Organic sunflowers heralding an emerging youth movement for cleaner, brighter environment in Southern Shan State
Zoe Rasbash, a student environmental activist visiting from London, describes her impressions:
We stand in a field of sunflowers, tall and bright against the rolling green landscape. Their yellow faces drinking in the misting rain, as clouds cling heavily to the forested hills behind them. It is rainy season in Pekhon; riverbanks are bursting, rice paddies are flooding. And the sunflowers are in full bloom, all 8 acres of them organically grown.
They belong to a young farmer called Khun Tin Aung, from Kone Sone village. He tells us, as of this year, he grows rice, sunflowers and corn all chemical-free, indicating to two sacks of Bokashi on the floor. Bokashi is Japanese natural composting system, that Khun Tin learnt how to make as a substitute for chemical fertilisers as part of his 3-month eco-farming training with the ‘We Love Inle’ project.
The Ecologia Youth Trust and Kalyana Mitta Foundation ‘We Love Inle’ project, funded by the UK Big Lottery Fund, is in its final 6 months. The eco-farming training is one component of the multifaceted project which aims to provide alternative sustainable livelihood options to the young people in the Pekhon and Inle areas of Shan state, Myanmar. Kone Sone village is one of the many blossoming organic demoplots KMF set up in Pekhon. Originally, there were plans for only a few of demoplots in this area, but the project has mobilised an astonishing movement with around 27 natural farming plots and an autonomous network of young farmers in Pekhon alone.
Use of the Bokashi compost removes the need for chemical fertilisers, which pollute the rivers, the crops and the health of villagers. The eco-farming training provides the youth with the skills to develop their communities to be environmentally sustainable, as well as economically stable. Many of the farmers are in debt to chemical brokers, who sell them products with the promise of financial return from the harvest. If the harvest fails from seasonal change or hydrological weather events, the need for chemical products which promise fast and strong growth of crops is extended. A cycle of decline and dependence ensues.
‘Dependency is a huge problem for us’ says Ko Than Tin, from Lwelon village. After attending the eco-farming training, he uses organic farming techniques and has planted long life trees for long term food sovereignty. “The family gets a lot of benefits from organic production because we only use our local resources which do not cost a lot of money to buy and make… The primary thing is that we don’t have to depend on others and the food is healthier for us.”
In Binnther Village we meet with Jo La, an eco-farming alumni who is now village leader. The community is nestled in the fertile hills of Pekhon; green, luscious and spotlessly clean. Jo La has organised bi-weekly rubbish clean ups with the entire community, mobilising the local school to aid him in his attempt to establish a regular waste management scheme. Binnther village are aiming to start recycling soon.
Jo La represents the journey that many We Love Inle alumni hope to achieve: progressing to village leader, convincing uncertain village elders on the benefits of eco-farming techniques and acting as a catalyst to mobilise the community into sustainable lifestyles. Each household in the community now has organic household vegetable plots with pumpkins, tomatoes, avocados and more. When discussing his hopes for the future, he tells us his plans for his ‘green pension’ of seasonal crops and an agro-forest of long life trees, a demonstration of the ecological, social and economic sustainability the project encourages.
As We Love Inle draws to a close, the team are dedicated to ensuring the youth have stable, sustainable and innovative income generation schemes that will continue well after the project finishes. The We Love Inle eco-café now has 3 paid employees after only a year of operation, and is almost entirely youth run. Using ingredients grown by the projects eco-farmers in the surrounding areas, the café makes a variety of traditional dishes, snacks and beverages for tourists visiting Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe. The café is crammed full of personality and creativity, a mix of traditional and modern, with beautiful lanterns hanging from the ceiling, an eco-mantra printed on the wall, a book swap corner and a guitar leaning against a wall for anyone to pick up and play (which customers, volunteers and team members regularly do).
A young man asks me, ‘What do you find most different about the youth environmental movements you work with in England and here?’ I pause to think.
As a member of the United Kingdom Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), visiting Myanmar to learn from its youth movements, I have noticed many natural differences between the British and Shan State youth environmental movements in strategy, in aim and in policy. Yet, in my time with KMF I have been most struck by the inclusive comradery of the project. Of course, the youth environmental movements in the UK have a great sense of community, but so much is communicated online. Here, in Myanmar, the youth are growing and creating networks through sharing burdens of environmental and political impacts, and learning together on how to build better futures against all odds. Kalyana Mitta means ‘good friends’, and friendship is a value everyone in the project, staff members, youth groups and other participants, holds most dearly. The success and expansive networks this project has established can no doubt be attributed to the warm inclusiveness of this participatory approach.
Despite the many commonalities of the two youth movements (power, energy and creativity), being able to bear witness to this organisation with its vastly different and democratised style has been an educational experience I cannot wait to share with my colleagues back in London. The hard work, sacrifice and energy these young people commit to changing their lives to ensure a safer, greener future, is truly humbling. The difference between chemical farming and using homemade compost, for instance, requires so much more time and labour, yet all the young people I spoke to were committed and determined in their visions for their eco-farms. It is truly a hands-on movement with young people practicing what they preach. I will tell these stories to my friends, peers and colleagues in the UK youth movements, to inspire action and motivation parallel to the young farmers I have met on this trip.
Zoe Rasbash visited Inle Lake and Pekhon in August 2017.