How the global food crisis devastates families and communities

Pyone Kyaw has seen the impact of food shortages firsthand.
Pyone Kyaw has seen the impact of food shortages firsthand.

By Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw

The news of a family’s murder/suicide in Burma horrified me. The tragedy occurred in June, in Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s Arakan state. The family was suffering from hunger. All three ate  poison. But why did they have to die?

According to local sources, people rushed to the house soon after they heard this poor family was going to take the poison. But by the time they reached the home, the family was already dead, lying near their rice plates. They were identified as U Maung Ba Oo and his eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son. U Maung Ba Oo worked as a rickshaw puller in Sittwe. The neighbours said he first mixed the poison in the rice and fed his two children. Then, he mixed his own rice with the poison and ate it last.

Before they died, U Maung Ba Oo and his children had been facing starvation for many days because the money he earned wasn’t enough to feed them. A rickshaw puller’s daily income is around 900 to 1,000 kyat (less than one dollar) per day in Sittwe and that was no longer enough for three people to survive on. So rickshaw puller U Maung Ba Oo chose suicide.

That kind of thing rarely happens in Burmese society because even if people don’t have food, they can go in to a monastery and ask for food from the Buddhist monks. The family’s death  shows the severity of the food security problem and its devastating effects on the poor who are always the hardest hit.

In a country like Burma, also known as Myanmar, food scarcity is not a result of insufficient production of food. Rather it is the result of such state-imposed factors as military operations and structural policies, rice procurement policies and economic policies such as multiple cropping to boost rice exports. Food scarcity is also a result of an inequitable distribution of food.

Other factors threatening the country’s food security are climate change and natural hazards. Recent natural disasters have affected food production and food security. After Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawady region on the May 2 and 3 this year, the local agricultural and fishery businesses couldn’t operate for months. The Irrawady region is a low-lying delta region and Burma’s largest agricultural region which is known to be the largest “rice pot” of the country.  Two-thirds of the total arable land is under rice cultivation with a yield of about 2,000-2,500 kgs per hectare.

Earlier this year, I worked for a local non-governmental organization in their documentation process of the Cyclone Nargis response programs. I also visited some parts of the affected areas in the delta region.

In most parts of the region I visited –  Dedaye, Phyar Pone, Lapputa, Bogalay and the Mawlaying Gyun townships – those most adversely affected were middle class people such as the owners of the fishing boats and farms. Since the businesses were shut down because of damage, the poor day labourers also were out

of work.

When I spoke with village committee leaders, they said they were worried about their long-term livelihood because this was the best time for farmers to start cultivating in order to have enough food for their region as well as for the whole country. If they didn’t start within a month, there would definitely be negative consequences.

One committee leader also confirmed that most of the villages in Phyar Pone township are populated primarily by farmers whose livelihood is rice production, because Phyar Pone’s rice is famous for its tremendous quality. It was estimated by the village committee leader that 98 per cent of the population’s business is in rice production. Some 70 per cent of villagers still cannot start work because of the damage to their fields and the loss of farm animals.

Even six months after the cyclone struck, the conditions of the people and the agricultural areas remain devastated. Although some international organizations such as the United Nations and World Vision have been helping people get access to food, much-needed agricultural policies to help local farmers recover from the damage and losses remain to be implemented.

During the conference on Global Food Security hosted at McGill University, one of the speakers said that if we really want to solve the food security problems in our own countries, we had to go through our policies layer by layer. We would also have to ask farmers what incentives they need to grow more food and have government officials outline what assurances they could give to agricultural communities devastated by natural disasters.

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw, from Burma,  is in Montreal for eight months as a Sauvé Scholar affiliated with McGill University. As an Academic Trainee she is focusing on women’s leadership in south and southeast Asia. She has worked for a number of non-profit organizations in Burma, mainly at the community level.