CHIN STATE, Myanmar—The Chin people have farmed and survived on this mountainous land for as long as anyone can remember, but their farming methods now have experts raising serious environmental concerns.
The primary culprit is slash-and-burn farming—the Chin call it “switch” farming—whereby farmers clear and burn all the vegetation off a steep hillside, farm it for three years, and leave it fallow for another 10 or so before repeating the cycle.
The process subjects the soil to erosion during the long rainy season, robbing it of vital nutrients. Repeated again and again, the result is a downward spiral in crop yields, and of profits for the farmers.
The deforestation caused by slash-and-burn farming is exacerbated by the need for firewood in a region with five months a year of cold, wet weather requiring almost constant heat. The pine forests that once covered the higher elevations here are almost gone.
“An average family cuts 1.5 tons of wood a year,” said Moses Thla Cung, a livelihood specialist for the U.N. Development Program (UNDP). “Now people are going farther and farther from home to cut trees that are smaller and smaller.”
“A hundred more years like this and no one will be able to live here,” said Siang Mang, Hakha township project manager for the UNDP. “We are headed for extinction unless we change our ways.”
Chin State, which is situated in Myanmar’s far west, on the border with India, is the country’s poorest region. Its 500,000 people, almost all Christians, are an ethnic minority who rely on agriculture to survive. Chin State has virtually no industry and receives minimal help from the central government.
The region’s dry season, with no rain for five to six months, exposes the environmental devastation. Bone-dry hillsides smolder with fires set to clear land for the next round of farming. Woodcutters on horseback depart villages every morning. Piles of cut wood await removal to homes and villages. The remaining stands of pine are thin and frail.
So bleak is their future that many young Chin are leaving for better lives in Malaysia, India, and the United States. There, they are able to earn enough so that they can send money home to support the families they left behind. These remittances are estimated to make up 40 percent of the Chin economy.
In an effort to reverse the downward environmental trend, the UNDP has begun encouraging farmers to terrace their hillsides to preserve the soil and enable them to farm one piece of land permanently instead of moving every three years. And it has given some farmers sprinkler systems for growing during the long dry season, creating splotches of fertile green in an otherwise bleak landscape.
The hope is that other farmers will see the benefits of terracing and sprinklers and will adopt these techniques themselves.
“The Chin people are very stubborn,” said the UNDP’s Hedun, a Chin himself. “But maybe if they see they can make more money with these new methods, they will change.”
Tawk Cer, a Chin woman farmer, has found a way to make money by gathering Elephant Foot Yam in the forest to sell to Chinese brokers. Elephant Foot Yam, a round root vegetable, is not only edible but used in China as a natural medicine for piles and eye ailments.
Just from what she gathered in the forest, Tawk Cer earned about U.S. $2,000 this year, a boon for her impoverished family. Now she wants to find out how she can grow the vegetable as a cash crop for even better profits.
“Our people need help in finding ways to improve our lives,” she said.
Fortunately for Tawk Cer and other Chin farmers, water is in plentiful supply for now, and is piped down to them from lakes, ponds, and springs high in the mountains. But deforestation poses a threat even to this, creating fears that a significant loss of vegetation in the watershed areas will increase evaporation and lessen groundwater retention.
And with rainfall diminishing year by year, water preservation has become even more important to preserving the environment and the Chin way of life.
“If you can tell the world, we need education and reforestation,” Sen No Thang, a teacher in Za Lai village, told me.
“If we can educate our people to save and restore the forests, everyone will be better for it.”
Tyler Chapman is a regular contributor to RFA.