SHAN STATE, Myanmar – In 2018, I went to Myanmar on a public relations assignment to document a test project for a drone prototype that shoots out mangrove seed pods. Little did know then that this assignment would lead me to discover heart-wrenching stories of farmers being exposed daily, without any protective clothing, to highly toxic unregulated chemicals—a trend that is being documented all across Asia, particularly in countries bordering China, where most of these chemicals originate.
The story began while I was working on my assignment’s communication campaign at my partner’s office in Yangon, Myanmar. There I picked up a book titled “Organic Farmers Handbook.” Written in Burmese, this farmer’s manual is rich in photos and even cartoons that explain how to avert the risks of conventional farming by using free, readily available inputs found in organic materials, how to implement different composting techniques and how to design cropping combinations.
The “Organic Farmers Handbook” of Myanmar has published five editions and sold 5,000 copies through Golden Ground, one of the country’s few organic training centers. Golden Ground, founded in 2014, is led by Hlay Myint, who wrote and published the comprehensive guide.
As I was leafing through the pages with avid interest, a voice from the back of the office said: “It is because of these dangerous chemicals.”
The voice belonged to a local woman working for the NGO involved with the drone project.
“What dangerous chemicals,” I asked?
“They come from Thailand, I think.”
“So, there are farmers now converting to organic because of health risks?” I asked.
Yes, she said.
“Would you like to be introduced to Mr. Hla Myint, the founder of Golden Ground?” she asked.
“Yes” I said, “I would be very interested to meet him.”
“He will be here tomorrow,” the woman said. “We supported his training center a while ago.”
The next day, a humble gentleman arrived wearing a Loungyi, a traditional Myanmar male dress, and chewing betel nut, a kind of palm nut many people consume like chewing tobacco in some parts of Asia.
He seemed in a hurry, on a swift visit to pick up some papers. Yes, you must come, he said. He gave me his phone number. “I must go now or I will miss my bus to go to Taunggyi Shan State, where the Golden Ground is.”
“Before you leave,” I said, “I hear that you are helping farmers move away from toxic agrochemicals.” He laughed. “Yes,” he said, “hundreds! Across ten villages already!”
“You must come, you must come,” he said, while swiftly moving on to catch his 10-hour bus.
I was intrigued. My guts were urging to go meet the people in the 10 villages and create media about farmers transitioning away from harmful practices in a remote region most of the world never hears about.
Shan State is known for being a conflict zone and is the largest opium- and methamphetamine-producing region in the world. The kind of place that invalidates insurance coverage, I thought to myself. But luckily those stories only happen up in the northern territories, quite a distance away from Golden Ground. Most of Shan State actually represents a breadbasket for the country, with hectares upon hectares of agricultural land producing, among other things, corn, coffee, tea, pulses, ginger and vineyards—yes, they have good wine.
So, I decided to visit Shan State and meet with Mr. Hla Myint. But I was not alone—my Burmese partner, Hsu Zin, was with me. I met Hsu in Yangon, thanks to a social media thread on my work. Hsu was coordinating the British Council’s social enterprise program for Myanmar and had lived and studied in London. We had naturally clicked, first becoming best friends then soon afterward, to my great fortune, partners. We had discovered a common passion for education, organic farming and quite a few other things.
Hsu was delighted when I asked if she would be interested in visiting Golden Ground and helping to translate discussions with rural community members.
So we both headed up to Shan State to meet Hla Myint and visit the Golden Ground training center.
We were greeted first at the training center by one of Hla Myint’s colleagues, who drove us to meet Hla Myint in one of their potato, pulses and ginger fields.
Hla Myint is a busy man. He teaches week-long courses to dozens of farmers and also provides follow-ups on the land of his newly qualified trainees, to ensure their transition periods happen smoothly. So we didn’t waste any time. We asked if we could interview him about what he does, and why.
