Planting Asia’s Staple Food

rice planting in Myanmar

Planting rice in Kyaukkyi, in the Bago Region of Myanmar.

Rice is a cereal grain. It is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world’s human population, especially in Asia, and is the agricultural commodity with the third-highest worldwide production, after sugarcane and maize.  Rice cultivation is well-suited to countries and regions with low labor costs and high rainfall, as it is labor-intensive to cultivate and requires ample water, thus very suitable for the flood plains of Myanmar where there is an abundance of water and where rural men and women have become so accustomed to the traditional method of growing it.

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Like a traditional folk dance, there is a lovely rhythm in rice planting

The traditional method of rice farming is flooding the fields while, or after, setting the young seedlings. The method requires sound planning and servicing of the water damming and channeling, but reduces the growth of less robust weed and pest plants that have no submerged growth state, and deters vermin.  Thus, while rice is also grown in dry, “upland” areas, a significant portion is grown in irrigated rice land, requiring manual labor to plant the seedlings on flooded and sometimes knee-deep mud.

planting rice in Myanmar

A typical scene in rural Myanmar when the monsoon rains have started to fall in around June or July.

I first visited the rural areas of Myanmar at the height of the dry season in February when the rice fields were bare (except for some that got planted with beans and vegetables) and the rural folks had a relatively leisurely life doing some small backyard industries or, with enough stocks of rice in their granaries, just whiling the time away while waiting for the next rainy season.  And then I got back in June and, voila, the rural atmosphere has abruptly changed.  The ricefields were rapidly turning green and teeming with activity and all rural household members, men and women, were suddenly staying all day long in the ricefields.

 

planting rice in Myanmar

Dozens of rice planters, usually hired as casual farm labor, are needed to plant an hectare of rice field.

Rice planting work sounds like fun, like a party in the open field, but it’s actually not easy. With bodies bent and feet soaked in mud the whole day, rice planters plant inch after inch, paddy after paddy until the whole field is fully planted.  In many rice-growing countries, rice planting was traditionally accompanied by folk music, obviously to make the tedious work more leisurely.  In those days, the planting team included some guitarists, singers and even drum-beaters  — the movements of the planters being synchronized with the traditional music thus making it more fun.  In the Philippines, there is a song that describes the difficulty of planting rice.  I inserted the lyrics of the song under the succeeding photos to illustrate the hardship that goes into planting rice in any country.

planting rice in Myanmar

Planting rice is like doing dance moves in a muddy field except that the dancers’ bodies are always bent.

Planting rice is never fun
Bent from morn till the set of sun,
Cannot stand and cannot sit,
Cannot rest for a little bit.

planting rice in Myanmar
Planting rice is no fun
Bent from morn till set of sun,
Cannot stand, cannot sit,
Cannot rest a little bit.

planting rice in Myanmar
Oh, come friends and let us homeward take our way,
Now we rest until the dawn is gray,
Sleep, welcome sleep, we need to keep us strong
Morn brings another workday long.

planting rice in Myanmar

Oh, my back is like to break,
Oh, my bones with the damp still ache,
And my legs are numb and set
For their long soaking on the wet.

planting rice in Myanmar
It is hard to be so poor
And such sorrow and pain endure,
You must move your arms about,
Or you’ll find you must go without.

planting rice in Myanmar

In most rice-growing countries, the traditional rice-planting music has faded, gradually being replaced by the croaking of power tillers and the humming of mechanized rice-planters, but the rhythm of rice farming in Myanmar still remains very much in tune with the tradition.  Perhaps it will take many more monsoon rains before these traditional methods get washed away by the advancing tides of change.

The succeeding series of photos pay tribute to rice planters in the flood plains of Myanmar.