Myanmar/Burma: Rural Life in a Time of Change

A woman referred to as “Buffalo Master” sweeps the livestock shed. With no running water or modern equipment the floor of the barn must be swept by hand a minimum of four times per day.

The first thing you notice when you enter the farm, apart from a dozen or so water buffalo, is the bed ridden 91-year-old man. Salik is the patriarch of the family farm and is so crippled by age that he is confined to a small wooden cot inside the buffalo shed. His eyes drift in and out of focus and he is prone to fits of moaning which the rest of the family seems well practiced at ignoring.

Located in the outer Yangon suburb of South Dagon, stepping onto the farm is like moving back in time. There is no electricity and no machinery apart from an ancient crank-powered grass mill. There is no running water, and no vehicles of any kind.

Salik Ram Yadar, 91, is the family’s patriarch. Originally from India the family settled in Myanmar in the 1920’s in a search for land unavailable to them in India. Essentially crippled from a lifetime of labour, Salik seldom moves from his bed which is located in the Buffalo shed.

The Family (due to a complex family web there are an impractical number of surnames, so I refer to them simply as The Family) is made up of 13 Burmese-Indians whose forbearers left India for Myanmar in the 1920’s seeking farmable land not available to them in their native country. They eek out a living by raising and milking a small herd of cows and water buffalo and selling the dairy products in central Yangon. I met them by random chance while walking through Yangon’s outer suburbs and spent nearly two weeks documenting their lives. While I initially expected to find a quaint story of pastoral atavism, I discovered something much more complicated – a family, both economically and geographically, living on the outskirts of change.

A local child minds the grazing buffalo herd from atop one of the animals. Cobras are common in the tall grass and without boots the children often ride the buffalos to avoid snake deadly bites.

Myanmar (or the more loaded former name of Burma) is best known for an oppressive government that kept its country isolated from the rest of the world for decades. But as Aung Sun Suu Kyi and her democratic movement have gained power and popularity, Myanmar is slowly opening its borders. Hundreds of tourists arrive at Yangon International airport each day and bring with them money and foreign culture. Mega corporations like Panasonic and LG have expanded into the country, making telecommunications and technology increasingly available. Expats are settling in the cities as English teachers, tour guides and entrepreneurs. There is even a Facebook store.

For The Family these changes will lead to profound changes to the life they have been living for nearly 100 years – though they aren’t able to see it coming.

Raja, 31, helps sweep the buffalo shed. Raja has a severe mental disability which prevents him from doing anything other than simple manual labour.

When the military dictator General Ne Win seized power in 1962 he promptly banned unions of any kind. A logical step to keep the people from organizing against him, the regulations against unions weren’t lifted until 2011. This means that though huge numbers of Burmese are engaged in agriculture, they do so on a micro-level. In all of Yangon there are only six farms with more than 300 cattle. The vast majority, like The Family’s, have an average of 20 animals. Though the concept of organic small-scale farming appeals to a Western sense of boutique dining, for a Burmese family trying to survive in an increasingly globalized country, the lack of efficiency of such small farms will likely lead to hard times. Even though Myanmar is not a dairy consuming nation (the average citizen consumes just 25kg of dairy compared to the average of 200kg annually for a European), the country imports nearly $50 million worth of milk each year.

Fresh cut grass is ground by hand before it is fed to the livestock. With no electricity on the farm the work is often done by candlelight.

As the US and China compete for influence in the newly opened Myanmar, massive international corporations will almost certainly begin to exploit the disorganization of the Burmese farmers. With their inferior transportation networks, lack of refrigeration and processing equipment, and high operating costs, small local farmers will be hard pressed to stay competitive.

I have many more images from this family farm, but friend/photographer Thomas Cristofoletti recently pointed out that the story isn’t finished. I need to go back and see how the family fares in the coming years of change, so I’m just posting a selection of photos from an ongoing work.

Aung Stoong, 53, binds the grass into 180k.g. bales. All the animal fodder is cut by hand and Aung Stoong harvests up to 800 k.g. of grass by hand each day.

Aung Stoong scoops protein powder that he will add to the livestock’s diet. These products improve the quality of the milk, but the added expense means the farm is operating at a deficit.

 

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