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Farmers in Burma go back to work

Broader outlook for food, aid remains bleak

Ko Nyi Thaut, 53, who lost six of his children to the cyclone, explained the need for him to rush back to work in the rice field in order for his remaining three children and wife to survive. Ko Nyi Thaut, 53, who lost six of his children to the cyclone, explained the need for him to rush back to work in the rice field in order for his remaining three children and wife to survive. (AP Photo)
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Associated Press / July 28, 2008

THOME GWE, Burma - Ko Nyi Thaut lost six of his children and all his possessions when Cyclone Nargis hit Burma three months ago. But the farmer, 53, still has his rice fields. The surprise, say aid workers, is how quickly he and others have gone back to work.

The broader food outlook, however, is bleak.

Like tens of thousands of farmers, Ko Nyi Thaut labors from dawn to dusk preparing his flood-ravaged Irrawaddy delta land for a crop that should have been planted a month ago.

"If the weather is good and we are lucky, I think we could get about two-thirds of what we had before," he said.

"It would not have been enough for my family if we still had 11 people. But the cyclone killed six of my children, so maybe we will have enough rice for the family now."

His remark is a heart-rending reminder of how the cyclone ripped entire families to shreds as it roared through the delta May 2 and 3, killing 84,537 and leaving 53,836 missing and presumed dead, according to an official count.

Now comes the task of feeding the survivors, and aid workers acknowledge the odds are stacked against them being able to match the bountiful yields that turned this region into Burma's rice bowl.

Many farmers have been quickly draining their land and removing fallen trees and other debris. But they say they lack water buffaloes and plows, or have gone heavily into debt to buy fuel that has doubled in price. Families have lost not just their land but the fathers and sons who knew how to farm it.

"It doesn't look good at all," Ashley Clements of the World Vision aid group said by telephone from Burma. Many people will need food aid "for the next few months and even for a year or so."

In the cyclone's immediate aftermath, the focus was on feeding and sheltering the estimated 2.4 million survivors.

Now the recovery effort turns to reviving livelihoods. It will be a tall task considering some 2 million acres of rice paddy were submerged by the massive waves and 85 percent of seed stocks destroyed.

Specialists said returning farmers to the fields is a priority because of the threat of worsening food shortages. In 1988, demonstrations against Burma's military junta over rice prices and other issues ended in heavy bloodshed.

The United Nations World Food Program has provided 20,000 tons of food aid to 733,000 cyclone survivors and sees the number in need growing to 924,000. But even after rice is harvested in October, it expects to keep feeding as many as 300,000 survivors for another year.

"Normally, we try and avoid giving out food at harvest time," said Tony Banbury, the food program's regional director in Bangkok. But this time it's different because of the loss of animals, land, or a family head who "may have left behind a wife and four kids but she doesn't have the skills to immediately pick up farming."

Burmese officials say only about 30 percent of affected fields have been planted.

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