NDF - Financing for climate change and development projects

Organic Farming Initiatives introduced in Myanmar

Photo: © Daniel Alexander Roca, All rights reserved
Photo: © Daniel Alexander Roca, All rights reserved
Photo: © Daniel Alexander Roca, All rights reserved
Photo: © Daniel Alexander Roca, All rights reserved
Photo: © Daniel Alexander Roca, All rights reserved

The benefits show in improvements of the soil as well as improvement in personal health.

Climate-friendly, green farming initiatives have taken root in farming communities across Myanmar, leading the way for healthier, more environmentally friendly agricultural practices to develop across a region that is heavily reliant on chemical pesticides and ridden with inefficient methods. Though the project could be considered a great success, there are still many hurdles to developing a viable market for organic foods.

For over a year, the Nordic Development Fund (NDF), in conjunction with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Economic Cooperation Program, has been working to support and educate selected farming communities to enhance market access for environmentally friendly agricultural products, particularly products which reduce the use of agrochemicals.

About 1,300 farmers (including about 440 women farmers) were trained during the course of the project in a variety of organic farming techniques; including the cultivation of compost, organic fertilisers, pesticides, vermicides, and green water management.

“Prior to this they had no knowledge of these practices,” said Dr. Thamana Lekprichakul, a project supervisor working with ADB. “We needed to provide training four times to be able to get them to absorb the info.”

Knowledge Centers and Demonstration Farms were built in each of the selected farming communities in Pyi Oo Lwin, Nay Pyi Taw, Bago Region, and Mandalay Region in Myanmar. These centers provided ongoing education and support via 400 extension staff working with the Department of Agriculture, 300 of whom were women.

Improvement of the soil

Mr. Myint Zaw Htwe, a pilot farmer in Pyi Oo Lwin who helped train over 25 different farmers in his community explained, “Prior to organic farming our soil was dead with chemicals... it was very difficult to plant, cracked and acidic. Our yield was reduced and some of the soil was sandy… many pests and diseases.”

Once they stopped using the chemicals and applied the natural compost and biofertiliser, they found the soil regenerated quickly. Where prior harvests showed evidence of burnt stalks and roots from chemical burn and produce that was similarly affected, their current harvest had higher yields and proved healthier and more resilient to sickness and infestation.

“One benefit of Myanmar is that they haven’t utilised agrochemicals for very long. So Myanmar actually has an advantage because there will be no shock to the system,” explained Dr. Lekprichakul. “Usually when changing from conventional to organic agriculture, there will be a shock of at least 3 years… We will not observe this in areas where there is a low application of chemical fertilisers… We don’t have to unteach the plants and the soil.”

Mr. Saw Aung Min Zaw, another pilot farmer on the project who grows strawberries expressed, “I was ready to give up; to look for other work. I couldn’t survive with how my soil and my crops were doing. Now, I have hope again. My strawberries have more resistance, longer harvest periods, and longer storage.”
Improvement of health and well-being

Though the primary objectives of the project were designed for agricultural and economic benefit, communities involved in the project expressed overwhelming improvement in personal health. Nearly every farming group taking part in the project expressed noticeable health benefits ranging from improved air quality to healthier skin and digestion.

U Than Kyaing, Director of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation, stated, “The farmers recognize the quality of the product. Before they don’t know the health risks of using pesticides. Now they know the difference. Which is why this awareness program is so important for our people. One farmer was crying to me, afraid of the pesticides in his intestines, afraid to die.”

Ms. Tint Tint Mo, one of the many female farmers working with the project who also suffers from hepatitis B and asthma, complained of body pain, aches in her bones, and itchy skin. “Now I have improved health. My head feels clearer and the itching has stopped.”

 “We want to continue these practices for our long-term health conditions,” said Mr. Myint Zaw Htwe. “But also to consider growing safe foods for the consumer.”

But passing down these benefits to the consumer is still a challenge. Currently, there is no system in place to identify organic foods at market; consumers have no way to differentiate between produce grown with agrochemicals or chemical fertilisers and those grown with biofertilisers, compost, vermicide, or organic pesticide.

“The consumer doesn’t understand the difference between the organic and chemical products,” said U Than Kyaing. “We need to make the consumer aware. Because in other countries the organic products are higher in price or something like that; in this country we don’t have that.”

That consumer education is the highest need these farmers face, whose main motivation for continuing organic farming is the health of their bodies and the soil. Currently, farmers are able to sell their products at only the same market rate as those fertilised and treated chemically. Though they no longer need to purchase large quantities of chemicals at the beginning of every season, this offset only translates into maintaining their current income levels, not increasing it.

“We need to work more to make organic products. There is more labor,” said Ms. Tint Tint Mo. “If we make a strong group we can have more selling power. Right now we are only selling as individuals… we need a certification or some kind of guarantee.”

Now that these activities in Myanmar have finished, the work of building up a sustainable organic farming industry rests on the shoulders of the Myanmar Department of Agriculture and the farmers involved.

“I don’t want this type of project to last only during the project time,” said Dr. Ye Tint Tint, Director General of the Department of Agriculture. “Myanmar has all the agricultural opportunities for all Asia and Pacific regions, provided that there is good management. What we need is a good system. We have the people, but we need a system which is not in place. The time has come. Now or never.”

Text by Daniel Alexander Roca.

More Information:
Improving Nitrogen-use Efficiency for Climate Change Mitigation in the GMS [NDF C57]