State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi held a videoconference to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the Myanmar agricultural sector yesterday from the Presidential palace in Nay Pyi Taw. Participants at the discussions were Union Minister for Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Dr Aung Thu, Myanmar Rice Federation Chairman U Ye Min Aung, and Outstanding Farmer Award Winner from Ayeyawady Region Daw Kyin Sine.
Chairperson of the National-Level Central Committee for COVID-19 Prevention, Control and Treatment first discussed that Myanmar is an agricultural country and therefore agriculture is very important; measures carried out during the COVID-19 period should be aligned with the previous steps, as well as the future plans and goals. She said that she wanted Myanmar to become a modern industrial country based on agriculture because Myanmar has a natural advantage in agriculture; there were some countries which have succeeded based on agriculture, for example, New Zealand; this small island country became an industrial country based on agriculture; it is also one of the most progressive and modern nations in the world; Myanmar also has great potentials like this country in terms of agricultural resources that should be developed to reach a higher level; in the implementation of plans they had to make predictions to see how the future was going to turn out by taking the long-term view; they could not focus only on the present; at this time that matter was becoming more apparent; during the COVID period they had to think about today and tomorrow; the COVID situation was such that it was not certain how each day was going to turn out; while thinking in this way, they had to consider to make sure that in the long term, in the post COVID period, the country was advancing along the desired path and goals.
Union Minister for Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Dr Aung Thu discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the agricultural sector, delaying commodity flows, loss of markets for the produce, suspension of the export sector, the lack of storage facilities, strict restrictions on trade policy neighbouring country, insufficient checks on quality, a decline of remittance from migrant workers, a decline of investments in agriculture and output volume.
Revenue has dropped due to travel restrictions, affecting agricultural and related sectors; the COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan has been beneficial to the agricultural sector, and the government has allowed some project and K92.61 billion fund for the socio-economic development of the rural people.
The Union Minister also talked on the four factors to promote the lives of rural residents, with maintaining production in the agricultural sector as per 2.1.7 (B) of CERP; the Department of Agriculture will lead in implementing 100,000 acres of paddy seed production project; it will be carried out in 287 townships in different regions and states, except Chin State, in contract farming system, the K14.91 billion from CERP programme will be used for this project until the end of September.
The Department of Rural Development will set up K42 billion capital fund which will be managed by the rural people in 1,700 villages in regions and states.
The Department of Fisheries will supply fishery farmers with fish fingerlings worth K40,000 per fishing acre, totalling K6 billion.
The ministry will also spend K1.257 billion in distributing agriculture machinery in 11 regions and states.
The MoALI will create six categories of employment opportunities for the farmers in rural infrastructural developments, supporting livestock sector, safety and security courses for the fishing worker; renovation of irrigation facilities, using transplanting machines in six regions and states, vocational training courses of the Small-Scale Industries Department. The Union Minister also explained facilitations in export and border trade sectors, implementation of CERP, implementation of contract farming and laboratories for quality tests, the loans from World Bank and grant from EU.
Outstanding Farmer Award Winner Daw Kyin Sine discussed the 10 factors for agricultural development, including soil development, seed production, manageable cultivation of domestic crops, difficulties in buying paddy seeds and repayment of state agricultural loan and support of WHH to 23 paddy seed-producing farmers with US$200 each, technical requirements for agricultural machinery and shortage of labour.
Myanmar Rice Federation Chairman U Ye Min Aung discussed panic buying of people to increase rice price, the announcement of MRF on the sufficiency of rice for domestic consumption, selling rice at an affordable price at industrial zones with the help of UMFCCI. The federation worked together with private agricultural firms, rice millers and merchants to contribute 70,000 tonnes of rice in the government’s plan for rice distribution to people with irregular incomes.
Myanmar has over 40,000 tonnes of reserve rice, and more than 200,000 tonnes of rice could be exported from 1 May to 15 June, making about $100 million in revenue.
