Friday, October 5, 2012

Small is still beautiful for Burma

Friday, 05 October 2012 14:38 Myat Thu Pan

The attention of the much of Burmese government is now tied up with foreign investments and planning for mega-industrial zones.

One hopes the little man shuffling on the streets of large cities, in small towns and in villages – and out in the paddy fields – are not forgotten.

Workers with Singapore-based company, Grenzone Pte Ltd, help install a solar power system in a village bordering Thailand and Burma. The village was previously without electricity. Photo:

They make up about 80 per cent of the Burma’s population, which means there are 48 million living and scraping by on a shoestring at a poverty level that is near the bottom of the list of poorest countries in the world.

At this time, I am particularly thinking about the book “Small Is Beautiful” by British economist E.F. Schumacher. This timeless book extolls the virtues of microeconomics in the developing world. The fast-paced industrialization in Burma is not going to trickle down to the millions of poor in near term.

Government measures inviting micro-financing is a welcome policy, but it needs to be established in a way that Burmese expatriates all over the world can invest, even in very small shares. There are 2 million in the Burmese diaspora. Just put the word out, and it will attract waves of Burmese expatriates who want to help the homeland. The government and NGOs need to work out a convenient and easy banking system to facilitate investments for the diaspora and others eager to help. Only micro-financing can cover a wide expanse of the country and reaching some of the poorest in the nation.

Burmese are extremely creative. Take, for example, the innovative locally made small truck called Trawlagyi, which uses a Kubota pump to haul cargo. It's not environmentally sound, but for some villagers it's the cheapest and more efficient means of transport, even if its just one step up from the bullock cart. Perhaps one day a Burmese engineer might improve on the Trawlagyi and build a real automotive engine for it, one never knows.

India has been very successful in manufacturing household solar systems, using traditional solar panels and even everyday material like mirrors, tin foil and tin sheets to catch the rays of the sun. I visited the Shwe Baw Gyun Dhemma Center in Mahlaing Township where one of the families showed us a flat box made of wood with the inside of the bottom inset with a mirror. The box is topped with a sheet of transparent glass on which sits a kettle. The owner said it can boil water during the day. It was a gift from two Western Buddhist nuns who had lived at the center and had brought it back from their travels in India.

I also learned that single-household solar panels were imported from India and being used by some households in Mandalay. The initial outlay may be expensive but it may well beat the cost of generators and diesel oil. They also prevent environmental pollution from the use of diesel oil.

I have read of many other innovations in India. One story tells the success of solar energy in a small village where at night school children were able to study more hours and housewives can make a better living as seamstresses.

It may be worthwhile for Burmese entrepreneurs to go and study the small-scale solar industry in India. The systems produced in the US and the West are too expensive to be copied. If this kind of solar systems based on intermediate technology can be developed in Burma the dependence on wood will be cut down and prevent deforestation. Also it may help do away on over dependence on hydropower for domestic energy supplies.

Cuba in the days after the break up of the USSR when the oil subsidy stopped from the Russians began to adopt solar power. Cuba also adopted nationwide organic farming practices using local farm waste like manure, hay, even earthworms to produce organic fertilizers.  In ten years' time Cuba was able to produce its own food and even export some of its farm surplus.

Cuba also imported a million bikes from China but later they we're able to manufacture their own bikes to help solve their dependency on oil. Mandalay City is way ahead with bikers already taking over the streets from motorists. It was a wonderful sight to see. More cities in Burma should promote bicycles for transportation.

I remember the late Prof. Hla Myint (Ah Ba), the revered retired professor of medicine, recounting how his grandfather used to collect cow dung and save it in pits. Then he would dilute it in water to make liquid manure.

Straw, hay, dried leaves, grass, barks, seasoned manure, chicken droppings, goat, even horse manure can be used. Saw dust and kitchen vegetable waste can be made into organic fertilizer too. These are all available in rural areas, for free, for farmers. They just need to be exposed to the techniques of how to make organic fertilizers properly in their backyards.

Chemical fertilizers are costly and they can seep into the water table in the soil and contaminate wells and tube wells. Not only that, they drain into streams and ponds where it affects the fish population which in turn pollute humans.

The Burmese government should think savvy and insist some of the Western businesses install solar power for their plants wholly or partially in exchange for some incentives.

There are still many ways to empower domestic businesses that just need the government and the respective ministries to think outside the box and also research and study techniques used in different developing countries in other parts of the world.

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