The Hunger of the Producer

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Friends Without Borders magazine Issue 27 July-August 2008  

Soaring oil prices make the news headlines everyday. Global warming is a talk-of-the-town topic. We are bombarded with information that bio-energy seems to be the one and only solution to all our concerns - no need to waste time trying to save energy! It seems like the same type of thinking that brought us the ‘cloth bag’ PR - that by using it you could reduce global warming – no need to cut down plastic bag consumption! Never mind that agricultural production areas in the third world are being transformed into plantations of energy crops.

In Thailand, the issue of energy crops even arose when Karen villagers in Mae Sot District suffered from soil and water contamination. The cause was cadmium released from a nearby mine; no one dared drink the water or eat the rice and animals from that area. The authorities’ solution was to encourage good revenue energy crop production instead of edible crops. Discussion regarding water and soil rejuvenation and contamination elimination was not seen as necessary.

But in Burma, it’s worse. According to Sai Kur Sang who joined us for tea today, large agricultural areas in Burma are now free from food crops.  They were cleared for big plantations of Jatropha curcas, an energy crop that is being establishing as part the national mission, according to the order of the Burmese military junta.

“Every state and division of Burma, be it big or small, is ordered to grow at least 500,000 acres of Jatropha curcas. The Burmese military junta made us grow it everywhere, in our backyards, schools and on any empty land. Villagers have to buy the seeds or young plants with their own money. Moreover, the army also forces the villagers to plant it on the land that the army confiscated from them. These farmers work for nothing. They have to bring their own food for breakfast and lunch. Anyone who disobeys is arrested and punished. Now, community land that used to have beans, sesame, bananas or rice are turned into Jatropha curcas plantations.”

Jatropha curcas, or Jet Suu in Burmese, is a big shrub or small tree originating from Mexico and Central America. Its oil can be used for medical purposes but is also poisonous to human beings and animals. After it was made known that jatropha oil can be used for bio-diesel production, the plant is being heavily promoted as a new economic crop for the third world.

“The Burmese junta said that if we have sufficient jatropha to produce bio-diesel of our own, we don’t have to depend on the oil in the world market any longer. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I know that villagers are starving now. The farmers have to work for the government without pay and don’t have time to earn a living of their own. In addition, they just grow it with no one told them how to do, what the techniques are and where they can sell it. This means the farmers then have no income and no food to eat because they don’t produce rice or food on their own anymore. Well, in fact, research show that jatropha can be grown on any type of soil. Therefore, according to various research jatropha doesn’t need very fertile land. It doesn’t need to be planted in the lands of forests or that were earlier used for food crops plantation. The lesson from the US was that during 2006-2007, when the government promoted jatropha, many farmers there changed from food crops into energy plants. Then the food price increased drastically. Rice price skyrocketed by 20 percent. Then the country had to turn back to food crops.

“In the next 5 years, it will become clear that food will be diminishing. In fact, Burma’s land is rich and fertile. Food crops can be grown anywhere throughout the country. But farmers have less and less land. All the fertile land has been confiscated by the military earlier, and now it’s worse because of jatropha. Farmers have left the homes and fled to Thailand. Last year we documented that from southern Shan state alone, there are as many as 800 jatropha refugees. In fact, the impact is nationwide but we haven’t had chances to survey in other areas how many people fled from the military’s energy crop production project.

“You see, even the rich people who agree to plant jatropha and know the planting techniques well cannot sell their crops. There is no market. It seems that they are lured by the government, too. And what about the poor farmers? Their ancestors’ lands were confiscated once they didn’t have jatropha on them. The lands on both sides of the roads have become the army’s with the coming of jatropha. When we went inside to survey, we found in some areas farmers had to eat boiled rice. That wasn’t the boiled rice you could find in a restaurant in Thailand. Rather, it’s broken rice that we normally feed chickens. They had to cook it that way so that it would expand in the stomachs and people felt full quickly. In some places, we found people eat young corn – eating the entire corn including the inside – just like pigs.

