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Chin Food Crisis: A Helping Hand from Afar

29 September 2011: Villagers in the remote southern parts of Chin State, Burma are still reeling from the effects of severe food crisis, locally known as mautam – four years after massive infestations of crop-destroying rats were first reported from the northern townships in a devastating natural phenomenon that followed the mass flowering of indigenous species of bamboo in the area.

For a people over 70% of whose population already lived in abject poverty according to the UN, the effects of the cyclical flowering of bamboo and rat infestations, which began in 2007, are debilitating.

But local groups, including church-based organizations quickly organized themselves to respond to the crisis with very little resource, and made tremendous positive impacts, but in the face of utter neglect and denial of even the existence of the food crisis by the State, there was little room for civil society response to have any life changing impacts.

Yet the initial response from the Chin communities outside of Burma, as well as concerned humanitarian agencies and rights groups across the world did make significant difference in the lives of hundreds of individuals and communities.

While the regime was ignoring the crisis and refused to provide any meaningful assistance to the affected communities, the response from outside the country has been nothing but generous. In 2010 – 2011, some 60 most affected villages in the remote southern townships received emergency food assistance from humanitarian aid channeled in from abroad, despite a tight ban against delivery of any foreign relief assistance legally.

“We feel we are blessed for receiving relief aid from a foreign country while our own government has been ignoring us and to the worse, blocking delivery of food assistance from other parts of Burma,” said one local Chin community leaders engaged in the relief work.

In 2010, the Czech Republic Humanitarian Aid, Burma Centre Prague (BCP) and Global Health Access Program (GHAP) financially contributed to the relief work in southern Chin State, to villages many of which have not been reached by UN agencies working in Chin State such as the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) due to difficulty of access and other reasons.

Christoph Amthor, Co-founder of Burma Center Prague, said: “For our organization, famine relief for the Chin people is particularly important because we feel that the foreign support going into the central areas of Burma needs to be complemented by more cross-border aid, and this not only from the Thailand side.”

“While the amounts that we collect in the Czech Republic may not seem huge, they are a lot considering the Czech standard of living that is well below the Western European level. We know that every single donation given by Czech supporters to this far-away country means a sacrifice for them.”

The BCP has been making public awareness and fund-raising campaigns in the Czech Republic to support relief work inside Chin State since 2009.

Reena Sattar, Project Manager of BCP, said: “We are glad that we have found CHRO as a partner. Only this way were we able to start in 2009 without having to worry about the coordination of the relief groups working from India. And what is more, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Czech Embassy in Delhi are very interested in the developments and express their continued support of the famine relief.”

As of May 2011, more than 200 metric tons of emergency food aid has been distributed to over 60 villages in southern parts of Chin State, according to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), which coordinated the work.

Salai Bawi Lian Mang, Executive Director of CHRO said: “We are grateful to the people and government of Czech Republic for their generosity, supports and concern for the Chin people. These supports provided a life-line for so many people in one of the most remote, isolated and neglected areas of Burma.”

He said that while the aid has not solved the problems entirely, it served to ease hunger, for however short, provided hope for many people and deterred further migration out of Chin State due to extreme shortages of food. He said the Chin will need continued support because it takes several years before people can fully recover from the effects of Mautam.

Earlier this year, UNOCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) said the food insecurity in Chin State was expected to get worse with the ‘unusual’ weather condition and the coming of monsoon which dramatically reduces access to other off-farm income-generating activities.

The report said food insecurity in Kanpetlet, Matupi, Mindat and Paletwa townships of Chin State still remains a challenge following severe devastation caused by the ongoing rat infestation and crop failure last year.

The Chin food crisis has also triggered high level of children drop-outs from school, as well as migration of the local people in Chin State into neighboring countries. A report by the World Food Programme found that school enrollment rate in 2010 was only 59 percent.

In June 2011, the report by the United Nations ranks Chin State the poorest among all the 14 states and divisions in Burma, which said rural and remote areas are worst affected by poverty.

“Food poverty incidence is more than twice as high in rural than urban areas. Rural areas account for over 85 percent of total food poverty,” the report said. The vast majority of people Chin State live in the rural area.

Mautam is caused by a massive boom in the population of rats following the blossoming bamboos which produce avocado-like fruits. After feeding on the bamboo fruits/seeds, the rats begin to reproduce in an accelerated birth surge. The rodents often grow to particularly large sizes and can gnaw through wood floors, walls, storage containers and granaries. Swarms of these nocturnal rats quietly invade farms and villages to devour crops, stored rice and others such as potatoes, maize, chili and sesame.

Former President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, accused Burma’s government of exacerbating the already devastating humanitarian consequences brought about by natural disasters in Burma.

“The international community encountered similar Burmese government practices during the destructive Cyclone Nargis, when for a long time international aid was not allowed into the country. The funds raised by the Burma Center Prague’s collection will help the afflicted areas despite the indifference of Burmese officials.”

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