|Peter: Changing Lives for Farmers and Children|
At Prospect Burma we sometimes hear the argument that scholarships are not a high priority for people wanting to use their money to benefit poor communities. This is just one student's story written up in 2003 and an example of why we, with Aung San Suu Kyi, believe that investing in education is the best possible investment in the people of Burma and their future.
Peter* is a Prospect Burma student in one of the least developed ethnic minority areas and is nearing the end of a PhD in agriculture at a European university. His motivation is straightforward: "I want to help my people and be useful to my community."
Over 70% of the local people are poor farmers, and he chose to study agriculture as the most practical and immediate way of serving his community. He is working on innovative ways of improving nutrition and hygiene for small livestock, particularly pigs and poultry. As soon as he finishes his studies he will return to Burma to run a demonstration farm and advice service for local farmers, under the umbrella of a local NGO. Peter's ambition is to teach local farmers improved agricultural methods which will enable them to get out of the 'slash and burn' rice farming pattern which is currently both destroying the land and locking the farmers in a cycle of poverty. At present they move from one area to another, burning the natural vegetation, growing rice for three years and then moving on, leaving the land exhausted. Apart from being environmentally destructive, it is an unsafe way of life in an area with a high military presence.
Despite being hard at work on his PhD, Peter is already working to help these farmers. Returning in the university vacations, he has set up the demonstration farm and it is already beginning to function: pig breeding began in June. When he returns permanently, he will teach farmers how to diversify into small animal farming, using his research to demonstrate effective methods of nutrition using crop by-products, and life-saving hygiene methods.
He is also at work on a cross-breeding programme to ensure farmers get the most fruitful and resistant breeds. There will be no charge for the advice, and farmers will be able to buy stock at cost price from the farm. Those too poor to pay upfront will be able to pay after they have sold the animals at market. He reports that farmers are very interested but lack real expertise in animal husbandry and so are fearful that the animals will die before they get to market: education is the key.
One extraordinary result of Peter's time in Europe is that it has led directly to a new orphanage being built in his home area. A European philanthropist with a great love of Burma got in touch with him, and Peter put him in touch with the local Abbot and travelled with him to Burma. After some Burmese vicissitudes, it was completed last summer and now provides a safe home for 50 vulnerable children in an area where many are orphaned in the military's displacement operations.
Naturally, the orphanage has its own farm to feed the children and generate income and Peter will manage it on his return. Our students often report that contact with cultures in which freedom of speech is the norm is transforming, but sometimes the results of time away from home are even more dramatic.
*Not his real name. Peter's identity and that of his community are not revealed in order to protect their security.
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