The New Year brings with it magazines and newspapers full of healthy eating advice as, following the excesses of Christmas, many of us are keen to rethink our eating habits and introduce more fruit and vegetables into our diet.
In Chin State, Myanmar, many villagers are also improving their eating habits this January, thanks to the launch of a ‘New Ways to Grow’ pilot scheme. And adjustments to the crops grown in the region will not only improve the health of families involved in this new pilot scheme, but also the health of the natural environment, through the introduction of more sustainable agriculture methods.
Traditional farming in Chin State relies on ‘slash and burn shifting farming’ techniques, whereby existing vegetation is cut down and burnt off before new seeds are sown. This not only results in widespread deforestation and the loss of rare flora and fauna, but also the need to find and clear new farming land every year, which is extremely labour intensive.
“If we work for 50 years in shifting farming, we have to find 50 different farming areas” said Mr Khelai, Village Council President of Lailenpi. “Shifting farming also does not produce enough for our daily needs, but takes a lot of work, so there is no time to do another job.
This means every year we have to take on debt just for our daily food and school fees for our children”.
Alongside the environmental impact of traditional farming practices in Chin State, limited access to new seed varieties and a poor understanding of the connection between a balanced diet and health has led to poor nutrition and food insecurity in the region.
Mr Redo, aged 65, has been farming since he was 12 years old. He knows the pain of starvation, particularly among the children and elderly in his community, and understands the need for new farming methods. “The climate keeps changing, but we are still farming using the techniques of our forefathers. We do not travel much due to the lack of roads in the region and have little communication channels, so we cannot see what other farmers around the world are doing. As such, there is no way for us to improve our farming, daily food habits or health unless we can find a way to learn from others.”
But hope is rising in the Chin Hills. Health and Hope Myanmar (HHM) is providing sustainable and nutritious farming education and technical support to 130 families from 4 villages as part of a ‘New Ways to Grow’ pilot project. If the pilot proves successful. HHM hopes to expand the provision to reach more communities throughout Chin State.
Each family is provided with a plot of land, serviced by recently installed irrigation channels. They are trained in sustainable agriculture and land management techniques and provided with appropriate farming tools. Photographs below show the farmers taking part in the project along with their training packs which provide teaching on both technique and nutrition. They are being supported by water irrigation specialists and agronomists from Thailand who are supporting teaching on a methodology called: Something to Eat Every Day (SEED).
To enhance the farmer's education, they are also invited on an exposure trip to visit farms in the region already employing sustainable agriculture practices successfully.
Since July 2017, the HHM team have been busy working with the local community to select and store a wide variety of seeds. This allows the farming families to produce a more diverse and year-round harvest, reducing the risk of malnutrition should one crop fail. These seeds are now ready for distribution and planting as soon as the farmers have received their training.
Alongside the sustainable farming training given to the 130 families, nutrition and food preparation education is also being offered to other community members, particularly women who are responsible for most of the cooking. This is designed to ensure wider information sharing among the community and a higher uptake of beneficiary dietary changes.
Even though the project is still in it's early stages, there has been much enthusiasm and commitment by the villages.
“Now I can understand and imagine that our farmers are going to have a new life, with a lot of production from their farms, and be able to supply our whole town and region, even outside of our region. All people will have enough food in this lovely green land. And at the same time, we will be protecting our forest. We are so thankful for this project!” Mr Khelai, Village Council President of Lailenpi
Thank you to all our partners in the UK and beyond for supporting the vital work that Health and Hope is doing in western Myanmar. We look forward to sharing more stories and photos of this project as the crops start to grow.
Imagine if it took you six days to get to work, and once you had finally arrived at the office it rained so hard that you were stuck there for a week….
I recently started working part-time for Health & Hope, researching new partnership opportunities and supporting our wonderful network of committed donors and friends here in the UK. I am fortunate enough to work from home, and so my daily commute consists of walking upstairs to sit in my warm office, usually accompanied by a steaming cup of tea and a lazy cat.
As part of my induction, I have spent many hours reading about the lives of our incredible team of staff and health workers in Western Burma. In doing so, I have been repeatedly amazed by the daily challenges that they face living and working in such a remote rural location, and by the dedication they show to serving their communities.
One document, in particular, which detailed the experiences of our Area Co-ordinators, was especially challenging, bringing into stark contrast the difference between my working day and that of my Burmese colleagues. I thought I would share a few of their stories so that, perhaps, you too can compare your daily commute with theirs!
Area Co-ordinators offer in-situ mentoring, support and access to a regular supply of medicines to a growing network of Community Health Workers (CHWs) throughout Chin and Rakhine State. To do this, they travel many miles in boats, on motorbikes and on foot to reach the remote villages where our CHWs are based.
Recently, Area Coordinator, Sanay Aung, left his heavily pregnant wife to visit his CHWs; her due date falling soon after his scheduled return home. As the only health worker in their village, he was keen to be present to help his wife during labour, but unfortunately he was not able to return home as planned.
“It takes six days on foot to reach my village, and the heavy rains made the journey impossible” he reported.
Despite not even being able to contact his wife to see if she had given birth, Sanay carried on valiantly, battling through the floods to visit CHWs under his care, “praying to God and trusting Him to take care of his wife during his travels”.
Another Area Co-ordinator, Soe Myint, also faced many difficulties while visiting his team of CHWs. He wrote, “Due to road difficulties, I was not able to reach the more distant villages. I had to stop in one village for one week because there was no way to travel out, the river was flooded and we could not cross”.
And the flooding was not the only challenge Soe faced carrying out his Health & Hope duties, “On my way back from collecting data, I and my fellow Area Co-ordinator became ill and had to be hospitalised for a few days, before continuing on our journey back to the training centre in Sittwe.”
Phowi Luan was determined that the flooding wouldn’t stop him carrying out his duties. He risked his own safety to travel to eleven isolated villages, reporting, “I had to drive the boat by myself, because nobody wanted to travel under the heavy rain. There was no other way to reach all the CHW villages.”
Nowhere is the support offered by Area Co-ordinators more vital than in situations like those found by Khai Lua in the Pingyawa refugee camp. “The refugees I spoke to had been forced from their villages due to fighting,” he reported. “They now have no homes to return to, and their condition is so terrible. There is no toilet, proper housing, no place to stay, no water to drink and no school for their children.” Khai Lua found three CHWs living in the refugee camp, doing what they could to bring health and hope to the villagers there faced with such dire circumstances.
He reported, “There is a lot of sickness among the refugees such as cough, diarrhoea, malaria and flu. Hygiene and sanitation are very poor. Our CHWs struggle to help them as the conditions are so bad. But despite all these hardships, they were happy to welcome me. Many people had heard of Dr. Sasa and, though they had never met him, asked much about him and his work.”
I hope that these inspirational stories help you to visualise a little more clearly the enormous commitment and perseverance of Health and Hope Myanmar's (HHM) Area Co-ordinators, fulfilling their responsibilities diligently and without complaint despite the daily challenges and hardships they face. The relational and clinical assistance they offer to HHM's health workers, often working alone in isolated villages, is incredibly valuable.
Thank you for partnering with us to support them as they bring health and hope to so many in western Burma.
By Michelle James, Partnerships Executive