Myanmar: Could an unusual yam help the march of community forestry?

An unlikely sounding tuber could help local farmers achieve a landscape of community forestry in all but name in Myanmar.

Elephant yams growing on a forested slope in Myanmar.

Chin state in northwest Myanmar is ruggedly mountainous. A patchwork cloak of forest and shifting cultivation is governed by customary rules based on clan, community and private holdings.

As the population grows the length of time that land that can be left fallow to restore the over worked soils is reducing. Then it’s used again to grow the staple crops of upland rice, maize, red and yellow millet, and various beans.  

While people continue to carry out shifting cultivation, they are also establishing more permanent home gardens boasting a rich diversity of agricultural and tree crops including: strawberries, elephant foot yam, a tuber cash crop, turmeric, ginger, coffee, pineapple, limes, sour oranges, Jackfruits, mango, avocado, bamboo and Agarwood, often used in incense or perfumes, and Thanaka, a tree whose ground wood powder is also used in cosmetics.

Here, and in an increasing number of more permanently settled plots, farmers are experimenting to maintain soil fertility through terracing, contour planting and mulching – using various designs of intercropping with trees. The permanence of such plots provides an incentive to establish longer term crops, such as coffee or tree crops. Sadly, high value teak trees are rarely planted as they are the designated property of the state even if planted by farmers.

The current shifting cultivation system is not recognised by law. It is branded “cultivatable wasteland”. Such lands can be appropriated by the state or transferred to distant investors. By contrast “community forestry” secures a formally recognised 30 year land lease arrangement for which Chin communities can apply to secure their heritage.

But while it is straight forward to claim community forest rights on State forest land, it is much more difficult to negotiate in areas spanning the clan, communal and private holdings of customary tenure. Here there are trade-offs between insecure but permanent customary rights and more secure but time-limited formal ones.

How then to secure the land and forest rights of local communities – which are essential as an incentive for replanting longer term crops such as trees?

Unusual tuber could hold answers to community forestry

A market led approach to community forestry – and an unusual tuber - might provide the answer. The tuber in question is the Elephant Foot Yam. Cut into slices, dried and eventually powdered, this sizeable tuber forms the raw material for Japanese and Chinese dietary foods (low calorie noodles and artificial meats). The market is booming – with agents from Mandalay supplying China and agents in Yangon supplying Japan, (where annual tax free import quotas are growing by the year).

Picture of a pinkish flower of the Elephant Foot Yam, with the yam growing on a stem inside the flower..Chin State boasts the ideal growing conditions for Elephant Foot Yam. Compared to an income per acre of about US$ 215-320 for maize, the income per acre from Elephant Foot Yam can be anything between US$ 2000-8500.

Unsurprisingly, farmers want to grow the crop (and have already established associations of farmers and traders in towns such as Mindat). But they are hampered by a lack of loan finance to buy seeds or small tubers, a lack of technical assistance about optimal planting practice, and a lack of business organisation to bargain more effectively with the agents. Local NGOs such as Ar Yone Oo are working to implement a market-led approach that addresses these constraints with the support of IIED through the Pyoe Pin programme.

The broader advantage of Elephant Foot Yam cultivation is that it benefits from tree shade – thus providing a powerful incentive for farmers to maintain or plant trees. Like shade grown coffee, this crop can lead to community forest restoration and management (even if not formally registered as community forestry).

Because the crop takes 2-3 years to mature it is also less amenable to traditional methods of shifting cultivation and so encourages a voluntary move towards permanent plots which, if managed well, can be less degrading of surrounding forest. In those plots, a range of commercial trees can be planted that may provide longer term business opportunities. By using a market-led approach based on local control and a mixture of agricultural and tree crops, short and longer-term economic options, it may be possible to achieve a landscape of community forestry in all but name. The trick will be to have such systems formally recognised in law.

Strengthening farmer capacity in Myanmar

Strengthening forest and farm producer groups such as the Mindat Elephant Foot Yam Association is very much at the heart of the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) that held a launch mission in Myanmar the last week of April 2013.

Elephant Foot farmers from Chin State meet to discuss the crop.

The FFF will be acting immediately, through a competitive call for proposals, to offer small grants to strengthen forest and farm producer group’s capacity for profitable business using different crops and in different ecologies across Myanmar. The selection criteria include the requirement that such businesses create local incentives for sustainable forest management – as is happening with the Elephant Foot Yam.  

The FFF will also convene an inter-ministerial policy dialogue to showcase different business models that are working both to improve local livelihoods and protect forests in Myanmar. The longer term aim is to formally recognise models of land and forest tenure to achieve it.

While it is still early days, the elephant foot yam could show that farmers can make a profit from a cash crop and reforest their land at the same time. Other farmers could learn from these farming pioneers on what different models of land and forest tenure they used to achieve this win-win situation.

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