The Myanmar Rice Federation fulfilled requests of the Philippines, China and Malaysia through the diplomatic channel to sell the rice, and it was carried out with the directives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Commerce and the government leaders.
The MRF Chairman suggested cultivation of alternative crops in addition to rice for the benefits of farmers, production of value-added items from rice; the importance of 2012 Farm Land Law for the farmers, the formation of a farmers organization for systematic coordination and advancement of the agriculture sector, the expectation of farmers to cultivate other crops on 50 per cent of their lands, requirements for effective implementation of this law to be able to grow alternative crops, the needs of crop dryers and warehouses, loans from banks by showing documents for the crops stored at the warehouses before selling the produce at an attractive price, formation of farmer affairs association, access to agricultural loans from foreign banks, local banks and partner organizations for the production of value-added items and trades, loans for SMEs, development of irrigation systems for agriculture. The State Counsellor responded to the discussion and said the life and skills of the nation’s farmers and cultivators need to be improved in order for the nation to develop. The standard of living needs to go up in rural villages and opportunities for development need to be discovered.
She said the nation is making use of billions of Kyat during the COVID pandemic and this financial support is acquired from international financial organizations and in the form of loans and financial assistance from other nations; loans need to be repaid and this makes them important and crucial for a nation’s integrity; it was also important for other countries to see a nation as being economically reliable.
Although Myanmar suffered greatly due to the effects of war right after she gained independence; she had been very timely and exact in repaying her debts. Because of her reputation of not being even a single day late in repayments, there were many who wished to help and give loans; they wanted to continue in this manner; loans need to be repaid; she believed that every farmer had the desire to repay the loan; the Union Government has to work towards a situation where it was possible to repay the loans.
She said it was important to make investments that would create large returns so that loan repayments could be made. She asked for the special needs of the farmers during the COVID period as these were matters that the people and the government need to work on together.
She continued by saying that it was important to have the will and spirit to overcome stress and challenges; and that all the discussions made would be recorded. She said they would assist in all difficulties; with regard to the matter of not having skilled workers, for the future of the country it would be necessary to train and produce skilled workers. She said the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation needs to consider adding training courses on how to use farm equipment and machinery at the location they are sold; similar courses should be taught at the vocational training schools across the states and regions.
She added that they needed to consider whether there were skilled workers or not from among the migrant workers who returned to Myanmar; she wanted them to work in Myanmar; she had learnt that working abroad was very tiring and that sometimes full of difficulties; if there were skilled workers among the returnees, it was necessary to connect them to places in Myanmar where their expertise would be needed.
She said it was necessary for migrant workers to settle down in areas where their skills are needed. If there was a problem, it should be resolved through negotiations; this was the basic principle that needs to be practiced throughout the country. If any problem occurs, it should be resolved through negotiations; she wanted this custom to become one of the customs of the country.
The State Counsellor said that since Myanmar was an agricultural country, she did not wish to let go of agriculture; now the whole world has come to understand food security; food security was very important; countries which did not produce food have to depend on food producing countries; food would always be in demand; no matter how developed a country might be, if it could not produce enough food for its citizens, it was a big problem. As Myanmar assists in fulfilling the global food requirements, she also needs to consider her own national development.
At one time Myanmar was known as the “rice bowl” of the world. Especially we could say that the Ayeyarwaddy region was the world’s top rice producing region. That is now in the past. In building for the future, we need to work properly in the present; rice is very important for Myanmar; it would still be important in the future; it may be said the rice is the staple food of our citizens; however, if we looked at the whole world, we find that countries which depended on rice became less and less dependent on rice as they developed; it has been noticed although Japan used to consume rice as its staple food, the consumption of wheat increased as Japan developed; thus consumption patterns have changed. Therefore as the world changes, Myanmar also needs to change. She added that climate change is very important for agriculture; we do not even know if the infrastructures that had been built in the past would be compatible with the current climatic situation; with regard to the changes in the global markets, just as rice consuming countries turned to wheat, in countries where rice has never been seen before rice consumption increased.
