Category Archives: Economics

Saving Rangoon: The Battle for Burma’s Ancient and Colonial Heritage

First published in the Guardian 4th May 2015

For more than two decades Moe Moe Lwin watched helplessly as Rangoon, her home city, transformed beyond recognition.

Pavements vanished and the streets became clogged with cars. Beloved cinemas fell to bulldozers and green spaces slowly disappeared.

“We had walked, played and worked all around these beautiful areas, and they had become totally normal, just a part of daily life,” remembers Lwin. “It’s only really when you start seeing these changes [that] you begin to appreciate what you had and what you have … we have a long history of architecture in Burma and a lot of history attached to these streets and buildings.”

With Victorian and Edwardian buildings still punctuating much of downtown Rangoon, the city serves up a dizzying array of buildings; a decaying reminder of Burma’s unique history of colonial occupation followed by decades of socialist isolationism.

Many are more than a century old, their age written in the fading colours, filigrees of damp, and decades of creeping mould that envelop most exteriors. Some maintain the glorious porticos that provide shelter from the rain and sun, but most were destroyed when the streets were first widened in the 1990s.

Between 1990 and 2011, an estimated 35% of downtown Rangoon was destroyed to make way for new development projects: shopping mall and overpriced condominiums and hotels.

The city as Lwin knew it was at risk, so in 2012 she and a number of like-minded conservationists came together to form the Yangon Heritage Trust, which she now directs.

Over the past three years of preservation and advocacy, the group’s aim has evolved from “focusing just on the old buildings to judging the overall liveability of the city – to inform and have more of a relationship with it.”

Earlier this year Rangoon hosted the country’s first-ever Art and Heritage festival.

With the theme “My Yangon My Home”, the festival gave Rangoon locals the opportunity to visualise their city’s future by looking closer at their history and heritage.

“We wanted to show a different side to [the city]. We used public spaces, old heritage sites for the events, so everyone can see,” says Htein Lin, a Burmese artist and activist who co-curated the festival.

And considering the rapid changes the city has already undergone, Lin also notes the timely nature of the inaugural festival.

“With all this construction and demolition of buildings and public spaces, [this] is such a good time to be sharing information about these things – to let people know what they were and what they can be.”

In a small alley dwarfed by the bright red brick of Rangoon’s supreme court, a steady stream of hungry punters order breakfast at a simple street-food stall.

Hidden in the cool shade of the one-hundred year-old neo-baroque edifice, a 22-year-old engineering student polishes off a bowl of Mohinga noodle soup before contemplating the city’s future.

“We think we need to be New York, or Tokyo, or Bangkok,” says Kyaw, echoing the sentiments of his nodding classmates beside him. “But look around you. Why would we destroy this? We could be like a Rome or a Prague instead.”

While such feelings to preserve Rangoon’s heritage are spreading, they are by no means universal.

An older man at the stall is in favour of development. He points out that Kyaw and his friends are too young to have experienced the stagnant years the country spent under the xenophobic “Burmese Way to Socialism” policy.

“He thinks now we need to catch up with the world,” says Kyaw. “Like this is a race or something.”

Back in her office, Moe Moe Lwin understands the different opinions. “Some people have argued ‘this is British, this is not us’. Even some architects think this, but we have been using these places since the British left us over 60 years ago and we have been using it as we wanted. This is a part of our life – we can’t say this is British or Indian anymore.”

With Rangoon’s infrastructure decaying to a level of near collapse, most inhabitants of the city believe that some serious development is necessary. However, the priorities and degrees of development remain in dispute.

“You need to find a balance between developing and saving what’s important. Your pride in the city should be maintained. The people will love it, and the younger generation will feel pride,” says Lwin.

“This is the balance. If you don’t take care of what you have, then you’ll end up with just another big city.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Economics, Urban

The Chinatowns of East Burma

First Published in Roads and Kingdoms, 20th April 2015

Pano4

From the top of a hill on the Burmese borderlands, a 30-foot tall golden Buddha stands in the cool breeze and solemnly watches over Mong La, a gambling mecca that has come to symbolize much of this border regions’ most peculiar aspects. Less than a mile from the statue’s back is China, whose influence over the town looms much larger than the Buddha’s.

Shadowing China’s southern Yunnan province within Burma’s Shan state, a number of ethnic armed groups have governed a landmass the size of Switzerland for more than two decades. Through a shared history of conflict and détente, these groups have helped form an eccentric region that is today more Yunnan than Yangon.

Three main groups can claim de facto control of this peculiar region: the powerful Wa and their United Wa State Army (UWSA); Kokang and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), itself split in allegiances; and Mong La, under their National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS).

Together, they once formed the core of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), a one-time major actor in an ongoing ethnic conflict—one of the longest ongoing civil wars in the world. With backing from China just across the porous border, the CPB were able to maintain effective resistance to central Burma for a number of decades before finally succumbing to pressures in 1989.

The reformist Deng Xiaoping, China’s then Premier, was never too happy with the CPB’s hard-line Maoist stance; Deng himself was twice purged during China’s Cultural Revolution. Moreover, Deng’s economic-reform mentality meant improved relations with Burma’s military government was almost inevitable. This reality left the CPB, already struggling with internecine ethnic tensions, feeling somewhat isolated and vulnerable. The Kokang were the first to split, signing a ceasefire with Burma in 1989. The Wa and Mong La quickly followed suit.

