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Cyclone damage affects productivity

Tens of thousands of farmers in the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta face the prospect of a thin rice harvest this monsoon season and uncertainty over whether they will be able to plant the vital summer crop.

“We cultivated the fields quite late this year and we did not have enough livestock to help us either,” said one farmer in a small village near Labutta, one of Myanmar’s delta towns hardest hit by the May 2 cyclone.

Some of the seeds received from the former Burma’s military government had failed to sprout and he had managed to plant only 70 per cent of his land, the farmer said, his mouth stained red by betel nut.

“We’re working so that we will have enough to feed ourselves and won’t die of hunger,” he said quietly.

Six months after Cyclone Nargis slammed in the delta, killing more than 130,000 people and leaving 2.4 million destitute, farmers in Asia’s onetime “rice bowl” say they expect to produce between 30 and 50 per cent less rice than normal.

The shortfall is likely to put pressure on the precarious food security situation in what was the world’s largest rice exporter before the Second World War.

With less rice to sell as a surplus, many farmers worry about being able to afford the seed stock and fertilizer for the crucial “summer crop,” whose yield is normally two to three times higher than the monsoon season crop just harvested.

The cyclone killed around 200,000 farm animals, 120,000 of which were used by farmers to plough fields in the former Burma’s “rice bowl.”

The military government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have made replacing these draught animals a top priority, but it has been slow going.

As of late October, some 3,900 buffaloes and cattle were given to affected families in Irrawaddy and Yangon divisions, representing only 1.7 per cent of lost animals.

If they are not replaced soon, the FAO said planting on 122,000 hectares of rice paddy would be affected, “resulting in significantly lower yields.”

Aside from killing farm animals, the cyclone also swept away water pumps, further hampering irrigation.

“We only have one-third of all the machinery and resources we need,” said Soe Oo, who has three children.

Farmers say they hope aid agencies will support them for at least one more season so they can get their lives back on track.

Most people have been surviving on cyclone-damaged rice, and some villages say they no longer receive food aid from the World Food Program, the Uni ted Nat ions food agency.

“With help, we can get back to normal in three years. Otherwise, it will take five or six years at least,” said a singlet-clad farmer near Labutta. “No one can support us forever. We should work hard now, so we can be self-sufficient.”

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