In her concluding remarks, the State Counsellor said that the Union Government has been following continuously all the requests made by farmers to reflect the needs of farmers in the laws and regulations and that they had to listen to all sources; sometimes, if we failed to listen to both sides, it would not be complete; with regard to the comment that warehouses and grain dryers were needed, she has observed that in some places, there were farmers who did not use the warehouses although these were available. Someone made a comment that they could wait till a high price could be fetched if there were enough warehouses; however, some farmers want to sell out their produce without waiting for a decent price although they can use warehouses; she wanted them to keep their produce in the warehouse and wait; training should be conducted to teach famers not to be impatient and sell their produce to obtain ready cash; it was very important for the grain dryers to have acceptable quality standards; everyone knows already about the matter of loans; they know that the loans should be of sufficient amount; they have been working hard all the time to make sure that loans were being disbursed to individual farmers, small and medium enterprises.
She added that the Union Government is supporting the private sector; the country’s economy can be strong only when the private sector is developed. For the long term development of the economy, the government should not be playing the leading role all the time; there should be cooperation between the government and the private sector; however, the private sector is very important; regarding agriculture, it was mentioned that crops should be stored at the end of the rainy season; regarding this matter it would be necessary to think this through very carefully because of climate change; climate which has changed is no longer regular, this is the number one problem.
In recent years the monsoon came in and went out in a regular pattern. The rains have been regular. Now, one cannot say when the monsoon will arrive. When it rained it would rain for many days continuously; then it would stop completely. This is the current weather pattern; sometimes there was no water and sometimes we have floods. To be able to manage these two extremes, it would be necessary to study with the use of modern technology. For example, Japan is a country which has made special study of the effects of climate change on agriculture. We should obtain expertise from such countries and use these techniques suitably for Myanmar. It would be necessary to change our infrastructures to a certain extent depending upon climate change. In building roads and bridges, as they were built in line with the previous monsoon climate are thus not suitable with the current weather pattern. So also with dams; as the dams, embankments and reservoirs were built in accordance with previous weather patterns, it would be necessary to consider what needs to be done in the long term to be in accord with the current new weather patterns.
She said that we should not rely on one single crop and that Myanmar should not rely only on rice. Efforts should be made to expand the rice market and make it better. The approach should be to have more rice varieties and more ways of preparing and using rice.
She said she was pleased to learn that farmers wished to plant other crops apart from rice. The willingness to innovate, the courage to innovate and the courage to create and try out new things, all these are very important. There is a saying “necessity is the mother of invention”. During the COVID period, there was more unity. Out of necessity we had to invent how to cooperate and how to bargain with each other; this invention is one of our good results. Challenges are opportunities for us. We need to turn challenges into opportunities.
If some emergency guidelines for the COVID-19 are appropriate for the long term, these must be maintained for the future; it must be said that COVID is very supportive for tests; this is trial period; some inventions for the short span could be useful for the long term after some adjustments; continuous monitoring is needed to do this.
Farmers have concerns about the weather every day; they have to forecast it day by day; therefore, readiness and flexibility play key roles in reforms; while farmers are the driving force of the country, they should themselves be a strong community; strength should be simply judged on their usefulness to relevant societies and the country; other powers are not considered to be strong; there are different types of powers and various interpretations to them; in this circumstance the power can be measured in relation to its benefit to the respective communities; it is important for the farmers; for a stronger power, a more cautious approach should be developed.
Rice is the strength for country; the national economy relied on it in the past; it is not the time to depend only on a single product; and that agriculture become a pivotal role for the economy of the country; production of raw materials is not enough for development of the country; it is required to focus on producing finished products from raw materials in promoting economic sector; this sector needs to be promoted urgently at present; it can be implemented by collaboration of farmers, the government and private firms; there would be more opportunities in the future for discussions like this. The State Counsellor finally said ‘thank you’ to all the participants in the discussions and prayed for their success in their respective sectors. (Translated by Aung Khin, Zaw Htet Oo)