U Win Myint had little to celebrate during the Thingyan Water Festival. To accommodate the festivities in nearby Mandalay, the authorities had released an extra or unusual amount of water from the Sal Taw Gyi dam, and in the process flooded U Win Myint’s paddy fields in the Mya Nandar Advanced Farmland district, Pa Thein Gyi Township. U Win Myint spent the Water Festival draining his paddy fields.
Usually, being close to the Sal Taw Gyi dam has been a blessing for the rice farmers in Pa Thein Gyi Township, one of the few areas in central Myanmar to be linked to an irrigation system allowing them to grow two rice crops a year. Nowadays, it is not just the Water Festival that has made the proximity to the Sal Taw Gyi dam dangerous for rice farmers. The water-rich region has also become the target of land speculation, driven in part by local Myanmar-Chinese merchants and Chinese speculators and businesspeople.
U Win Myint, albeit inconvenienced by the dam’s overflow, is fortunate to be able to use land in Mya Nandar, part of a government farmer-support project launched by former military strongman Senior General Than Shwe in 1994.
Selling out to Chinese buyers
In contrast, U Myint Htway, another rice farmer from the area, had to sell his farm to Chinese buyers to pay for his wife’s medical bills.
“I sold my farmland because my wife was ill,” U Myint Htway said. “I didn’t have enough money to get my wife’s illness cured, so, I had to sell.”
He noted that other farmers are selling their land just to cash in on the soaring land prices in the district. “When I sold my farmland, I got K300,000 (US$300) for one acre. Nowadays, the price of my land becomes K50,000,000 per acre.”
The price of farmland near the Mandalay- Mattayar highway has risen to K100,000,000 per acre, he said. “Farmers want to sell their farmland as they are hypnotized by the figures,” said Daw Khin Than Win, deputy officer of the Ministry of Agriculture branch in Pa Thein Gyi Township. She acknowledged that land speculation was rife in the township, spurred by not just by Chinese buyers.
“Farmland is bought by Chinese and also by Myanmar people,” she said. “The farmland in Pa Thein Gyi Township including our Mya Nandar Extension area get water from Sal Taw Gyi hydro-power dam, so whoever buys the farmlands must grow crops on the land. It is clearly stated in the farmland law... There’s no other water source which is as powerful and plentiful as Sal Taw Gyi. This land must be used for growing paddy which can only be grown with a reasonable amount of water,” Daw Khin Than Win said, blaming farmers for spreading rumours that the land would be upgraded to residential land.
Land prices rising
Whether based on rumours or not, what is clear is that land prices are soaring in the region and farmers are selling.
“Now, the Chinese have already bought most of the farmland,” U Myint Htway said. “We are now growing crops on their land. We have to give them 15 kilogrammes of paddy for one acre. For example, the farm I grow has three acres, so I have to give the Chinese owner 45 kgs when the paddy is cropped.” And much of their rice crop is now exported to China.
Mya Nandar Advanced Extension Farmlands, deemed a VIP district in the Pa Thein Gyi Township, has been a hotbed for experimenting with new rice growing techniques and hybrid grains since the project was launched by Senior General Than Shwe two decades ago as part of the past military regime’s efforts to boost farmers’ incomes. Since 2012, Mya Nandar farmers have been growing the new hybrid Pa Lal Twal rice strain imported from China.
The Pa Lal Twal hybrid is a fast-growing rice strain with high yields, according to Daw Khin Than Win. “We convinced farmers to grow Pa Lal Twal as a summer paddy.” However, for the rainy season crop farmers are allowed to grow their preferred Ma Gyan Taw rice strain, which takes longer to mature than Pa Lal Twal rice but is the local favorite for consumption. “Pa Lal Twal takes less time to be ripen than Ma Gyan Taw. Pa Lal Twal is stickier than Ma Gyan Taw. Local Myanmar people do not like sticky rice, so, it is a little bit difficult to convince farmers to grow Pa Lal Twal as it is difficult to sell the rice locally.” Daw Khin Than Win said. In fact, most of the Pa Lal Twal hybrid rice is exported to China.
Pa Thein Gyi Township, Mandalay County, has over 29,000 acres of farmland, of which 6,500 acres is under the Mya Nandar Extension programme. Of the 6,500 acres, 644 acres has been devoted to Pa Lal Twal hybrid rice since 2012. The rice is bought by several modernized rice mills and will be exported to China.
“We have a Sim Mandalar modernized paddy grinding mill in our Pa Thein Gyi township,” Daw Khin Than Win said. “Sim Mandalar has Chinese buyers of the Pa lal Twal paddy. It has contacts with the Chinese market. We also have Kyaw grinding mill in Kyaut Mee township and ruby grinding mill in Pyi Gyi Ta Gon township. These mills will buy Pa Lal Twal paddy from our farmers and export the rice to China.”
Chinese rice market
China is now the largest importer of Myanmar’s rice, according to rice industry sources. Of the 1.1 million tons of rice exported by Myanmar during the first nine months of fiscal year 2014-15, starting April 1, some 800,000 tons was exported to China through border trade, according to Oryza.com, a rice-industry newsletter. Myanmar rice has continued to flood across the Myanmar-China border, much of it illegally, despite efforts by China to block the trade at the Muse border crossing last year. Myanmar hopes to export 1.5 million tons of rice this fiscal year, and 2.5 million in fiscal year 2015-16, according to Oryza.com.
Not everyone in Mya Nandar is happy with growing hybrid Chinese rice strains for the Chinese market.
“We don’t want to grow Pa Lal Twal as summer paddy,” the landless farmer U Myint Htway said. “We want to grow VG and Shwe Twal Yin strains because they ripen earlier than Pa Lal Twal.” If farmers can plant the rainy season paddy – the main crop – earlier, they can harvest it sooner and then grow beans and sesame on their land. “But we here are under the government project and so we have to grow what the officer instructs us to grow. We don’t have much choice,” U Myint Htway said.
Daw Khin Than Win, however, insisted that the ministry has not ordered the farmers to grow Pa Lal Twal, but just persuaded them to do so by offering incentives, such as easy access to milling and a secured market.
But not everyone is satisfied with the price offered. “The government will buy Pa Lal Twal from us this year, but the price paid by the government is less than the market price,” said U Aung Lwin, a Mya Nandar farmer.
“If the market price is K500,000 per 100 kgs, the government price will be K450,000. They give many excuses that our paddy’s quality is bad, the paddy is wet, the paddy is over-dry. Many excuses. It is not easy to earn a living here.” U Aung Lwin does not own the land and gets paid for his labour.
“Myanmar farmers sell their farmland because they think that they get high prices,” said landless farmer U Myint Htway. “The only reason the farmland prices get higher is because Chinese people chase each other to buy the farmland, and Myanmar people are happy to sell if they get high prices. Then, they build homes and they make big donations at the monastery, but afterward they have no land to grow rice on.”
His sentiments were echoed by Ma Mya Htay, a young female farmer. “As land prices go higher, Myanmar farmers sell off their land. Chinese buy the land. Chinese use Myanmar farmers as their workers, so farmers have to work on Chinese-owned farmland and give the Chinese owners a percentage portion of their crop. Myanmar farmers’ lives become worse. The Union of Myanmar will become People’s Republic of China soon.”
This Article first appeared in the May 7, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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