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Myanmar: fresh hope for Fairtrade exports

After decades of oppression, poverty and struggle, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the people of Myanmar ...

After decades of oppression, poverty and struggle, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the people of Myanmar.

As a new government comes into power in 2016, so too comes optimism for a fairer and more prosperous future. With the country opening up following November’s historic elections, Traidcraft is working with rice farmers in villages in the Southeast Asian country to export Myanmar’s first ever Fairtrade marked product.

Appearing on the United Nation’s list of least developed countries for almost 30 years, the majority of Myanmar’s people live in poverty with one in four earning less than the equivalent of two US dollars a day. Despite being one of the world’s largest exporters of rice during the 1940s and 50s, international sanctions and stringent laws imposed by former authoritarian governments resulted in an extremely challenging environment for local rice farmers.

Traidcraft is working with producers in Moe Goke and Lin Win Gyi villages in western Myanmar to revolutionise the way they farm. Farmers in the region are currently undergoing Fairtrade certification, which includes ensuring male and female workers are paid a fair and equal wage, supportive trade structures are put in place and a guarantee that no child labour is used in the production and harvesting of the crops.

In the coming months the organisation should become the first to ever export a Fairtrade product from Myanmar. The country’s rice – famed for being some of the highest quality in the world – will be used in some of Traidcraft’s key products, including its iconic GEOBAR range. Perhaps more importantly, the business and farming practices being put in place will make the farmers far better equipped to supply to Myanmar’s substantial domestic rice market.

Zenen Santana-Delgado is Traidcraft’s Supplier Support Co-ordinator and is currently working with the farmers on the ground in Myanmar. He said: “They are facing daily incredible levels of hardship. This project has incredible potential to help thousands of farmers to change and improve their lives, especially the lives of their communities. We are now in the final stages of achieving Fairtrade certification, meaning exports can start hopefully towards the end of the year.”

Saw Eh Moo is one of the rice farmers who will benefit from the Traidcraft project. Talking about the country’s recent struggles, he said: “All the farmers had to sell some of their paddy to the government and they gave us a low price. If we could not sell our paddy, they threatened us and sometimes punished us.

“There is no more oppression now, now we can work freely and reap the benefits. The farmers are happy with the present political changes.”

Saw Franco is another rice farmer working with Traidcraft. He is a father who lives with his wife and two daughters in a basic hut in western Myanmar. He said: “I am worried for my children, especially for their basic needs and health. Looking to the future, it is like they are walking on a dark road because they are not educated.”

But things will change.

As part of the project, which is jointly funded by Traidcraft and the Fairtrade Foundation, Traidcraft is looking to replace an outdated rice mill which serves one of the villages. The equipment is old, dating from colonial times, and replacing it will make life much easier for the farmers. Traidcraft is also building storage facilities that will enable the farmers to store their crops after harvest.

The lack of such facilities currently means farmers must sell all of their rice at the same time – immediately after harvest – resulting in oversupply and low prices for everyone. The new facilities will allow crops to be stored safely, so farmers can sell their crops at the right time for a fair and better price. It also means they take on less debt, which so often keeps them living in absolute poverty.

Andy Biggs, Traidcraft Chief Executive, said: “Traidcraft has always been ground-breaking, introducing fair trade to the UK more than 30 years ago and now working with hundreds of thousands of farmers each year in some of the world’s poorest countries. We are an organisation like no other, giving producers the skills and knowledge to work their way out of poverty and give their families a brighter future.

"It’s truly an historic time to be working in Myanmar and we’re excited at the prospect of having rice from Myanmar, which is renowned for its high quality, in some of our key Traidcraft products.”

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