By AUNG THET WINE
LAPUTTA, Irrawaddy Delta — At 3 a.m., a mother and her 10-year-old daughter shine a flashlight on a small iron trap in a dry field. The woman bends down and removes several dead rats from the trap. She hands the rodents to the girl, who clutches several more in her small hand.
To earn enough kyat to survive, the rodents will be sold for food in the morning market.
"I set up these traps with some rice seeds around eleven at night, and I have to go to collect the catch in the morning,” said Khin Thaung.
Her eight-member family struggles to survive and still they can’t make ends meet. Her husband works as a farm laborer when he can, but now he also helps set the rodent traps.
"Before the cyclone, landlords used to hire manual laborers to plough their land,” said Khin Thaung’s husband. “Now, they are reluctant to hire laborers, and they go into the fields and work themselves. They are also having a hard time."
"Our family members divide up the field and all work to collect the rats,” said Daw Khin Thaung. Rodent meat sells for about 700 kyat (US $.50 cents) a viss (less than 1 kilo). She usually collects about 3 viss a day.
The earnings don’t meet family expenses, but for now, it’s the only income they have. Many of the poorest families in the Irrawaddy delta also trap and sell rodents while others survive by selling fish.
Chat Kyi, 35, wandered alone along a river near his village in the evening light, regularly stopping to cast his hand-net into the shallows in hopes of catching small fish or a few prawn.
To support his family of five, he needs at least 2,000 kyat ($1.90) a day or they go hungry. He said he can see the faces of his hungry children at home as he fishes.
"Since the cyclone, it is difficult to catch fish,” he said. “Before, I could throw the net in the river and catch fish, after throwing out broken rice. But even if I scatter rice now, the fish are very few.”
In better days, he could count on netting at least two viss of Nga-Phae and two viss of Nga-Sin-Yine and other prawns, earning around 5,000 kyat ($4.70) day.
Before, the river was crowded with fishermen but many died during the cyclone and others left in search of better jobs.
The fishing on this day isn’t good, said Chat Kyi, and he may have to borrow some money to buy a little rice. Added the rice to today’s catch of small prawn, he might have enough to feed his children, who aren’t getting enough to eat.
Chat Kyi said he still sees the remains of a few dead bodies around his village. With little sign of better opportunities on the way, he is thinking about relocating to a larger city to look for regular work.
Even people not on the lowest rung of the economic ladder are struggling.
Kyaw Mya, 45, a farmer who owns 60 acres of land around Ywa Thit village in Gon Hnin Tan village tract in Laputta Township, sighed deeply as he looked at his dry land. He tried to restart his rice farm just after the cyclone by taking out a loan. However, he produced a smaller rice crop this year, and he now owes almost 2 million kyat to money lenders. It’s very hard, he said, to make the payment on the 8 percent loan each month. Now, he pays only the monthly interest due, which totals 240,000 kyat.
Normally, he could count on 60 baskets of rice per acre, when he grows Ka-ma-kyi, a high yield variety. However, he got only 30 baskets an acre this year. Moreover, his production cost this year was twice as much for seeds, labor, fertilizer and diesel for the tiller machines.
Previously, Ka-ma-kyi rice sold for 400,000 to 500,000 kyat for a hundred baskets, but the going price is now around 300,000, he said.
Because of his indebtedness, he said, he will have to take his children out of school.
"I’m not even sure if I can grow rice this year,” he said.” I can't pay back the loans I borrowed last year, and I would need another loan to put in more crops. I have no idea what to do,” said Kyaw Myint.
One year after Cyclone Nargis, his desperation and anxiety are shared by many people in the Irrawaddy delta.