By SEAMUS MARTOV
NHKAWNG PA, KACHIN STATE — It has been nearly three years since fighting between Burma’s military and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) forced Lazing Lu to flee her home in Kachin State’s Mahtang village. Refugee life hasn’t been easy for the 58-year-old widow and her 90-year-old mother, who share a cramped shelter in the Nhkawng Pa internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, one of more than a dozen such camps located in KIO-controlled territory along the Burma-China border.
For Lazing Lu, who has been a farmer since she was a child, losing her land was a serious blow. Even though she never had much money before the war, she didn’t consider herself poor, “we had our farm, we could support our ourselves” she explained. Today she relies on a monthly supply of rice, cooking oil and dried beans provided by aid groups. Importantly for Lu, she has been able to continue to grow some of her own fresh vegetables thanks to an organic farming programme run by a small Kachin community-based organisation, Bridging Rural Integrated Development and Grassroots Efforts (BRIDGE).
As part of the programme, Lazing Lu and her neighbours volunteer a few times a month on a small farm located next to the IDP camp. At harvest time they receive fresh vegetables, which are also distributed among the entire camp’s population of 1,600. The vegetables go a long way to supplement the basic staples they receive as part of their rations.
“Because of the farm we can get vegetables without having to buy them from the market” says Lazing Lu.
While nearly everyone taking part in the programme is already an experienced farmer, many are using organic practices for the first time. In the not so distant past, all Kachin farming was done without the use of pesticides and fertilisers, however the rapid modernisation that has taken place in neighbouring China over the past three decades has dramatically altered farming practices across much of northern Burma and here in particular, the half way point on the lengthy but narrow strip of KIO territory that runs along the Burma-China border.
Costly pesticides and fertilisers don’t necessarily translate into increased crop yields, explains BRIDGE coordinator Hkaw Lwi, a long-time Kachin environmentalist, but they are commonly used in these parts even though most of the farmers can’t read the Chinese-language instructions printed on the labels. The overuse of pesticides and fertilisers is a real problem that impacts the health of not just those who directly spray the pesticides, but their family members who live on or very near to the farms, says Hkaw Lwi.
In addition to rice, a staple of the local diet, much of the chemical-intensive farming found across Kachin State is geared towards cash crops, mainly corn and sugar cane. While both of these crops may be worth a fair amount of money, neither have much nutritional value. The BRIDGE farm project focuses on growing crops that will improve the nutrition of the camp’s residents, a majority of whom are women and children. At both Nhkawng Pa and at another IDP camp located near the government-controlled town of Loi Je, participants are growing more than a dozen kinds vegetables including radish, cabbage, cucumber, onion, ginger and two varieties of beans.
BRIDGE also operates a community seed bank, with an eye to a conflict-free future. Plans are in place to give each refugee family their own supply of locally sourced seeds to use when they return to their land or wherever the farmers deem fit.
Last year the programme produced more than 34,000 kilograms of food from a little bit more than four acres of terraced land at Nhkawng Pa. “We can grow more”, explained one of the participants from Prang Hku Dung, another village affected by the fighting. The 35-year-old mother of three wants to see the programme obtain more growing space so that she and neighbours can increase the harvest, a sentiment shared by Lazing Lu. Whether the programme is expanded this year, however, depends on how successful BRIDGE is at securing more funding. All that’s needed is a relatively small amount in order to rent out a few more fields, but getting this funding has proven difficult.
Over the past two years, international funding for development and relief projects across Burma have shot up significantly, though donors tend to focus on giving out big sums of money for projects run by larger organisations. “Most donors don’t even want to look at small projects”, explained a Rangoon-based NGO veteran during a recent visit to the area. It’s an unfortunate reality that has made it difficult for smaller groups like BRIDGE to expand their programmes, even if they have proved to be very successful.
The organic farm project is the continuation of a previous one BRIDGE ran in KIO territory before the conflict erupted in June 2011. Shortly after a 17-year ceasefire between the KIO and the Burmese army collapsed, three quarters of the 36 villages where BRIDGE conducted sustainable agriculture and environmental awareness programmes were completely evacuated. The abandoned villages were quickly taken over by government forces who continue to control them.
“When the fighting started, all the villagers phoned the BRIDGE office to ask ‘What can we do? Where can we go?’”, recalled Hkaw Lwi, who in 2011 played a leading role in organising humanitarian relief for displaced villagers when international NGOs and UN agencies were completely cut off from accessing the thousands of displaced sheltering in KIO territory.
Nearly three years since the onset of hostilities, peace talks between Burma’s central government and the KIO appear to have stalled, leaving more than 100,000 people displaced by the conflict in the balance.
Lu’s future, like that of everyone else in her camp, remains uncertain. Even if a lasting ceasefire were signed tomorrow between the KIO and the central government, it would still be a major struggle for Lu and her neighbours to get their farms back, which are now occupied by Burmese troops and covered in land mines.
For Lu’s mother, who came of age during the early 1940′s when fighting between the Japanese and the Allied forces scarred much of what is now Kachin State, war is nothing new. In addition to having survived World War II, she lived through the KIO’s first conflict with the military that ran from 1961 to 1994 — another difficult period when most internally displaced Kachin were completely cut off from any and all relief and medical assistance. A daily dose of organic vegetables has surely made surviving the latest upheaval a little bit easier for this strong-willed nonagenarian.