“Farmers here get duped,” Hla Myint said. “First they are promised high productivity, but instead they become sick and fall into debt. We are just a few miles from China, where unregulated chemicals that are very detrimental to farmers’ health are smuggled across the border from China. We have seen cancers, miscarriages and birth defects in children—all believed to have been caused by use of the unregulated chemicals.”
Many farmers buy these products because they are 10 times cheaper than chemicals regulated by the Myanmar government. And the farmers don’t follow any of the dosage directions. We have even seen people use their bare arms to mix dangerous cocktails of highly toxic herbicides and pesticides. So, we promote organic farming practices to help change some of these practices.
Can we meet some of the farmers you work with, I asked?
Hla made a few phone calls and within a few minutes he said yes, there is a village nearby where we can meet people that have suffered from the effects of these poisons.
As we made our way from the potato field to Hla’s vehicle, Hla noticed some empty containers that had been dumped close to his land. His face became sad and confused. “Look at these,” he said. “Here are two plastic bottles with labels marked in Thai and Chinese. This is what we are dealing with. It’s everywhere. I am very worried that our fields have become contaminated without us knowing.”
When we arrived at the village we were greeted by a family of farmers. They invited us to have tea in their home, a humble wooden house with no windows, void of furniture and with just a few pictures on the walls.
The family kindly offered to cook rice for everyone, a form of hospitality that went straight to the heart. Having traveled to many remote places, I can’t help but notice how the biggest hearts and unconditional hospitality are always to be found with the poorest of people. They will always share the little they have (tea, rice, their unique piece of meat for that special day of the week) and never ask anything in return. It is their pleasure to welcome a stranger, especially if visitors have travelled far to honor them with their presence.
Here we met with Ma Mya, a 35-year-old farmer who had been working since the age of 11. Her smile was generous. It made us feel right at home. We sat down and she talked of her in-depth experience as a farmer. We never used to use chemicals, she said, but one day we were employed by rich landowners and they told us to use them. I instantly felt sick using them. They affected my vision, and I became very disoriented. I was unable to make the difference between men and women.
We then interviewed Maung Hla, her brother. The chemicals made him ill for three months. “At the beginning I worked normally,” Maung said, “but over time I started to feel dizzy until I experienced partial paralysis and was unable to work.”
Ma May and Maung Hla then brought us to meet their farmer trainer in a neighboring village who was working with her team on a large pulse plantation. They were busy harvesting, but she agreed to speak with us.
“Chemicals make the soil hard and degraded,” she said. “At the time of my father, we never needed to use chemicals. The day we started (using the chemicals), work became expensive, and when applied, these chemicals would burn our eyes and skin.”
Not wanting to take away any of the farmers’ precious harvest time, we thanked them for speaking to us and moved on with Hla Myint. “I want to take you to our offices and meet our team,” he said.
His office team were all young dynamic advocates for organics. They gave us a full presentation of their activities at the Golden Ground training center and the 10 villages. They then asked about regenerative agriculture. “We want to learn more. We are ready to train many more farmers!”
I then gave them a few examples of regenerative farming practices that would be of use to them, such as those of David Johnson Bioreactors and the Main Street Project. They asked whether Regeneration International could organize a workshop here one day. That was possible, I said.
Back in Yangon, I made a phone call to Andre Leu, international director of Regeneration International. Andre has a love affair with Shan State, as he was there in 1976 with Julia his wife. They met in northern Thailand in 1976 and went on an adventure to discover local varieties of fruit in Shan State. Andre and Julia then continued a lifelong journey and developed a prosperous tropical organic fruit farm and business in Australia.
Andre was very enthusiastic when I told him the whole story. I would be happy to return to Shan State and meet the farmers there, he said. A few months of coordination later, Andre, Julia, Hsu Zin and I returned to the Golden Ground training center. Golden Ground mobilized hundreds of farmers to attend a workshop led by Andre, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation also attended with dozens of students and some of their best agronomists.
Andre gave a one-day workshop on regenerative pest and weed management, and we produced this short video for Trails of Regeneration:
More on this story will come soon, along with a video release of the entire Golden Ground – Regeneration International workshop on regenerative pest and weed control.