Relative to the rest of Myanmar, Rakhine State not only has the highest level of poverty in the country but also suffers from excessive rates of malnutrition. Almost 50 percent of the children in Rakhine State are stunted because of insufficient nutrition. Poverty is the underlying cause, but malnutrition in the region is further aggravated by a variety of factors, including sporadic inter-ethnic violence, high levels of landlessness, indebtedness and the vulnerability of Rakhine State’s poorest residents to devastation from natural disasters.
Like nearly half of Rakhine residents, Zaw Mi Lar Harta, a 40-year-old widow from Pe Pin Yin village, relies on agriculture for her living. She and seven family members depend entirely on paddy production from 3.5 acres of land. Since their agricultural production is dominated by rice, the family’s usual daily food consumption, consisting of plain white rice with various vegetable side dishes, lacks many important foods, such as fruit, dairy products, oils, grains and proteins that would support a balanced diet.
Restrained by a variety of socio-economic and cultural factors, the family cannot afford to buy a more diverse selection of food produce on the market, which would allow them to increase their consumption of nutritious foods, such as vegetables, or foods rich in animal protein.
Although they work hard every day in the field, often they suffer from periodic food shortages caused mainly by natural disasters that affect their agricultural production. Frequently after the crisis subsides, reduced access to food changes their eating habits and they consume notably fewer vegetables, meat and animal products. This was true in the case of Zaw Mi Lar Harta’s family when last year’s floods struck her household and led to food shortages.
“Usually, I would eat rice with vegetables and sometimes fish, but after what happened to us I had to decrease the amount of rice and vegetables we consumed and I could not afford to buy fish anymore,” Zaw Mi Lar Harta said.
In order to address the needs of farmers like Zaw Mi Lar Harta, FAO is supporting 165 people from Pe Pin Yin village with an emergency response project funded by the Government of Japan. The project assists vulnerable agriculture-dependent households using a comprehensive set of initiatives. Access to food is increased by providing affected farmers with quality seeds prior to the winter season to allow them to diversify crop production and decrease their dependency on rice.
Additionally, beneficiaries are given assorted vegetable kits, consisting of white radish, okra, yard long bean, red hot chilli, eggplant and bitter gourd to increase the variety of foods they consume.
Through this project, FAO is focusing not only on providing a staple crop for poor Rakhine State farmers and their families, but also on meeting the nutritional needs of the families. This is particularly relevant because vulnerable farmers have previously struggled to access diversified foods. “Women are the primary target of the seed distribution because they represent the entry point for household nutrition. The aim of vegetable seeds distribution is to support a more diverse and micronutrient rich diet for the entire family,” explained Andrea Berloffa, FAO Senior Emergency Coordinator.
Giving people an opportunity to grow and consume more nutritious food is also relevant to building resilience against natural and man-made threats and disasters. Often during the time of recovery, poor nutrition undermines an individual’s capacity to cope, while lowering their resilience. Consequently, good nutrition is necessary to build up the resilience of farmers to future shocks. “I’m very happy to receive this kind of assistance from FAO,” Zaw Mi Lar Harta said. “With the vegetable seeds that I have received I can expand my food production and eat more diverse and nutritious foods.”
This project is part of a wider FAO emergency response and resilience-building programme being implemented in close collaboration with the Government of Myanmar. Overall, FAO’s emergency activities in 2016 helped more than 150 000 vulnerable farmers across Rakhine, Chin, Sagaing and Magway States/ Regions. FAO is appealing for an additional USD 5.1 million to provide critical livelihood assistance to 87 000 people who are exposed to the threat of food and nutrition insecurity.