Friday, February 13, 2009

Burma’s Rice Exports Soar, While Millions Remain Malnourished

Burmese farmers plant rice near new capital Naypyidaw. (Photo: AP)

The Irrawaddy News

Driven by strong demand from Africa and Bangladesh, Burma’s rice exports have increased rapidly since the beginning of this year, according to traders in Rangoon, who say that sales in January have already nearly quadrupled the total for the first half of the current fiscal year.

“Exports to Africa, Mauritius and Bangladesh have gone way up,” said a rice exporter from Rangoon, adding that export prices remain unusually low, while domestic prices are continuing to rise.

“The increase in rice exports is having an impact, making rice more expensive locally,” he said.

According to a Reuters report, Burma has exported around 400,000 tons of rice so far this year. A Burmese agricultural official told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the country’s exports over the period from April to September 2008 amounted to around 100,000 tons.

One reason for the strong sales has been the cheap price of Burmese rice on the international market. Burma is selling 25 percent broken rice at US $270-$280 per ton, compared with $348-US$353 quoted for a similar Vietnamese variety.

Speaking early last December, Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein said that Burmese rice exports could reach as high as three million tons in 2009. “Myanmar is to strive for ensuring local self-sufficiency in rice and [exports of] about three million tons of rice annually,” he was quoted in the state-run media as saying.

However, some Burmese agricultural experts said they didn’t expect the country’s rice surplus to exceed two million tons, far short of the three million projected by the government.

A senior official from the Myanmar Rice Traders Association said that rice production would likely decrease as a result of lower prices, as farmers say they could end up selling at a loss because of the high price of inputs.

“Fertilizer, seeds, pesticides and equipment such as pumps and ploughs are all very expensive,” he said, adding that the impact of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions last May, would also be felt for some time.

“Total rice production was about 18 million tons last year, including summer paddy,” he said. “In the coming fiscal year, rice production will fall at least 20 percent.”

Meanwhile, a joint report by the World Food Program and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, released on January 22, said that there are more than five million people below the food poverty line in Burma.

The report also said that two divisions and five states were found to be a priority for emergency food assistance, requiring 186,000 tons of food aid.

The report pointed out that after Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy delta—an area known as the “Rice Bowl” of Burma—last May, rice harvests in the affected townships fell by about a third.

In Chin State, near Burma’s border with India, at least 30 children were reported to have died as a result of a famine caused by a plague of rats that has been devouring rice stocks since December 2007. According to exiled Chin rights groups, at least 100,000 ethnic Chin, or 20 percent of the state’s population, has been affected by the food emergency.

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