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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 21, 2009
Swarms of rats plague rural Myanmar
By Colin Hinshelwood

CHIANG MAI - A spreading plague of rats has devoured crops in western Myanmar, giving rise to a famine that threatens hundreds of thousands in the country's remote Chin State. The lack of government assistance has driven a mounting number of people across the border into neighboring India and other countries, representing the latest human crisis to emanate from Myanmar's borders.

According to a recent report issued by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), at least 54 people have died from the effects of severe malnutrition. The rights group said in September that "no less than 100,000 people [20% of the Chin population] are in need of immediate food aid". Those numbers are expected to rise as rice stockpiles are exhausted and the cold season


aggravates health problems related to malnutrition.

Transportation of aid into remote areas of Chin State is nearly impossible in the rainy season, and, to compound the crisis, farmers are facing a drastically low harvest in October-November. Rather than face starvation, thousands are migrating to neighboring countries, especially India, in search of food and employment.

Some have traveled for days to the Indian border to buy sacks of rice at subsidized prices and its unclear how many are staying in the border region rather than return to famine conditions at home. Sai Nai, a 70-year-old widow, currently lives alone because her children have left for India to find work.

"When we entered her house she hid what she was eating because she was ashamed," a CHRO consultant said. "In order to survive she had to sell her dog in exchange for some rice. She told us she has only one bucket of rice remaining for the rest of this year."

Myanmar's ruling junta continues to disallow international aid organizations from operating in the ethnically diverse region. Many aid groups have requested and been denied access to the area to help offset the impact of a plague of forest rats that has torn through the Chin State's highlands for the past two years, destroying according to some estimates between 75% and 82% of the area's crops. This year's harvest, due in November, is expected to be even lower than the previous two years, according to people monitoring the situation.

The catalyst for the rat infestation is an ecological phenomenon known locally as mautam, which translates loosely into English as "bamboo death". The phenomenon occurs approximately once every 50 years with the flowering of the melocanna baccifera bamboo species, whose nutritious fruit attracts and increases the fertility of rats.

After the fruit blossomed, an exponentially expanded population of rats was forced to forage elsewhere for food, ravaging rice, maize and sesame crops in the area. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) reported in March that the rat infestation had spread to the outskirts of the main town in Chin State, Hakha, where the rats had invaded tea plantations and tamarind orchards.
"I have never seen such a huge number of rats," a farmer from Matupi Township said. "I had thought we could easily drive out the rats and protect our crops. Just before the rice was ready to be harvested, the rats came and ate all the rice in the fields in just one night. We lost all our rice."

The rat infestation was predictable - or at least, it should have been. British colonialists recorded in the mid-19th century that the flowering of the bamboo fruit set off a deadly domino effect every 48 years. The last cycle, in 1958-9, led to the deaths of between 10,000 and 15,000 people in Chin State and the neighboring Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, which are currently 30% covered in bamboo forest.

The Indian government put in place prevention plans as early as 2000, when it convened an emergency meeting of the National Planning Commission in anticipation of the impending crisis. The Mizoram state government then initiated a "Bamboo Flowering and Famine Combat Scheme" in 2004 with the help of the central government.

In the Manipur town of Churanchandpur, Indian government troops took time off in May 2006 from battling separatist rebels to hunt rats. Education programs on pest control were organized and community farms were set up to grow aromatic spices such as turmeric and ginger, which are ignored by the rats and are valuable as a cash crop. In neighboring Mizoram, an alternative crop of potatoes was planned and rat poison was distributed. The local authorities in both states initiated a rat-culling incentive program, offering 2 rupees (5 US cents) per rat's tail submitted to their offices.

Entrenched negligence
In comparison, in military-ruled Myanmar no official precautions were taken against the imminent bamboo death. Chin State, already considered by humanitarian agencies to be one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the country, has been caught completely unprepared.

