KACHIN STATE, 6 January 2012 (IRIN) - The annual harvest season in Myanmar's northern Kachin State has come and gone but much of the rice crop has not been harvested or was never planted after fighting between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) erupted on 9 June 2011.
Traditionally, farmers transfer their rice seedlings in June with harvests in November and December before the winter sets in.
"This year's harvest was next year's investment, but now we have nothing for the future. We will have to cross the mountains and scavenge for wild vegetables so that we will have something to eat," says Kot Nan, 35.
"When the conflict started we were planting rice but the soldiers came into our village so we couldn't plant," the mother-of-two told IRIN at the main camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) outside Laiza, a border town between Myanmar and China.
There are more than 40,000 IDPs in Kachin State, local aid groups say, including an estimated 20,000 in camps around Laiza, controlled by the political wing of the KIA, the Kachin Independence Organization.
For many Kachin families, farming is the primary source of livelihood, with rice being the main crop, along with sugar cane and corn.
Bill Davies, a researcher with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), says the food security issue is of major concern.
"The fighting starting when they were preparing the seedlings so some of them put the seeds right into the paddy in the hope that they would grow and others planted a lot later, which decreases the yield."
Davies led a fact-finding mission for PHR in the border areas of Kachin state last September, visiting six camps and four shelters for IDPs.
The group's findings were released in a report [ http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/library/reports/under-siege-in-kachin-state-burma.html ] on 30 November.
"Not being able to plant 100 percent of their fields, planting it late, and also not transplanting it at the right time were the three main problems. A lot of people are worried that they were going to have a smaller crop yield than normal," Davies said.
Sporadic fighting has also restricted travel for civilians, including those farmers who were able to plant but could not return to their fields to tend their crops.
And while there are no official figures yet on the area's overall harvest shortfall for 2011, the impact on the population is already evident.
At a relief line in one of the main refugee camps near Laiza, 24-year-old Moo Pan breastfeeds her baby girl as she waits for food rations - almost seven months after fighting first erupted.
"We were forced to leave our village and we can't go back because government forces have taken over our houses and land," she said.
Compounding matters are reports that the Burmese army is regularly pillaging food and supplies from civilians in the area, a key finding of the PHR study.
With local supplies diminishing and the ability of local aid groups to provide assistance on the decline, [ http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?ReportId=93708 ], the situation on the ground underscores the importance of further outside aid.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) at the end of December, the tens of thousands now displaced are in "great need of humanitarian assistance".
But getting into the most-affected areas will only be the first step, Marcus Prior, spokesman for World Food Programme (WFP) Asia, told IRIN on 5 January.
"Even with improved access, WFP will need funding to provide the kind of assistance we think may be necessary in Kachin," he explained.
"Our operations across the country are facing significant shortfalls - right now WFP only has funds to guarantee food deliveries into February."
The UN food agency is able to reach about 15,000 of the displaced in Kachin State, but hopes that following a recent humanitarian convoy across the conflict line, the next convoy will include WFP food, Marcus said.