In Myanmar’s Naga Self-Administered Zone, crop yields for farmers practicing traditional slash-and burn agriculture have been falling due to climate change and deforestation. With support from a private donor, Community Partners International (CPI) launched a pilot project to help communities to adopt new and sustainable farming practices and improve their food security.
Situated in the northern tip of Myanmar’s Sagaing Region bordering the Indian State of Nagaland, the Naga Self-Administered Zone is one of the poorest, least-developed and most isolated areas of Myanmar. This mountainous frontier tract is home to the Naga people, a group of more than 40 tribes who inhabit India’s Nagaland State and northwestern Myanmar. This region has experienced decades of unrest, with Naga independence movements in Myanmar and India engaging in protracted struggles with their respective governments.
The inhabitants of Namlit village have practiced slash-and-burn agriculture for as long as they can remember. However, in recent years, climate change has caused annual rainfall to decrease and average temperatures to rise. The construction of new roads has accelerated logging and deforestation which have in turn created soil erosion and reduced the amount of land suitable for crop cultivation. With crop yields falling year-on-year, the community is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.
"When we were young, we only saw green forests and mountains. The weather was fair,” explains Vang Sing, ENDO’s project manager who oversees this project. “Since 2007, climate change has become more noticeable. The weather has become more unstable. Now, in the summer, we face the problem of water scarcity. There are a lot of water problems in the villages where we work.”
In June 2020, Community Partners International (CPI) launched a pilot project in partnership with the Eastern Naga Development Organization (ENDO) to support the 43 households of Namlit village to transition to more effective and sustainable agricultural practices. The pilot project builds an ongoing partnership between CPI and ENDO to support health and nutrition for these communities in this region.
The approach is twofold: to encourage a transition from slash-and-burn to terraced cultivation that helps to reduce soil erosion and allows farmers to more efficiently manage scarce water resources, and to support the husbandry of “gayal”, a species of large domestic cattle common in parts of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. As well as improving food security, the project intends to help the community to generate income that they can use for other purposes, such as supporting the education and health care services.
“The community had mastered slash-and-burn cultivation but, over time, it damaged the forest and they had to farm further and further away from the village,” explains Vang Sing. “We started to think about how we could show them the benefits of terraced cultivation and we contacted CPI to help us."
As a first step, CPI worked with ENDO to engage farmers and community leaders to consider these new approaches. Once an agreement was reached, the community established a project committee to oversee implementation and funds management. The village leadership identified two acres of land to use for the pilot project and ENDO staff worked with farmers to prepare the terraces and irrigation systems, and plant rice paddy.
In 2020, during the first year of cultivation, the newly-terraced land yielded 70 bags of rice. In 2021, as the farmers became more skilled with terraced farming techniques, the yield increased significantly to 113 bags of rice. Participating farmers have already noticed the benefits of terraced cultivation. The reduced soil erosion means that they use less fertilizer which saves them money. Improved irrigation and water management has enabled them to grow better quality rice, significantly increasing the yield per acre compared to slash-and-burn cultivation. The village project committee is already planning to expand the area of terraced land in 2022 and bring more farmers into the project.
"The villagers have welcomed our assistance. When other communities in the area heard what we were doing, they asked us to come and help them do the same," confirms Vang Sing. “In many of the villages we serve, they can’t grow enough using slash-and-burn techniques. This is contributing to malnutrition. Children are dying because of this and the lack of health care and knowledge about nutrition.”
The community agreed that the rice produced from this pilot project would be held in reserve for villagers, and that they could receive rice supplies from the reserve on credit whenever food became scarce, paying for it later when they had enough money. This system proved effective when transportation links were affected by the February 2021 military coup and ensuing turmoil. As supply chains were disrupted and food became scarce in local markets, villagers were able to withdraw rice from the community store on credit or buy it if they had the money available.
“We lend or sell the rice at a low price to people in need in the village,” explains Vang Sing. “All the money raised goes into the village fund to provide emergency health care and support for children’s education.”
Alongside the terraced agriculture component of the project, CPI also provided funds for the community to purchase nine “gayal” cows to use as breeding stock to build a herd. In the first year, the cows gave birth to four healthy calves. The community plans to sell some of the cows for income as the herd continues to grow.
This pilot project has already shown the viability of small-scale, community-led initiatives to improve food security in this region. On the basis of this success, CPI and ENDO are considering options to expand the project to other villages in the surrounding area that continue to use slash-and-burn farming and are facing falling crop yields.
“In future, we’d like to help all of these communities adopt terraced cultivation,” says Van Sing. “Our work with CPI is very beneficial for the local people. We want to do a lot more to help communities in the Naga region."