The flowering of the bamboo fruit started in late 2006, predictably 48 years after its last cycle. Within 12 months the rat infestation was endemic and now the risk of a catastrophic famine is rising. Chin farmers defended themselves with only limited resources by laying traps, building protective fences and cutting the bamboo fruit and feeding it to pigs.

Families with cats were sometimes able to keep the rats away from their sleeping areas. But the farmers were reluctant to use rat poison because they quickly realized that without other sources of food they would likely have to eat the rats to survive. In one village in Thantlang Township near the Indian border, some 55,000 rats were reportedly trapped and killed in 2008.

Other farmers, however, were unable to camp out in their fields because they could not construct shelters because of the shortage of bamboo - which Chin villagers traditionally use to build makeshift huts - after the rats had destroyed the plants in the area. Many walk to their fields every evening with their families in tow carrying catapults and pots and spoons to their fields to create noise and try to kill the rats.

By this year, overwhelmed by the huge rat population, thousands of farmers gave up and migrated closer to border areas where food could be purchased. Because it is such a social taboo for Chin people to abandon their village and their community - "a disgrace", says one Chin expert - many left secretly in the middle of the night.

At least 4,000 Chin headed to Saiha, the largest town in Mizoram. Most have had to take menial jobs - carrying wood, working in rice fields or quarries, road construction, and other labor-intensive work that pays as little as 70 to 100 rupees ($1.50- $2.10) per day. Thousands more have left their homes to scavenge for food elsewhere in Myanmar - in areas where the plague of rats has not yet ravaged the crops.

In response, WFP and their local implementing partners have initiated a "Food for Work" program in Chin State, which, in some townships, has been expanded into a "Food plus Cash for Work" program, mainly based on road construction and land development schemes.

WFP, along with United Nations Development Program and a handful of other Yangon-based agencies, is permitted by the military junta to operate in the Chin region. Although initially dismissive of the CHRO findings, the WFP has now confirmed the reports of malnourishment in Chin State, estimating that 70,000 people in seven townships (Tonzang, Tiddim, Htanlang, Madupi, Paletwa, Falam, Hakha) have been "severely affected" by rat infestation.

As of July, cross-border aid from India has been strictly banned and the delivery of relief is often carried out clandestinely, including by Christian relief agencies. Only aid groups that play by the junta's rules, including the WFP and UNDP, are officially allowed to work in Chin state. "However, the rations each family received from the cross-border relief teams were only enough for one week or two," said CHRO program officer Za Uk.

Despite the WFP's efforts and the work of some government-approved agencies from Yangon, it is noteworthy that villagers generally choose to walk to the Indian border in search of assistance rather than toward central Myanmar. "The people vote with their feet," said an international aid worker with 20 years' experience in the region.

The crisis is having a mounting social impact. Enrollment rates at schools in the region are reportedly down 50% to 60%, as children are forced to help their parents forage for food - wild yam roots, edible leaves, shoots and tree bark - as their annual rice stocks run out. Some villagers have said that they fear reprisals if they speak out about the deteriorating situation, which, as with its initial handling of last year's Cyclone Nargis disaster, would highlight the government's poor crisis management.

"The situation has been made more acute by the ruling military regime's utter neglect of the suffering, compounded by policies and practices of abuse and repression against Chin civilians," said CHRO in its recent report. "As thousands struggle with hunger, starvation and disease, the SPDC [military government] continues practices of forced labor, extorting excessive amounts of money from villagers, confiscating people's land and property, in addition to other severe human-rights abuses."

Apart from those who have taken refuge in India, thousands more have migrated to Thailand and Malaysia where expatriate Chin communities have emerged over the years. With the crisis predicted to last for as long as five years, many wonder whether the emigration will be permanent.

A non-governmental organization consultant active along the India-Myanmar border said earlier this month that the plague of rats is moving northward into areas of Sagaing Division, east of Chin State. The rat infestation generally reaches its zenith five months after the flowering of the bamboo plant. "In some areas the bamboo has just begun bearing fruit now," he said. "So, the bamboo death will follow soon."

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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