, the British, rescued and saved our spirits as R.A. Laurren (the first missionary from the U.K. to the people in this region, over 100 years ago) built our community, and now you have come to help us in our physical needs. But, we were so heartbroken when we heard that the donations of the U.K. are coming through Rangoon. It is impossible that the donations will reach us through Rangoon. The SPDC (military junta) have been stealing our belongings like thieves. They will surely steal all the assistance from you. How can your government believe them? We will get nothing I am sure. I would like you to think back to Cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy delta. I think you know much better than we do about this. Assistance from your government directly to us on the border would be the quickest and best way."

A village headman from Matupi talked about how the mautam and the Burmese military have affected his village:

"The majority of people have harvested much less compared to last year. We have harvested as a village approximately 1,300 tins of rice, yet we should harvest 3,500 tins. We get nothing from them (the SPDC). Rather, they beat us and take many things like rice, pigs and goats. We heard so many times that they would help, and sometimes they come, but they only give words. It's sure they will be cheating us. We heard that even after Cyclone Nargis they took many things which should have reached the people."

Work for food initiatives

In a self-initiative spawned from a village council in India, villagers asked those from a neighboring village in Burma to clean the road between their villages, receiving 20 rice bags as payment. When asked about this work for food program, village leaders from

Burma were unanimous in their support.

"We want to work for rice, we want more work. Why should we not accept that? That is the best program for us as it will not only solve our food problem, but also assist in our development," prospered one village headman. "We have been working for the SPDC for no pay, portering and serving them, even as they killed our animals."

Just across the border in another village in Mizoram, things are considerably better. The Indian government has actively responded to the mautam, and since 2005 has introduced a 10-year scheme called the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The aim of project is to develop agriculture, plantations and fisheries, in addition to undertaking road construction – by means of the government employing erstwhile unemployed members of the local community.

Satae, from a neighboring village in Burma, is now 69 and has spent his entire life in his village. He explains about how he would like to see a similar work for food/money initiative for his village:

"When we think about our village's development, we first think of having good work which can bring about a better solution to our food shortage and development. We heard that our brothers in India are working under a work for food program in Mizoram, which is benefiting the people a lot. We are just dreaming of getting such a beneficial work program. If we could have such a program, that will solve our food shortage problem and will also bring about sustainable development as well. We envy them."

Threatening the very core of Chin livlihood

As part of the traditional approach of shifting cultivation practiced by the Chin, this December and January signals the start of cutting and cleaning the jungle to make way for new paddy fields. March will see the burning of these areas to allow for the planting of new rice paddy in April. Yet, with many villagers having to leave their communities for India to seek food and work, it may prove difficult for them to grow and harvest their own food. As such, some of the very basic tenets of traditional life in Chin state, which have supported local communities for generations, are being threatened by the ongoing food crisis and the inadequate response of external actors to the plight of the population.

However, one thing I have learned, living in India, can be summarized in one sentence from Ghandi: "We have to be the change we want to see..."

Khin Tun