“Nowadays, food producers are the first to starve. Farmers in Burma have to live by the military junta’s order. For example, our village wants to grow this type of rice because we love to eat it and it suits well with the soil and climate. But the junta can come and say, oh! This crop from China is better. And then the army could just order the people to change the type of rice they grow, and force them to grow more on the army’s land. The harvested crops must be given to the junta according to the set quota. The quota remains the same no matter whether there are floods or natural disasters. This means they have to buy the crops from other places in order to give it to the government. This is Burma. The more you grow, the more you starve! In my neighborhood, people who have ploughs, motorcycles or cars must let the army use them any time they want - for carrying and transporting supplies, planting, or even generating electricity. That’s why people flee to Thailand.

“Energy crop production is important. But I don’t think there is a need to be in such a hurry like what the Burmese junta. Food – we need it everyday. There are starving people all around so we need to produce food everyday. The price of oil is rising, that’s true. Global warming is a threat, the climate is changing, that’s true. Yes, bio-energy is one way out but we need to carefully study what to do and how to do it. The UN also supports further studies on this. We must do it gradually and ensure that there will be no adverse impact on food crops. China has experimented with jatropha projects at a small scale for years, and it prohibits growing energy plants on food crop areas too. For Burma, without sufficient information, the entire country is turning into energy crop plantations. (Laughs) Let’s see. When there is no food, people will have to eat themselves. Now we have to study further as some countries which do not have land or do not want to grow jatropha themselves, like Singapore, Thailand, India, Indonesia, China, etc, may come to Burma for jatropha investment. We have to find out who is investing, how much and where because now we’ve found hundreds of thousand acres of land were taken from farmers to plant jatropha. The military government earns a lot from this. I think we have to keep close watch.

“We need to educate our people. They need to know what democracy and freedom is like. What is participation in public policy decision-making like? What is development like?  In the case of jatropha, farmers need to receive more information about what the plant is and what are the pros and cons of producing it. In fact, nothing is certain about productivity and how much it can produce bio-diesel. If we replace our food crops with jatropha, what will be the effect? I think development work is to encourage people to think and see that what makes them suffer. What kind of social and political structure that makes them suffer? More importantly, they need to know that if they work together, fear will be less.

“For 3-4 years since I started working with the Ethnic Community Development Forum, I have seen more grassroots participation. Villagers participate by providing us more information. Some start to be disobey unjust rules. Some even fly banners saying things like “No Burma army”, “No Referendum”, “No Jatropha”. “Yes to the constitution means yes to Jatropha”. This is what we see. However, the junta forces people to vote yes in the constitution referendum anyway. We cannot blame the people for this. Even monks cannot handle such a situation. You see when the monks came out for demonstration last year, they were simply shot down. The entire world saw it but did nothing – just let people die that way (bitter laugh). But at least pictures of the monks’ protest in Rangoon and Mandalay were taken out for the world to see. For farmers? They are dying everyday and no one sees. In Shan State, there is no way to take photographs out. The soldiers are everywhere. You may be dead just to take pictures.

“My dream is to see participatory development. Once people understand freedom and democracy, they will see that they have to fight for what they want. This is for us and our children. Do we want our children to suffer like us or do we want them survive and have better lives? In fact, I don’t want to see separate countries for  different ethnic groups; I only hope for a genuine federal government where each state has the right to self-determination. I hope for a better constitution than what we have today written by the military for themselves, for the development of themselves (laugh). If it continues like this, jatropha won’t be the only thing - many more scary things will follow.”

Sai Kur Sang, a 32-year old Shan from Burma, fled the restrictions of freedom to Thailand in 2004 to find ways to advocate for change and study in an environment and human rights course. With his friends, he initiated the Ethnic Community Development Forum, which is a network of seven community development organizations of the Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin and Arakan. The ECDF recently published a survey report of the seven ethnic states about the jatropha forced plantation project called Biofuel by Decree.


Interview by Unn, Story by Rivers Without Borders