RANGOON — Each morning the floor of the Bayintnaung commodity exchange center in northern Rangoon is jammed with traders and middlemen and buyers looking for the latest prices and deals for some of Burma’s agricultural produce.
Famously Burma was once the world’s biggest rice exporter, a position long-lost due to the decades of economic mismanagement under the country’s socialist rule and military dictatorship. The government has high-profile ambitions to retake that top spot, but here at the Bayintnaung exhange, the trade is mostly in matpe and mung bean and chickpea.
These beans and pulses might be lower-profile than their rice counterpart, but are nonetheless a vital cash crop for some of the tens of millions of Burmese dependent on agriculture. “Many people are often surprised to hear that farmers make more money growing beans and pulses than they do from rice,” says Dr Myint Oo, who sits on the commodity exchange’s executive committee.
Beans and pulses are an export commodity, with almost three-quarters of the 1.9 million tons of exports going to India – partly a legacy of British rule in both countries, which saw Burma grow beans and pulses to service the Indian market. “We export to 52 countries in all,” Myint Oo told The Irrawaddy. “But of course India is by far the most important.”
Various estimates put India’s vegetarians at between 20 and 40 per cent of the country’s 1.2 billion population, hundreds of millions of people who eat protein-laden beans and pulses rather than meat.
But to sell more to India, which imports between three and four million tons of beans and pulses each year, as well as to get a foothold in the newly-opened Western markets, the Burmese beans and pulses sector must first deal with some of the same internal infrastructural challenges faced by rice growers and traders.
“Some of the main growing areas are so far from here. In some cases it can take two or three days to send a truck down from upper Burma,” Myat Soe, a beans and pulses trader, told The Irrawaddy.
Poor roads mean smaller trucks, and that in turn sends costs up. “For example it costs on average US$1.50 to send a 50 kilo bag of pulses from Shan State to Yangon,” he says. “It is cheaper to ship from here to Singapore or Malaysia,” he laments.
Sending agricultural produce by river – usually cheaper than by road, as larger consignments can be sent – is often not an option. “Most of the vessels in Myanmar are too old or too small,” says Myat Soe. “That is another area that needs to change.”
Making better use of Burma’s rivers, such as the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin, is something the country’s Transport Ministry says it is working on. “Usually rivers are the cheapest and most effective transport mode,” says Thaung Lwin, Director of the Ministry’s Directorate of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems. “But in the dry season, the water in the Irrawaddy is usually too low to allow big vessels to pass,” he said.
Though population statistics are elusive in Burma – the last census was three decades ago – Myat Soe reckons that around 10 million Burmese are tied to the beans and pulses trade – most of them farmers and their families.
But over recent decades, those millions have had to make do with little by way of subsidy from a government that typically allocated around a quarter of its annual budget to the military and continues to sanction land grabs against farmers to facilitate mining or factory construction.
An ossified banking system and the absence of the micro-financing and technological improvements that boosted agricultural production in neighboring countries have meant additional challenges for Burma’s farmers, millions of whom have to manage without running water or electricity.
Most of the farms where beans and pulses are grown are small – one or two hectare holdings – and Burma’s beans and pulses sector does not feature the sort of large-scale agribusinesses that can afford to buy in better seeds and technology.
According to a recent report on the beans and pulses sector by Thura Swiss, an absence of research and development inhibits the quality of beans and pulses grown. “Farmers often resort to mixed or inferior quality seeds as high quality seeds are either unavailable or inaccessible because of their high prices,” the report said.
“We would like to see some financial support from the government, and from the donor countries, especially for seed purchase,” says Myint Oo. “The farmers don’t have money for better seeds and they need financial support.”