World Rainforest Movement

Burma: The military’s forced labour jatropha campaign

In December 2005, Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe ordered the start of a nation-wide campaign to plant Jatropha curcas for
biodiesel production. The country was to plant eight million acres [3.2 million hectares], or an area the size of Belgium, within three years. Each of Burma’s states and divisions, regardless of size, were expected to plant at least 500,000 acres. In Rangoon Division, 20% of all available land will be covered by jatropha.

The recent explosion of oil prices, the diminishing reserves of fossil fuels and concerns about greenhouse gas emissions affecting climate change, have all spurred a growing biofuel industry. Global production of biofuels – fuels made from biomass or plant matter – has doubled in the last five years, and is expected to double again in the next four years.

A radical program was started in Burma to plant jatropha, despite growing international concern about the negative impacts of biofuel production, especially when implemented rapidly or on a large scale.

Jatropha curcas is a small tree – or shrub – in the family of Euphorbiaceae. Jatropha originates from Mexico and Central America, but has spread all over the world and is mostly used for hedges to protect crops from animals. The tree can grow up to 6 meters in optimal conditions; it has a straight trunk with thick branches and green leaves. It has been called the “biodiesel tree” due to the production of biodiesel from oil in the seeds of its fruit. Jatropha seeds yield more oil per hectare than other biofuels while jatropha oil produces onefifth the carbon emissions of traditional fossil fuels.

Since 2006, all sectors of Burma’s society have been forced to divert funds, farm lands, and labor to growing jatropha. Teachers, school children, farmers, nurses and civil servants have been directed to spend working hours planting along roadsides, at schools, hospitals, offices, religious compounds, and on farmland formerly producing rice.

“Every hospital employee is required to plant jet suu [jatropha]. We were out pulling weeds the whole day. Each of us is
supposed to plant 500 seedlings, but no one can grow that many.”
(Nurse from Kachin State)

“All of us from Grade 5 to Grade 9 had to sow the seeds in the school compound and the football ground. Our teacher told
us it was an order from the headmistress.”
(Student from Kachin State)

“A younger sister of mine is a school teacher. She has to grow the plant and submit progress reports every month. The
statistics are a headache for her and her fellow teachers. The authorities told them that they would not be paid their salaries if the plantations are not successful.”
(Rice farmer from Karenni State)

Field research from 32 townships in each of Burma’s states, including 131 interviews with farmers, civil servants, and investors, reveals how people have been fined, arrested, and threatened with death for not meeting quotas, damage to the plants, or criticism of the program. One result of the excessive demands for farmlands and labor is a new phenomenon of “jatropha refugees” of whom nearly 800 have already (as of April 2008) fled from southern Shan State to neighbouring Thailand.

“In 2004 my village had over 800 villagers from 240 households. Now in my village there are 130 villagers from 40
households. Since 2004, eighty percent of the people in my village have run into Thailand because of the SPDC [State Peace
and Development Council].”
(A village headman from Shan State)

The plant can grow on marginal soils and therefore does not necessarily need to directly compete with food crops. However, the implementation of the jatropha campaign in Burma is threatening the food security of farmers. First, jatropha is being cultivated on existing farm lands and in house gardens, directly competing with food crops in terms of soil and water resources. Second, the confiscation and use of lands near population centers for jatropha forces farmers to seek cultivation areas further from their homes, decreasing productivity and putting new pressures on the environment. Third, due to the requirements on farmers to leave their own fields to establish and tend jatropha plantings, farmers have less time to spend tending their own crops. Some also report that other crops grown too close to jatropha do not grow well.

“We have 47 villages in our township. In every village each household must grow half an acre of jatropha, so they lose
part of their paddy fields.”
(A civil servant from Karenni State)

Villagers across Burma are forced to “contribute voluntary labor” to jatropha plantations and highway plantings on a one person-perhousehold basis. They must bring their own food and tools for the day and face reprisal for refusing to go. Most often if they cannot go they have to pay someone else to go as a replacement.

“In our village one member from each household must go and plant jatropha. The community leaders said that those who
failed to go would be fined. I had to leave my own farm work to go there. Some old people who could not go by
themselves sent their grandchildren. We had to grow the plants in straight lines as they installed the sticks. Before
planting, we had to clear the bushes and vines to make the ground ready.”
(Farmer from Mon State)

“The community leaders called me and said they would fine me 3,000 kyat (US$2.50) if I failed to turn up. We were
forced to plant the whole day and we had to bring our own lunch from home.”
(An upland farmer from Kachin State) (For
relevance of the fine – an average daily wage is 1,500 kyat)

Forced labor is utilized not only for planting jatropha, but also for the construction of oil processing factories. On August 3, 2007, Infantry 524 summoned local residents and forced them to clear the land along the highway between Kali and Ta Kaw villages in central Shan State for the construction site of a jatropha oil factory. Although the villagers had to provide fuel for lawnmowers to clear the ground, the army collected additional money for fuel.

However, villagers are still finding ways of avoiding or defying orders. A high-ranking civil servant in Karenni State admitted that many people refuse to grow the plant. Some buy seedlings as ordered but then don’t plant them, others plant less than ordered. Signboards promoting jatropha have been defaced.

Villagers also take advantage of the inability of authorities to check certain areas. One farmer explained “Since our ward is not near the main roads, many people don’t grow the plants.” (Farmer from Mon State)

Agriculture is the backbone of Burmese society and economy. Policies impacting the sector should be considered carefully and
implemented cautiously. World leaders and scientists are saying the same of biofuel initiatives. However, Burma’s dictatorship is forging ahead recklessly with a jatropha campaign that is unprecedented in scale. Not only is the campaign showing signs of failure, it is threatening the livelihoods of farmers.

In order to realize a better development process, the rights to manage natural resources and to participate in decision-making about sustainable development projects, need to be ensured in Burma. Sustainable agricultural policies are needed that can ensure land rights and human security and allow communities to manage their own natural resources. The rights of women and indigenous peoples must also be ensured.

Excerpted and adapted from the report: “Biofuels by Decree. Unmasking Burma’s bio-energy fiasco”, by The Ethnic Community
Development Forum (ECDF), that was released in May 2008, e-mail: unitedecdf@gmail.com. The full report is available at: http://www.terraper.org/file_upload/BiofuelbyDecree.pdf