Human Interest Story - A Study tour to Magway and Bagan

December 2, 2016

Just one week before an earthquake damaged many of the pagodas in the ancient capital of Bagan on 14 August 2016, 33 villagers from Southern Shan State had the chance to walk over those worn stone pathways, gazing up at the vaulted ceilings and glittering statues while paying respect to their faith and history. This was a small but meaningful portion of a five day study tour to Bagan and Magway, led by MIID staff for a group of smallholder farmers from Let Maung Gwe and Bawnin Village Tracts in Shan State.

These 35 villagers were sent as representatives from six villages, to learn about groundnut cultivation, processing, oil production, and bamboo handicrafts production. The farmers visited about 13 places including private oil producers, groundnut traders, groundnut mills, and bamboo and lacquerware workshops. The farmers had a chance to discuss with producers, traders and bamboo specialist on their practices and the techniques.

In partnership with ICIMOD, Winrock and the Myanmar government, MIID works with villagers who farm on the steep hillsides above Inlay Lake, to diversify and increase livelihoods through value chain initiatives and better manage soil and water resources through community action. Despite its vicinity to a popular tourist destination, their home community in Southern Shan State remains relatively isolated, with unstable roads, regular water shortages, and no electricity. This was MIID’s fourth Study Tour in the past year, supported by funding from USAID and Winrock’s Value Chains for Rural Development (VC-RD) initiative, and aiming to introduce farmers to new markets and new opportunities.

After seven hours in the bus from Shan State, villagers were eager to arrive at the Two Rabbits groundnut processing factory in Magway, Mandalay Division. Initially swarming throughout the workshop and observing employees hard at work, the group gradually coalesced around the factory manager, who walked them through the facility explaining all the steps necessary in producing high-quality groundnut brittle. The villagers then sat with the farm manager and discussed details such as the ratio of palm sugar to groundnut, as well as broader questions about how the groundnut market functions. This process of exploration and discussion was repeated at various groundnut and sesame processing centers throughout Magway, with villagers observing different degrees of mechanization, including one factory that consumes little to no electricity.

The favorite activities of U Yo, however, were those that focused on bamboo handicraft production. A native of the project area, U Yo is a tall man with a deep voice and friendly demeanor. At 70 years old he has a wealth of knowledge about how the region has changed over time and has been an active participant in MIID’s initiatives since early 2016, involved in handicrafts but also compost-making and marketing trainings. As the artisans demonstrated delicate carving and finishing techniques, U Yo hovered closely asking detailed questions and writing in his notebook, considering how to improve his own crafts. Though he was only able to attend school through fourth grade, U Yo is bright and progressive, having donated some of his sloping land to the community for MIID-sponsored reforestation work. Though most of his income currently comes from growing ginger and upland rice on approximately eight acres, U Yo was beaming with excitement to return home and try out some of the techniques the artisans had demonstrated, using the bamboo grown around his family’s homestead.

Ma Soe has less experience with MIID, having attended only the bamboo handicrafts workshop specifically focused on women in the project area. She is the oldest of her mother’s seven children, and left her parents’ house at 15 to help care for her grandmother. Now 20 years old, Ma Soe has been occupied with household chores and agriculture since leaving school after completing grade five. During this week away from home, Ma Soe could regularly be found marveling at the clever processing mechanisms seen in the plants. For Ma Soe, the most interesting day was spent visiting the Magway branch of Yezin Agricultural University for a thorough explanation of groundnut production, and later learning from a groundnut farmer about different varieties and cultivation techniques. She appreciated that the Yezin professor took time to explain each step in detail, and answer farmers’ questions about pest control, as she dreams of one day cultivating groundnut using those practices on her own land.

Ma Phoo Phoo, the Project Officer for MIID’s work in Shan State, says that these Study Tours have such impact because they combine many opportunities for growth. “Villagers who participate in the tours learn new skills and get ideas, but also learn more about their country and themselves,” she reports. Most of the group (including U Yo and Ma Soe) had never traveled to Bagan before, and Ma Soe had been only as far away as Taunggyi, some 20 km away from her home. Though the six villages are close enough that most people know each other already, Ma Soe mentioned that she enjoyed the opportunity to spend more time with this group and learn together. U Yo added that he was impressed by seeing the Irrawaddy in real life and visiting the house where General Aung San spent his childhood along the way.

Some aspects of the tour were more aspirational than immediately actionable, but even the visits to more industrial factories taught villagers about the broader markets they connect to, and may have inspired the more entrepreneurial among them to pursue livelihoods beyond what they have inherited. Now back in Southern Shan State, these villagers are already making great advances in bamboo handicrafts production, and when MIID posted product photos on social media in August, orders began pouring in from shops as far away as Yangon. As U Yo carves away creating bamboo trays and cups, he is also regaling his granddaughter with tales of his trip to the temples of Bagan and what he learned about his country along the way.  From August to November, U Yo and other local craftsman have made hundreds of dollars from bamboo orders that have been pouring in from, not just the Inlay Lake area, but Yangon, Mandalay and other cities. This has given them market incentives to improve and refine their products and turn into bamboo entrepreneurs for other craftsman to follow. “Study tours show these villagers activities that they can imagine themselves doing successfully,” said Ma Phoo Phoo, “like when the farmers saw familiar bamboo products being made at a higher level of quality.”