Timothy D. May is Senior Content Manager at Winrock International. He recently finished a five-year assignment in Myanmar as Senior Communications and Outreach Manager on USAID’s Value Chains for Rural Development project.
Helping Myanmar Farmers Adapt to Climate Challenges
April 21, 2020
Timothy D. May
“Myanmar’s location and physical diversity means climate change takes many forms. In the dry zone, temperatures are increasing, and droughts are becoming more prevalent, while the coastal zone remains at constant risk of intensifying cyclones. Extreme flooding in the current wet season has seen over 190,000 people seek emergency shelter, with the damage to homes, schools, and farms compounding the impact of last year’s floods and those from the year before.”
That’s the stark assessment of Myanmar’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, U Ohn Win, in a Sept. 19, 2019 op-ed co-written with Peter Batchelor, then the United Nations Development Programme’s resident representative in Myanmar.
Wedged between Bangladesh (to the west) and Thailand (to the southeast), Myanmar has a whopping 1,200 miles of coast along the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal and is one of the most vulnerable countries to extreme weather associated with climate change. The agrarian nation has been exposed to a range of disasters over the past 20 years, including landslides, floods, drought, and superstorms, such as Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which claimed more than 84,000 lives and inflicted $4 billion in damages across the Ayeyarwaddy River delta and Yangon regions.
More than a decade after Nargis, people in Myanmar are paying ever-closer attention to climate change and the challenges associated with extreme and increasingly unpredictable weather. Smallholder farmers, who are on the frontlines of the climate battle, have received support from USAID activities like the Value Chains for Rural Development project, implemented by Winrock International. The activity wrapped up in December 2019 after five years of market-oriented work helping more than 40,000 coffee, soy, ginger, melon, and sesame farmers explore and implement sustainable, long-term solutions to problems thwarting growth, including how to cope with erratic weather bringing too much or too little rain. The project and partners worked with smallholder farmers and partners to increase yields of higher-quality produce, foster new connections across food market systems, and help producers tap into higher-paying markets.
Ko Thet Htun Aung, a former Winrock senior program officer from Kachin who lives with his wife, two sons, and baby daughter in mountainous Shan State, says Myanmar’s soy farmers are among the most heavily affected by changing weather patterns, with direct impact on their livelihoods.
“Smallholder soy farmers in Myanmar had to sow seeds two to three times [in a season] due to the untimely beginning of the monsoons every year,” while in other years, “desolate monsoons [lacking the expected volume of rain] decreased their yields,” Aung said.
Soy is a protein-packed, nitrogen-fixing legume with huge significance in this largely Buddhist nation. Local processors transform the grain into silky tofu served at home and restaurants, and women produce crunchy snacks sold at roadside stalls and in wet markets. Soy oil can also be expressed, offering a more healthy and environmentally friendly alternative to palm oil.
The Value Chains project worked with local, farmer-owned enterprises like Sein Lan Wai, a youthful farm extension and inputs startup firm. It also worked with seed grower and producer groups, processors, and local governments to introduce and promote drought-tolerant seed varieties recommended by Myanmar government crop experts, and to help vendors more widely distribute flat-bed grain dryers fueled by discarded rice husks, Aung noted. “I think that’s our greatest legacy,” said Aung, who now works as an agriculture advisor to a local bank.
As smartphones and internet penetration deepened, the USAID project also helped link growers to local innovators like Green Way, which introduced a farmer-focused app to help producers keep an eye on weather and share information about markets and new technology. Topics included which locally-adapted seed varieties were available and which fast- or slow-maturing varieties could either beat or outlast increasingly hard-to-predict monsoon seasons, enabling grain to be successfully harvested in drier weather. Other sustainable practices, such as using Rhizobium inoculant and Effective Microorganisms or natural composts to reduce reliance on chemical inputs while boosting plant health and maintaining soils, also were promoted and are now in use.
Similarly, the project worked with coffee farmer enterprises, processors, and the Myanmar Coffee Association to introduce sun-dried natural processing techniques for coffee, which requires minimal water use. This adaptive approach accounts for the difficulties of accessing water faced by highlands farmers, many of whom are increasingly affected as drier, warmer weather reaches higher elevations.
Khun Soe Moe Aung, the project’s former organizational development and business adviser, said these and other practices are bringing problems associated with climate change to the attention of policymakers in Myanmar, resulting in increased engagement and contributing to inclusive problem-solving.
“We conducted climate resilience awareness training in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, which gave awareness to sesame farmers for pre-season planning” in Myanmar’s dry zone, said Aung, who is also a sesame farming expert. This enabled growers to adopt better water and soil management and erosion control, including contouring, planting trees as windbreaks, and building small dams and culverts to retain more water and soil nutrients. The training signals that Myanmar’s government is promoting new practices to help “solve issues with climate-smart strategies,” he said.
Watermelon and muskmelon also grow in the dry zone, where smallholder melon producers supported by project partner the Myanmar Fruit, Flower, and Vegetable Producer and Exporter Association are piloting sustainable farming methods including Integrated Pest Management and other Good Agricultural Practices aimed at improved soil health and reduced use of inputs, contributing to farmer resilience and opening new markets for better-quality, certified produce.
Click on the links below to access in-depth reports about USAID, Winrock and partner contributions to sustainable agriculture market-systems transformation in Myanmar’s soy, coffee, sesame, melon and ginger value chains.