Kachin IDP camps go organic

In the rolling hills surrounding Nhkawng Pa camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar's northern Kachin state, 20 women pick the fresh vegetables of November's harvest, placing them in woven baskets.

For many of the farmers, pursuing their traditional livelihoods has become all but impossible since fighting erupted again in June 2011, following the collapse of a ceasefire that lasted for 17 years between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Nearly 100,000 people are still displaced, including more than 53,000 living in dozens of camps outside government control, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The agency continues to advocate for full and sustained access to all locations housing the displaced so as to reach everyone in need of assistance.

"We had enough food supplies when the fighting started and we first came to the camps. But now it has become very difficult to get fresh vegetables," said Doi Sum Hlu, 37, a mother living in Nhkawng Pa camp, home to 1,615 IDPs.

During decades of fighting for greater autonomy, many farms were seeded with landmines and farmers are still at high risk when they return to their farms to work. This has severely limited livelihood opportunities, according to the Myanmar UN Country Team's (UNCT) 2013 Kachin Response Plan.

The organic farm project was started in November 2011 by Bridging Rural Integrated Development and Grassroots Empowerment (BRIDGE), a community-based organization. "It feels like we are back at our farm producing vegetables again, and [we] feel productive once more," said Khon Ygee, 56, whose deserted farmhouse is located in neighbouring Kaw Thao Village, in the conflict zone.

In such areas food insecurity is rife, notes the World Food Programme. While the BRIDGE programme is limited to a small number of people in comparison to the size of IDP populations, instead of simply giving handouts it provides participants with heightened self-esteem and access to a safe and sustainable food source, say NGOs.

Growing safe food

While "some camps in particularly remote border areas remain beyond the regular reach of even local [UN] partners", according to the UNCT, the organic farms are in five IDP sites huddled along the Myanmar-China border - Nhkawng Pa, Loi Je, Lana Zup Ja, Bumtsip Pa. and Hkahkye - housing 6,646 people. "Needs are most desperate in the areas outside government control," reports ECHO, the European Commission's humanitarian aid arm.

Since 2011, 663 volunteer IDPs have been trained to work on the farms, which are all on land controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the KIA. Each camp has just over three hectares of land for organic farming: in the case of Nhkawng Pa, the land was either donated to the project by its owners, or commercially rented.

Any interested camp resident can join the programme, and participants now grow 19 different types of vegetables, including ginger, carrots, cabbage, onion, lentils, pumpkin and four varieties of beans. The food is distributed equally among the IDPs.

The extra crops supplement the produce arriving from across the China border, which locals complain is hazardous for their health due to the heavy reliance of those farmers on agro-chemical fertilizers. "The business of growing and selling is competitive, so farmers use a lot of agro-chemicals to increase yields," Kaw Li, the BRIDGE programme coordinator, explained. "Our main target for organic farming is to produce safe food."

The organic farms use natural fertilizers made from manure, leaves and compost. The project is supported by Partners Relief and Development, an international NGO dedicated to Myanmar aid. "It's such an exciting thing to do, rather than just handing them rice and blankets," Oddny Gunmaer, Partners' founder and advocacy director, told IRIN from Norway.

In 2011, Partners staff in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, taught visiting Kachin farmers to make natural fertilizer and improve irrigation methods on model farms established in Thailand. The farmers then brought the knowledge back to Myanmar and trained others.

Good yields

In 2005, Jao Sen, a farmer living in central Kachin State, switched from natural to chemical fertilizers to increase his crop yield. "When I first started using the chemicals I would use one or two bags per application, but after a few years I needed to use eight to 10 bags [to get the same results]," he said.

In just three years, his dependency on the chemicals quadrupled. "Now I've gone back to natural ways for the past two years and the seed is very good," said Jao Sen. Agro-chemicals also pose health risks with repeated exposure, according to the World Health Organization.

The importance of livelihood opportunities for people's health and well-being cannot be underestimated, as it prevents premature return to conflict areas, UNCT reports.

"Limited livelihood opportunities pose further protection concerns, with IDPs increasingly engaging in high-risk employment, including cultivation of land located in conflict-affected areas," UNCT says.

Last year, the BRIDGE organic farming programme provided over 80,000kg of fresh vegetables to camp residents, and the techniques farmers learn "will help them in the long term because when this conflict is over they will still be able to benefit from it", Gunmaer said.

After each crop, seeds are harvested for use in the next season. "In addition to learning how to plant crops using a safer method, we can also get vegetables without having to pay out any extra costs," said Khon Ygee.