New farming methods drive hunger away

A new Mission East project trains the poverty-stricken Mara people in cultivating crops all year round. It will provide children and adults with better nutrition.

By Line Højland, Communications Officer – June 2018

Pawtlei and her old mother struggle to keep hunger at bay. They belong to the isolated Christian Mara people in Myanmar's Chin State, one of the least developed areas of the country.

"Until now, my slash-and-burn farming can hardly secure food for three months per year. For nine months I must ask my brothers and relatives for help in some way," says the 56-year-old woman who lives in the village Aru.

Hunger each spring  

Like many other people in Maraland, Pawtlei cultivates the soil using the slash-and-burn method. It is an ancient agricultural method where the soil is cleared by cutting down big trees and shrubs and burning the rest of the vegetation. The ashes provide the soil with nutrients, so crops can be cultivated, but after a couple of years the soil is depleted, and a new piece of forest area has to be cleared.

In the past, the population was smaller and shifting to a new plot of land each year was possible, allowing the forest to regenerate before using it again for crops. But today, farmers are forced to re-use the same plots too often. As a result, the soil is depleted, and the forest is being destroyed. The shifting cultivation method which used to work so well now fails to produce enough food for a growing population.

Families like Pawtlei’s must walk long distances every day to cultivate the soil, and throughout spring they are forced to choose between hunger and bottomless debt.

Farming and animal husbandry go hand in hand

These problems can be overcome by combining agriculture and livestock. Manure from the animals, fish waste and plant material can add new nutrients to the soil, making it usable year after year. This is exactly what Mission East is doing with a new project. In cooperation with local partners we have organised 13 farmers groups in 6 demonstration farms.

Hlotha is from the same village as Pawtlei. He has a bit more luck with his slash-and-burn agriculture: "It can feed my family nine months a year, but the last three we always make debts," says the 57-year-old family father, who is looking forward to trying out the new cultivation methods.

“We used to say: ‘if you want to cultivate the land, you must stop raising animals’, but now we realise that farming and animal husbandry must go hand in hand," he says.

The sound of new hope

Mission East also provides the population with vegetable seeds and encourages them to grow a wider range of crops, which will improve nutrition and keep the soil healthy. As in many other parts of Asia, the staple food in Maraland is rice. Without fruits and vegetables, the population risks not getting enough vitamins, so a more varied diet is essential. In addition to the vegetables, poultry and pigs will provide eggs and meat.  

The project is supported by Sommercamp Mariager, Mission East's private supporters and the Danish state through Civil Society in Development. Mission East's local partners Together for Sustainable Development and Health and Hope Myanmar are responsible for implementation. Working with local partners ensures that the new knowledge is rooted in the community.

"The new project is the sound of new hope ringing in the ears of the Mara people," says Khai Aye, programme manager in Health and Hope Myanmar.

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Something to eat every day

Mission Øst uses the SEED method (Something to Eat Every Day), developed in Thailand. It is a step-by-step guide to cultivating land in the most appropriate way. It entails registering and fencing one’s land; cultivating plants that match each other; and sowing, transplanting, composting, fertilising, irrigating and weeding at the right time. 

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