YANGON—The Kachin State agriculture minister will investigate controversial Chinese tissue-culture banana plantations across Kachin State, and plans to tighten regulation of the plantations in response to local residents’ concerns about their social and environmental impacts.
The newly appointed minister of agriculture, livestock and irrigation for Kachin State, U Kyaw Kyaw Win, told The Irrawaddy he would soon submit a proposal to the state cabinet to form a special committee.
Subcommittees will be formed under the panel with responsibility for illegal plantations, environmental impacts, local labor rights, and illegal migration from China by banana plantation workers, U Kyaw Kyaw Win said.
The state government has been criticized by local environmental experts for neglecting the social and environmental impacts of banana plantations. Banned from Laos and Thailand, the controversial China-backed tissue-culture plantations started appearing in war-torn Kachin State in 2007.
Despite the backlash by local residents, the plantations have been expanding rapidly, particularly in Waimaw Township, close to the state capital of Myitkyina. The operators are accused of unfairly taking over land previously leased from the authorities by locals, many of whom were displaced by conflict.
As the plantations expand, villagers displaced by fighting and living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) are increasingly concerned that their land may be occupied, and that they will not be able to farm when they return home.
The state Agriculture Ministry has officially documented around 63,000 acres of banana plantations, but civil society organizations have recorded more than 170,000 acres across Waimaw, Bhamo, Shwegu, Mansi, Momauk and Dokphoneyan townships.
U Kyaw Kyaw Win said, “We will take testimony about the discrepancy between the government data and information on the ground.”
He said he had found that bananas have been planted in restricted forest areas, and that serious action would need to be taken against the operators.
“I also see banana plantations expanding in the restricted forest area near my house,” U Kyaw Kyaw Win added.
According to the state Agriculture Ministry, there are 40 local companies registered to operate banana plantations. However, civil society and environmental organization say 85 percent of the plantations are operated by Chinese companies disguised as local businesses.
U Kyaw Kyaw Win said, “Most of the companies are backed by the Chinese—everybody knows about it. We will force them to register officially. We will instruct them to follow MIC [Myanmar Investment Commission] procedures if they want to plant bananas here.”
A recent report by the Land Security and Environmental Conservation Group comprising 11 civil society organizations said local workers are suffering rights abuses at the hands of the companies, particularly in the form of low pay compared with Chinese workers. Moreover, locals said the huge influx of Chinese workers had resulted in an increase in human trafficking and drug abuse.
According to the minister, the committee will draw up a framework to control the influx of Chinese workers into banana plantations.
“We will also make strict rules for Chinese workers who want to work for the banana plantations. That issue needs to be worked out together with the Immigration Department,” he said.
“We all face challenges, particularly supervising the banana plantations under the armed groups,” the minister said.
Kachin-based civil society organizations allege that large areas are being planted with bananas in Kachin State’s Special Region 1, which is under the control of the government-allied New Democratic Army-Kachin militia. However, data on this issue is hard to obtain for security reasons.
Last week more than 50 farmers from multiple villages in two townships of Myitkyina District told the media that China-backed plantations were causing suffering among local communities. The famers also said they have been threatened by Chinese companies for opposing banana plantations near their villages.
Recently, a mining company detained and assaulted two journalists for reporting local residents’ concerns over a controversial Chinese tissue-culture banana plantation in Waimaw Township
According to a 2017 environmental study by the Lisu Civil Society Organization, the companies are using insecticides, weed killers and fertilizers and disposing of them carelessly. This has led to the pollution of water supplies in these areas, in turn causing soil damage and killing fish and livestock.