Burma’s Plague of Rats

In the cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy Delta, an exploding rat population is wreaking havoc.
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Two women wash rice in front of their flooded home in a cyclone-affected region of Burma, May 8, 2008.
Two women wash rice in front of their flooded home in a cyclone-affected region of Burma, May 8, 2008.

BANGKOK—Areas of rural Burma worst-hit by last year's devastating Tropical Cyclone Nargis have been overrun with rats, which have destroyed up to half the rice crop in some areas, according to residents.

“The number of rice fields being destroyed has been increasing,” said a resident of Bogalay district, in the Irrawaddy Division, which was hardest hit by the disaster.

“Some have lost all of their crops. The rats destroyed all of the crops,” he said. “Some who had 10-15 acres of rice fields have lost all of their crops in the fields.”

The man, a farmer from the Kyun Thaya area of villages in southern Bogalay, said that around two-thirds of this year’s rice harvest near Kyein Chaung Gyi and Set San villages have been destroyed by rats.

Villagers in the worst-hit regions said they have been unable to rebuild their lives in the wake of the storm, which killed an estimated 140,000 people and left millions with no home or livelihood.

Local and overseas aid workers said Burma’s ruling military junta deliberately blocked aid to victims of Nargis, and failed to ensure that fields were ploughed in time for the harvest.

In Laputta township, also in the Irawaddy Delta, authorities launched a campaign to cut down the rat population in August—with farmers required to catch 10 rats per household, evidenced by 10 rat-tails, or face a steep fine.

But residents said it has done little to curb the booming rat population and rice paddies are suffering.

One farmer said his 10 acres of rice vanished almost overnight, leaving nothing to harvest.

Another farmer, who also asked not to be identified, blamed the explosion in the rat population on the authorities’ failure to properly dispose of animals and humans killed during Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath.

Breeding in tall grass

Now, farmers in Bogalay say that tall grass is growing where rice paddies once were, and that the rats are breeding in the unploughed fields.

“This year there are a lot of unfinished rice fields in our area,” one resident said.

“Although they have reported to the state authorities that their fields are complete, in actual fact those fields are not completed as yet.”

“In those incomplete fields, wild grass has started to grow and the rats have been building nests in that long grass. These rats then go and ravage and destroy the nearby rice fields.”

Experts say that the collapse of the ecological system in the cyclone-hit rural areas boosted the rat population, as many of the rats’ natural predators were wiped out in the storm and its aftermath.

Local officials say they are trying everything possible to crush the rat infestation.

Bamboo fruits

“Yes, we are crushing and destroying the rats,” an official who answered the phone at the Bogalay district agricultural department said.

“We have been eradicating them with chemicals.”

“We are also trying to get more chemicals to use to destroy the rats,” he added.

The head of the nongovernmental environmental protection group (FEDA) U Ohn said the rat population had boomed because of a ready supply of bamboo fruits, however.

But local farmers said they were close to despair.

“Nobody seems to be able to crush them,” the Bogalay farmer said.

“They don’t know what to do. They themselves are saying that they have given up since they don’t know what to do.”

“There are a lot of incomplete fields in our area, so tall and wild grass began to grow in those fields. They have grown so long that we cannot even walk through the long grass,” he added.

Original reporting in Burmese by Zaw Moe Kyaw and Moe Kyaw. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated from the Burmese by Soe Thinn. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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