August 6th, 2013
Rats, Bamboo and Famine in Chin State, Burma
It is estimated that in the late 1950s, 15,000 people died from famine in southern Chin State, Burma, due to a natural recurring phenomenon: the Mautam. Every 50 years, a ‘rat flood’ arises, due to the ecological cycle of flowering bamboo. This can have disastrous effects on local crops and stored foods, resulting in huge food shortages for the Chin people. Today, many communities in Chin State again face the devastating effects of famine and continued crop failure.
The Mautam, meaning ‘bamboo death’ is a phrase often used in Mizo folklore and superstition. Yet its roots are based in reality for the hundreds of thousands of people who suffer at the hands of this natural phenomenon. Melocanna Baccifera is a particular species of bamboo which exists across large areas of northeast India in the states of Mizoram and Manipur, as well as in regions of Bangladesh and in Chin State, Burma.
Approximately every 50 years the bamboo flowers; producing a fruit resembling an avocado, full of protein and other nutrients. For the local population of forest rats this is a feast and they gorge themselves, stripping the bamboo of all its fruit and seeds. Consequently there is a huge surge in the rat population, and once all the bamboo has been destroyed, they then turn to other sources of food. The ‘rat flood’ invades local farms and villages, devouring crops and other stored foodstuffs such as rice, potatoes, and vegetables. Unfortunately, this natural phenomenon has a disastrous impact on local populations, causing widespread chronic food shortages.
In 2001, the Indian Government called on the expertise of zoologists and botanists to explore responses to the Mautam. A variety of measures were implemented, such as a rat cull and the construction of roads and helipads to allow for the transport of food relief aid provided by the Government and NGO’s.
By 2008, in the Hill Tracts of Bangladesh the effects of the bamboo flowering were becoming increasingly obvious. In response to this the United Nations World Food Programme began the distribution of food relief aid to tens of thousands of affected people.
Despite the predictability of the bamboo famine, preparation was limited in Chin State. For the southern Chin people who live in dense bamboo forest, the bamboo is essential for housing, agriculture and as a source of food. It has been five years since the flowering and dying of the thick bamboo forests in the southern Chin State of Burma, however its devastating effects still has a serious impact on the local communities today. Unfortunately, State support has not been sufficient to prevent hunger.
Current Situation in Chin State, Burma
Although Chin State has suffered from general food insecurity for the last 20 years due to the Mautam, the past year has been critical. Dr Sasa who runs Health and Hope Society, one of HART’s partners, reports that “communities in the southern Chin State face a gap of approximately 7 months in their supply of cereals in 2013”. Food is running out and the people of Chin State are in desperate need of help if they are to prevent worsening famine.
In February 2013, Health and Hope Society produced a detailed survey revealing the extent of food insecurity within 374 communities in southern Chin State. The data reveals that 7 townships harvested enough cereals to feed them for 5 months, whilst some villages only harvested enough for 1 or 2 months. 123,033 people in Chin state face extreme food shortages. Over 15,000 are children less than five years old, and over 2000 are pregnant women, unfortunately it is the most vulnerable of society who suffer the most from food shortages. No effective alternative coping mechanisms have been found, so external food assistance is necessary if the Chin people are to avoid losing many lives.
Impact On Individuals’ Health
Severe food shortages affect whole communities in both the short and long term: socially, culturally and economically. The United Nations World Food Programme puts it well:
“A hungry mind cannot concentrate, a hungry body cannot take initiative, a hungry child loses all desires to play and study”.
The southern Chin people have faced constant food insecurity for the past 20 years and thus many suffer from malnutrition; a severe form of hunger characterised by a lack of vitamins and minerals, which can have a serious impact on a person’s physical and mental abilities. Malnutrition can have a devastating effect on the body’s immune system leaving it unable to fight off common infections such as diarrhoea or measles. The most vulnerable of society – pregnant women and young children – are most at risk of a weakened immune system and can suffer from calamitous short and long term effects.
Impact On The Chin Community
The impact of the Mautam infiltrates nearly every facet of Chin life. Uncontrollable wild fires have destroyed crops and homes, crops have also been destroyed by rats, insects and wild animals, and the bamboo is failing to regrow and has now been replaced with a new, highly allergenic bush. Many young people are fleeing the desperate situation in the Chin Hills and moving to the relative safety of India, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Their home land is uncertain with political instability, economic uncertainty, food insecurity and lack of educational and livelihood opportunities.
Response From The International Community
Over the years some action has been taken by the international community on behalf of the people suffering from the Mautam in Chin State. Southern Chin State Food Security Conferences were held in 2008, 2009 and 2011; participants such as Baroness Caroline Cox, the BBC World Service, delegates from southern Chin State and others came together to discuss relief efforts. In 2009 the Department For International Development (DFID) provided 1.5 million USD in emergency food aid for the Chin people; this covered the food gap for 2009 and 2010. Later in 2012, a donation of emergency food aid was provided by AusAid. This year a 4th Southern Chin State Food Security Conference was held as a renewed plea for help and support from the national and international community.
Yet, despite the help and support previously provided, the people of southern Chin State face a continuing struggle. Each year the harvests yield less and less; worsening the current food crisis. The majority of farmers are producing less than a third of their expected harvest. Without external food assistance the people of Chin State fear a devastating future of starvation.
To learn more about HART’s work in Chin state, Burma, please visit:
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