Around the suburbs of Rangoon small scraggly bushes now occupy plots of land that once were used for growing vegetables or beans. They look miserable. Unattended among weeds and debris, they show no signs of growth and bear few leaves. Some are used for hanging laundry. Others catch plastic bags in the breeze.
They are also a flagship state project. The order to grow these physic nut plants, which belong to the same family as castor oil, is said to have come directly from Burma’s military supremo, Senior General Than Shwe. His supposed idea is to alleviate the country’s fuel shortages through biodiesel, although some speculate that the order may have had as much to do with astrology as the economy.
People all around the country have been given seeds and pressed into planting them [or, the Myanmar Times suggests, “at the government’s request”] along roads, football fields, schoolyards and government compounds. Some bear the signboards of government departments, police stations and military units. Television broadcasts reassure viewers that the bushes will soon bear a great bounty, and demonstrate how simple it is to extract their oil and use it for fuel.
Reality suggests otherwise. The saplings are almost universally neglected. Without regular care, plants grown years ago still bear no fruit; no fruit, no biodiesel.
In some places villagers have also been obliged to work on commercial physic nut ventures. In late 2006, for instance, U Tin Kyi was called to work on the acreage adjacent to his farm that had been planted by a company under ownership of an army general’s son. He pointed out that all the plants had died and that he should be able to go back and work his own crops. The local officials did not take kindly to his stating the obvious and had him jailed for four months.
Ill-conceived and mismanaged schemes can be found the world over. But while in an open society they can be challenged and halted, under autocratic rulers of the sort that exist in Burma they are both far more prevalent and dangerous.
Social scientist James C. Scott identifies why. He suggests that some of the biggest man-made disasters of the last century have four key elements: one, the administrative reordering of society and nature; two, overconfidence in modernity as a measure of progress; three, coercive government, and four, weakened civil society. In these circumstances, when mistakes are made lessons are covered up, not learned; people are pushed too far, and tragedy follows.
This is what happened in China when in the 1950s the rural populace was forced into collectives. Agricultural output plummeted. Regional officials fell to giving increasingly ludicrous figures on grain produced and stored, while locals were in some instances compelled to uproot healthy paddy and plant seedlings alongside roads that Mao and his entourage would travel so that the “great helmsman” might see emerald-green vistas. Millions died in the famine that followed.
Similar patterns have been seen in Burma during recent years, although they have not so far pushed the country over the precipice. Farmers in some areas have been forced to uproot beans and peanuts in order to grow second or third crops of rice on land with inadequate water. Others have had to purchase seeds for summer crops, which once planted have grown at different speeds and to different heights. Many have struggled without fertilizer or outside assistance.
The physic nut plants are unlikely of their own accord to precipitate the sort of hunger in Than Shwe’s Burma that occurred in Mao’s China, but while officials at every level continue to conceal the truth in order to please their superiors, as they must, these bushes continue to place a needless burden on people who are already struggling for one square meal a day. They may not spell ruin but they are a waste of precious time, land and water.
The pointlessness of dotting the landscape with plants in which no one has any special interest may be missed by the people at the top who give the orders, but it is understood by everyone else. To the extent that Burma prevails it is not because of bureaucratic meddling but despite it. While the physic nuts are on display along the roads and thoroughfares where more senior officers are expected to travel, on the backstreets, in small gardens and on the banks of waterways, vegetables continue to be sown.
Further reading: Myanmar’s nutty scheme to solve energy crisis, by Ed Cropley (Reuters)
Of kyay-zu and kyet-su: the military in 2006, by Mary Callahan (ANU Press)