Burmese Farmers

Fr. Bernie Taylor (U Mya Thein), M.S.
visits with children from the village
of Hmawbi, who suffered
much from Cyclone Nargis
My long history with the La Salettes has often allowed me to take a longer look at projects and situations. In my present position in the Region of Myanmar, I have been directing our efforts for several years, long before our reimplantation in 2005 at the Shrine of the Holy Rosary, in Chanthagone, Paleik (Sintkine Township), Mandalay, Myanmar. We celebrated this momentous event together with La Salettes and some clergy and religious from Mandalay and Pyay (formerly Prome). 
At the moment, besides Anton in the Philippines, Valentine is assigned to the Shrine at La Salette, France, and Nicodemus in Georgia (United States). With the seven newly professed members, our District of Myanmar can boast of twenty La Salettes. One is locally assigned as the secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Peace and Justice; one is head of the Catechetical Renewal Program in Myitkyina and Bhamo; one is the Curator (Director) of the Shrine of the Holy Cross in Alam, Myitkyina diocese, plus we have the Shrine in Chanthagone and five small near-by parishes. 
After much prayer and reflection, I thought it was time to let the younger La Salettes take leadership roles in our life and ministry. Not wanting to be a hindrance to their grwth, I asked permission to get involved with the farmers in Kundaing, Pyapon, Myanmar, whom I had been helping since the tropical cyclone Nargis, that left hundreds of thousands dead and many orphaned and homeless. Nargis was the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of of our country!

My Apostolate to Burmese Farmers

Since the cyclone, Nargis, many of my friends from all over the world were trying to reach out to the victims. Howeverr due to restrictions, help could not be given freely. Many of the affected areas were restricted places. Some organizations were allowed to operate eventually. 
Parishioners lost the roof
of their church
because of the cyclone, Nargis.
The diocese of Yangon had a few centers in Pyapon – Dedaye – Bogale area. I asked if they would help the Kani – Kundaing area. They rejected my proposal because the place was not easily accessible by land or by sea.
So I was given an opportunity to help the people in the area directly. After wading through knee-deep mud for a few miles, I was able to reach the village. The entire area was devastated. My aunt was about to sell half of the land to restart their farming. So after getting the agreement from the donors, I  began helping people to rebuild and buy seed for planting.
Even after helping them for a few years, many of the people were still in debt. The people needed help in many areas: financing, technical help, infrastructure, marketing, etc. There was a need for new methods and the idea of establishing a model farm was suggested. 
With a few others, we discussed buying a good-sized piece of land (about 70 acres) which was for sale. The idea of borrowing money and buying the land was discussed but would have required a great deal of money to begin the project. Since the initial funds had to come from people outside the La Salette community – in order not to siphon off the funds of the Myanmar La Salette District – borrowing money was not seen as a feasible idea. 
Using videos and other multimedia materials, I tried to sell the idea of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). It was initially developed by a Jesuit priest in Madagascar. Soon afterwards Cornell University in Ithica, New York, picked up the idea. It became quite popular and even governments began promoting it. 
However my aunt frankly commented: “We have been farming here for 50 years, and you don’t have any experience at all.” So the only way to begin the project was to get our hands dirty and begin using the process ourselves.

The Farming Project in Kundaing, Pyapon, southern Myanmar

Workers planting shoots
There was a plot of land someone owned which was usually flooded since it had the surface features of a large basin. All the water from the neighboring fields would eventually settle in that area. Of the 10 acres planted each year, they harvested only 250 baskets. I asked if he could experiment with the land for a couple of years and was given their permission. After getting the help of my cousin and her friend, I began explaining the ideas of the SRI method.
This method has only a few main ideas:
  • The fields are prepared as usual but the fields should be level. 
  • The seedlings should be planted very young taking care that the roots will not be pushed up.
  • There should be alternate periods of flooding and drying the fields in 10 day intervals. The water level should never be more than one inch deep. 
  • The weeding should be done by a rotary weeder to help aerate the soil. 
  • If possible use only natural fertilizer.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. Now it was time to prepare the land. So with the borrowed money, I asked those involved in the project to build a dyke. When I came back from the Philippines after New Years, they were still trying to choose the auspicious day to start. Finally when they began, there was no work for the other farmers since they were still waiting for the rains. Luckily the entire village was willing to help build the dyke (of course for a price). 
Workers near one of the long irrigation canals
With the help of about 80 people the dyke was finished in about a week. Little did I know that the dyke was a nice monument but would not actually hold water! They could not dig very deep because salt water would fill in after digging just two feet deep. They had to dig a wider trench which meant there was less land to use for planting.
Since at that time I was helping out with the mission appeals in the United States, I was not around to help with the seedlings. They could not control the water level as they had no idea of what a drainage system entails. The dyke could not keep the water out. The fields were flooded all the time. The weeding was not necessary because everything was under water. 
The selection of the seeds by using saturated salt water was the real life-saver. Besides having good seeds, the space between the seedlings helped the plants to grow more tillers than the rest. Counting the number of tillers in some plants surprised them. To help keep the soil fertile, a second crop of soya beans is going to be planted after harvesting rice.
I am gathering money from my friends and relatives. Except for the salaries and fuel expenses, the equipment and the house will be used for the next few years. The harvest cannot be calculated at the moment. 

Some Final Words…

In spite of our inability to follow the SRI method completely, a great improvement can be seen. The main idea of planting the seeds farther than usual from each other has made a big difference. The roots are bigger and for that reason the plants can more easily withstand the floods and winds. 
Fr. Bernie taking a well-deserved
break with his fellow workers
Almost all the neighboring fields have very few plants still standing. Even though the initial outlay of expenses are high, eventually (hopefully in three years), our project will break even. Eventually the system of SRI will lead to long-term organic farming. 
A lot of farmers in the neighborhood have seen the improvement and many have shown interest in our method. This new system will help the farmers evaluate and experiment. Even if this was our only accomplishment, this entire project will be well worth the effort.
Soon a comprehensive plan for the drainage will have to be developed. Better storage and drying methods will have to be constructed. A reservoir of some sort will have to be in place if a second crop is to be planted. Crop rotation has to be promoted to keep the soil chemistry naturally fertile. And finally a vehicle will have to be purchased because a lot of time is wasted waiting for rides. 
Thanks to all who have helped initiate this apostolate to the farmers. Maraming salamat po! Merci beaucoup! Mil gracias! Thank you very much!
Floods happen too often

Copyright © 2017 -  La Salette Missionaries, Province of Mary, Mother of the Americas.
947  Park St. - Attleboro MA, 02703