KYUNG GWIN, Myanmar (IHT): Farmer Zaw Naing was puzzled as he stared at the brand new, unassembled tilling machine — equipment not seen in most of Myanmar's rice belt before the deadly cyclone.
Thousands of the tillers, donated by international and private aid donors, have been brought in to replace the water buffalo that once plowed the rice paddies but were killed by Cyclone Nargis on May 2-3.
The plan is for farmers in the devastated Irrawaddy delta to rebuild their livelihoods and begin producing the rice that feeds this impoverished country.
But time is running out
The rice planting season should have started by early June, when farmers here typically plow their fields with water buffalo and prepare to plant new seeds for the October harvest. The delta produces most of Myanmar's rice, and without immediate help, food security will be seriously threatened, international experts have warned.
The Agriculture Ministry has said 13,600 power tillers are needed to replace more than 280,000 cattle that died in the storm.
Some farmers say they have been lucky enough to receive the new machines but need to reassemble them since the tillers were shipped in several pieces.
"We don't know how to put it together. We have to wait for a mechanic to come," Zaw Naing said on a recent afternoon in the delta village of Kyaung Gwin as he unwrapped the plastic cover of the Chinese-made machine's red engine. He watched as a neighbor tugged at the machine's parts and pulled its gear shifts.
Most farmers in the delta have not managed to get a mechanical tiller. But once they do, they face further challenges: farmers can't afford the diesel fuel to power the machines and don't know how to operate them.
"I don't know how to use this machine. We only used buffalo in the past," said Zaw Naing, who lost his home in the cyclone as well as the 10 water buffalo that plowed his fields.
He has been told by local authorities to share the tiller with five other farmers in his village, which is south of the town of Labutta in one of the hardest hit areas. The cyclone killed some 78,000 people and left 56,000 more missing.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in an assessment last week the delta normally produces about 60 percent of Myanmar's rice and the outlook for this year's crop is "very uncertain" after the storm flooded paddy fields with sea water, damaged irrigation systems and destroyed seed supplies.
"Little to no actual progress has been made to restore or rehabilitate damaged lands and infrastructure," the report said. "Farmers are yet to be supplied with sufficient food, viable seed, tools, livestock or replacement mechanical tillers and fuel."
Myanmar's Agriculture Ministry says it is sending experts to train farmers and will send 140,000 baskets of salt-resistant rice seed — the equivalent of 2,900 tons — to the delta, a fraction of what is needed.
Once the world's top producer, Myanmar has seen rice exports drop from nearly 4 million tons to about 40,000 tons last year, after four decades of military rule and disastrous economic policies. Its exports are so small these days that few expect the cyclone will have any impact on world rice prices; the people of Myanmar consume most of the rice the country produces.
U.N. Undersecretary-General Noeleen Heyzer issued an urgent plea Friday for donations of 1 million gallons (3.8 million liters) of diesel fuel to help farmers run the tillers.
Myanmar's agriculture minister, Maj. Gen. Htay Oo, told Heyzer the fuel is needed to run some 5,000 tillers donated by Thailand, China and other countries. Private donors and aid agencies have contributed additional machines.
"The window of opportunity is very short," said Heyzer, the senior U.N. official in Asia. After the planting season ends in July, it will be too late, she said, warning of "disastrous consequences for food security in Myanmar."
The sense of urgency — and frustration — was shared by rice farmer Tin Yein, whose wife, five farm hands and eight buffalo were killed in the cyclone. He spent a whole day recently lined up with 200 other farmers in Labutta, where dozens of donated tillers were being stored in a government warehouse waiting to be distributed.
"I didn't get one today, but maybe I will get it tomorrow," said Tin Yein, sitting at a tea shop in town after a day of dealing with red tape. Farmers applying for the mechanical tillers must be accompanied by their village headmen, said Tin Yein, and his local official arrived too late to process the request that day.
"Normally, planting season starts May 15. I'm already a month late," said the farmer, who has 70 acres (28 hectares) of land. Each harvest produced about 30,000 baskets of rice, enough to feed his family and bring in some US$9,000 a year in income.
Tin Yein wonders how he'll afford to use the mechanical tiller. He says he'll need to hire eight men and a boat to transport the machine to his village, about an hour away and accessible only by narrow waterways.
Each machine uses 2 gallons (8 liters) of diesel per acre and government rations restrict each person to 5 gallons (19 liters) of fuel every few days. Fuel is available on the black market but for twice the official price of US$2.70 per gallon.
"I have no money for diesel because every day I struggle just to buy food," Tin Yein said. "I'm not hopeful of planting before the rainy season is over."