An ongoing exhibition of photographs by young local documentary photographer Hkun Li spotlights the negative impact of illegal banana plantations in Kachin State on the environment and the health of workers, largely due to excessive use of pesticides and chemicals.
The exhibition, “The Price of Bananas”, opened on Feb. 19 and runs through March 11 at Maha Bandoola Park as part of the 12th Yangon Photo Festival.
“This is my second long-term project; I started working on it 2017, three years ago. Chinese investors had been setting up these tissue-culture banana plantations in Laos. Then, the Lao government received multiple reports about the overuse of pesticides and chemicals, and ordered the plantations shut down. Then, investors started setting up banana plantations in Kachin State, in the conflict area,” Hkun Li told The Irrawaddy.
“Now, local people are running into the same problems as the people in Laos. I started this photo project by myself because I’m interested in this issue and want to know more about the lives of the workers there,” the 33-year-old said.
The health effects of exposure to such large amounts of chemicals don’t appear immediately. Five or six months after starting to work on the plantations, a number of laborers began to vomit blood and some pregnant women lost their babies.
One of Hkun Li’s photos shows an elderly woman who lost two fingers after cutting herself with a knife she used to cut down bananas. “The knife was covered with the chemicals that are sprayed on the banana trees. She developed an infection and lost her fingers,” Hkun Li explained.
“From the beginning [of the farming process] until they are exported, they use about 20 kinds of chemicals,” he added.
The companies operating the plantations don’t automatically provide workers with protective gear like gloves. “Most of the workers didn’t have that kind of knowledge [about the importance of safety equipment], but some people knew. The companies provided those things only when workers asked for them,” Hkun Li said.
The excessive use of pesticides and chemicals not only harms the health of the workers, but also damages the land and the environment.
“During harvesting, they use a huge amount of plastic. Then, all the rejected bananas and pesticide bags are abandoned on the plantations,” he said.
Additionally, streams and groundwater near the plantations are drying up.
“And the other big problem is land ownership; some [plantations] aren’t formally registered. Much of the reporting on the banana plantations has focused on the land-ownership issue, but I want to show the issue in its entirety, and show what kinds of challenges the workers are facing right now,” Hkun Li said.
According to government reports, banana plantations covered about 170,000 acres (70,000 hectares) in 2019.
“About 100 companies have invested in the banana plantations, but only one company has legally registered. Now they’re expanding into Shan State,” he said.
Speaking at a press conference for the 12th Yangon Photo Festival at the Rosewood Hotel on Feb. 17, Kristian Schmidt, ambassador of the European Union—one of the supporters of the festival—said, “The EU is proud to host Hkun Li’s powerful story on the worrying impact of rapidly growing banana plantations on communities in Kachin State. I am glad to see that such open discussions can and do take place in Myanmar today.”
He added, “I traveled to Kachin State quite a few times in the past couple of years. Every time I go, I saw from an airplane a wider and wider area of banana plantations. Myanmar needs investment; I have tried to bring European investment to Myanmar. This is not the kind of investment that Myanmar needs.”
Myanmar is a beautiful, wonderful country, he said, but it is important that people know about such issues, and Hkun Li was doing a wonderful job of raising awareness, he said.
“I’ve been working on this project for three years, but it’s not finished yet; I will keep working on this. At the exhibition, about 30 photos are showcased in my photo essay,” Hkun Li said.
The banana plantations in Kachin State continue to expand rapidly; much of the land used is acquired illegally through pressure, threats, deception or duress, according to local civil society organizations, which have voiced strong opposition to the plantations.
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