Bamboo has a dark history in Chin State, on the borders of India and Bangladesh in Myanmar’s northwest. Roughly every 50 years the bamboo forests flower and produce masses of fruit. The abundant food supply draws in rats to eat the fruit, but they stay to cause widespread crop damage and even consume stored food.
Starting in late 2006, Chin had a serious rat infestation. Most of the rats have moved on now, but the fallout of poor harvests, fluctuating crop market prices and rising interest rates on loans are still felt, say aid workers.
In the small village of Ye Laung Pan – home to 280 people and an hour and a half off-road motorbike ride from the town of Kanpetlet – rodents are a seasonal nuisance, even without fruiting bamboo. “Rats still come and eat our crops,” said Thang Nai, 36, head of the village. “Many people are deeply in debt as they cannot fully rely on their harvest.”
Just outside the township of Kanpetlet to the southwest, is Ukkho, where 210 people live. Many residents say they have struggled for years to get enough food. Nutritious food is beyond their ambitions, for now.
"Never has there been a single day we didn’t have to worry about the meals," murmured Raung Nein, 41, a widow, with a tattooed face – a dying tradition among elderly Chin women. "Some days we have to skip the meals," said the mother of two, who also takes care of her 66-year-old widowed mother.
With no agricultural land, the family relies on her patchy income as a day labourer, for which she earns about US$2 a day at best when she can find work as a sharecropper.
Food insecurity - a chronic and cyclical problem in these parts - affects all nine townships of Chin State - one of the poorest areas in Myanmar - where 73 percent of the estimated 500,000 population live below the poverty line, according to government estimates.
The most recent Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (2009-2010), reveals that children in Chin State have the country’s highest prevalence of diarrhoea (13 percent), a leading cause of child mortality linked to poor nutrition and sanitation. They were also more likely to be undernourished (30.7 percent, followed by 37.4 percent in Rakhine State) than children elsewhere in Myanmar.
Severe or moderate stunting, a sign of chronic debilitating malnutrition - the world’s leading cause of preventable brain damage - affects as many as 58 percent of Chin state’s children under age five.
A food security assessment by the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food Security Information Network (FSIN) in May 2013, before the monsoon’s arrival, when hunger usually worsens, showed the state was “moderately” food insecure.
Heavy rains in September prevented travel on several main roads across Chin State. A bridge was washed away between Hakha, the state capital, and Gangaw, a township in the central region of Magway, which connects Chin residents with markets in central Myanmar, and up to half the state’s maize crops was damaged or completely destroyed.
Transportation became sporadic, pushing up fuel and rice prices.
Southern parts of the state have not been spared, especially Kanpetlet and Paletwa townships. “Food security in Paletwa is slowly improving but assistance is still needed [for residents] to fully recover [from rat infestation]," said Isabelle Roubeix, the country director of NGO Action Contre la Faim (ACF).
In an assessment in Kanpetlet by the NGO Solidarités International, published in 2012, almost all of the 135 households interviewed reported access to land for farming, but villages were largely cut off from markets, which were mostly accessibly only by foot, and took 4.5 hours to reach on average. Residents were limited to eating what they could grow. Almost everyone (96 percent) reported food shortages in the previous year, and more than 95 percent were in debt, mostly to buy food. According to the WFP Food Consumption Score, which measures dietary diversity and food frequency, 92 percent had poor or “borderline” scores.
In an effort to bolster food security and reverse the state’s malnutrition crisis, experts suggest improving infrastructure by expanding education, energy supplies, telecommunications and roads, creating more community rice banks – a place where farmers can store their rice surplus post-harvest, from which they can borrow at low-interest rates during a rice shortage – and increasing microcredit lending to reduce dependence on extortionist money lenders.
Local media has reported that Chin state’s parliament recently approved US$1 million to go toward road and construction projects, as well as improved water and electricity access, an amount a state legislator had called “rather insignificant” given the needs.
State-wide, 22,000 people participate in WFP cash-for-work programmes, in which participants receive cash for working on development projects such as soil conservation, irrigation systems, tree planting, and road construction.
Solidarités International has helped pave motorbike tracks in otherwise impassable terrain, and in 2012 reported helping to create communal vegetable gardens in 22 villages, distributing soya and ginger seeds and training villagers in nutrition, composting, and how to run a micro-enterprise. The International Rescue Committee has reported setting up community rice banks, and local NGOs, including faith-based ones, are also active in trying to improve diets, nutrition levels, and access to food and job opportunities.
Despite these efforts, Roubeix of ACF says, "People are still in debt and struggling to pay back the loans… [they took] to buy rice [when rodents devoured crops] in 2006-08."
Even with a ceasefire negotiated one year ago between local rebels from the Chin National Front and the government, a Thailand-based NGO has documented continued human rights violations, most prevalent being extortion and arbitrary taxation, according to an April 2013 report from Chin Human Rights Organization, accusations the national government has steadfastly denied.