When fourteen-year-old Nam Wan started working in local hotels (at night), it was her choice.
Massive economic factors in war-torn Myanmar meant her family lost their land to debt… in fact, those who took it turned it into a giant pit mine.
When I arrived about 6pm, she was coming down from the house in hot-pink tights and mini skirt, something that is rarely seen in conservative Shan State.
Her mother and father looked so sad and defeated. I started to cry. The Buddhist monk who was with me chastised me “What are you crying about?” he said, “This is normal.”
This happened in 2012. Since that time we have devoted our energies to try and change things in this backwater of the world that few people have heard of.
Home to maybe eight million people, the plight of Shan State received little international coverage with the movie Twilight Over Burma.
A Google search reveals a lot of broad information about the area.
The ongoing Civil war in Myanmar has been going for more than 60 years. What once was the prosperous “rice-bowl of Asia” is now one of the poorest countries in the world.
The people, however, are an incredibly resilient lot. Despite bullets flying and abject poverty the local farmers consistently work to support their families.
Economic forces from surrounding forces and the powerful elite mean that many farmers get into debt.
They just aren’t able to make ends meet. Desperate to prevent losing their family land, Shan teenagers are frequently sent to work, often to neighbouring countries.
In fact, like Nam Wan, many teenagers willingly go despite the risks. Many disappear and never come home. This is what causes human trafficking in this region.
It is so prevalent that some villages are completely barren of teenagers.
The root of the problem is in the hands of powerful national and international interests and loan sharks. Moving farmers off the land is advantageous to companies from abroad who want to monocrop crops like almonds.
We tried some projects which were marginally successful, but there was one model that just seemed to work every time. It’s what we call our seed banks program.
This is an innovative program where we ask the whole community (sometimes several villages) to form a project committee and this community then borrows a lump sum from our program.
This money is enough to buy seed and fertiliser for every cash-strapped farmer to plant their land. Interest rates are deliberately very low.
The interest is retained in a bank account and returned to the community later.
Farmers then wait out the few months until harvest, and they make a better profit because they are not in debt. Children stay home. The loan is paid back and the next year we do the same again.
The project is managed and run by a committee of local village people elected by the community.
Over time these communities become better at managing their bank, and this starts a ripple effect that means the community develops. There’s an animated video on our website that explains how the process works.
Myanmar is a very complex country. There are more than 100 languages spoken in the country and many political and military divisions.
So, what is a small innovative Kiwi organisation doing to change a situation that is affecting tens of thousands of people in a conflict zone?
The answer: We are doing what we can to support these communities. Individuals and families and groups all over New Zealand support our work and enable us to do what we do.
We’d love to grow, and to do that we are growing our community, to connect Kiwis to help communities in Myanmar thrive.
Circuit is launching our own podcast where we will be talking about our approach to development, and interviewing some great people.
This article could never cover any of that complexity. To find out about everything we do, sign up for our newsletters to engage more and to join the community.
You can buy our donation Gift cards and find other ways to support here.
Listen to episode one of Circuit International’s podcast, where they interview Good editor and Circuit International ambassador, Carolyn Enting.