Yet the initial ceasefire agreements did not lead to a peace treaty or any integration of the region. Far from it, the groups demanded, and received, conditions that granted a great deal of autonomy, including the retention of their military capacity. It’s estimated that today the UWSA alone has command of over 30,000 men.

This limbo between war and peace continued for the next two decades, and, in its own way, the region thrived: The respective rulers remained close to one another and governed their fiefdoms unmolested. So while their counterparts in the Burmese Military ran a repressive crony operation with underhand business dealings, the heads of the border regions followed their own injurious path and raised revenue through drugs and shady business deals with their partners in Yunnan.

Over the past year Mong La has found itself the subject of renewed interest, its notoriety growing with each new sensational “exposé.” Recent coverage from the BBCTIME and the New York Times paint a shallow but vivid picture of a “City of Sin,” a “Burmese Las Vegas,” a debauched “Wild East” outside the control of Burma’s central government. The region, and this town in particular, was seemingly filled with drugs, gambling, and prostitution. I had to see it for myself.

After taking off from Yangon, I survey the changing terrain below from the window of a slim and rather splendid ATR72 propeller plane. We fly north, roughly following the flat basin of the Irrawaddy River before veering east after Mandalay, the landscape slowly transforming into a canvas of green, undulating hills. Along a small plateau, I spot my last stop, Kyaing Teung, situated in the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle, and just 52 miles southwest of Mong La.

Kyaing Teung is a rather beautiful town where gentle hills are dotted with golden pagodas and several bodies of water, including the picturesque Naung Tong Lake. It’s a fairly popular tourist destination and is also, incidentally, home to liaison offices for both Mong La and the Wa.

While relations remain cordial, a special permit is still needed to pass the numerous military checkpoints between the Kyaing Teung and Mong La. Thankfully, decades of uninterrupted peace between the NDAA-ESS and Burma proper have made acquiring that permit simple. No bribes are paid and no suspicious officials provoke or prevaricate.

Soon after I find myself in a breathtaking drive through the Shan hills—breathtaking in part because of the untouched green vistas, and in part because of the blind hairpin corners that we round with gusto. The severity of the land makes it clear why Shan was never truly under the control of the British colonizers when they claimed dominion over Burma.

The region has long been ruled through a number of separate principalities, each under their respective Sawbwas, or Lords of the Sky. These old rulers were once the only way the British, and the Burmese after them, contrived to enforce any influence over the domineering lands of Shan. A single group hoping to control the entire region would struggle with the harsh terrain, and today, in their own way, the ethnic armed groups continue to exploit the geography.

The location of these groups—immediately along the border with China—has provided them with a degree of covert, and not so covert, trade and support that has proven invaluable to their development and survival. Paul Keenan, a senior researcher on the region for the Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies, told me that he couldn’t imagine with whom else these groups were doing business, other than with the Chinese in Yunnan.

Yet recent history has seen big changes that hint to a potential geopolitical shift. Burma’s military government, for several decades ruled under a self-imposed isolationist policy drearily titled “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” has opened up in the last five years and made rapid steps towards reform and liberalisation. As a result, Western sanctions have been dropped and Burma now promises a future of increased capability.

Meanwhile, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in energy, extractive and development projects throughout Burma, including $2.54 billion oil and natural gas pipelines that run from the Bay of Bengal through to Yunnan, its conduits flirting with the boundaries of Kokang, where recent fighting has raised apprehensive eyebrows on both sides of the border.

Back in the taxi, I check my watch, trying to estimate how close we are to entering Mong La, the de facto capital of the zone known as Special Region 4. The driver rounds yet another speculative corner with unabashed confidence and I suddenly find myself upon a sharp valley.

The dark green hills on either side loom ominously over the road. As we draw closer I begin to notice four or five camouflaged pillboxes embedded in the hills and pointlessly try to peer into the black slits. I have no idea if they are occupied or empty. A handsome guard with a rifle waves us to stop and takes my permit while I cautiously survey the rest of the checkpoint from my passenger seat. Planted all over are flags with the insignia of the NDAA-ESS.

“Welcome to Special Region 4,” reads a large, peeling sign.

Strangely enough, within Special Region 4 even the land itself seems to change. The terrain no longer feels as unsullied—even the gentler hills give the impression they have been tended to by a prodigious landscaper. For the first time in the trip we run into real traffic. Huge lorries grunt their way up inclines, some filled with basic aggregate; others carrying dozens of metal barrels, black oil leaking from the rust. The Chinese company names “LiuGong” and “Sinomach” are proudly emblazoned on most of the machinery.

Our road detours onto a rough, loose gravel path while what looks like a four-lane highway nears completion. The air is filled with yellow dust and the hills exposed of their red-brown rocks. Alongside the road, indigenous trees are mostly felled, replaced instead with banana and watermelon plantations. Construction is underway everywhere.

We round another corner and a large, gleaming-white casino garishly called Galaxyse appears. Just beyond it, a pristine golf course stretches away from sight. Where once there were huts and agriculture, now there is high speed Internet, pristine fairways, and all-you-can-eat buffets.

Looking around, it’s hard to believe that 20 minutes earlier I was high in the untouched greenery of the Shan mountains. It’s hard to believe I’m still in Burma at all.

 Pagoda2

In the near distance I begin to see an outline of the town itself, or rather, I can make out the tall hotels that could only mean Mong La. My taxi driver pulls up outside the central market and I slowly trudge my way to a nearby hotel where a Chinese-American friend, who had arrived from China two days before, was waiting.

The city itself is surprisingly simple, almost quaint if not for the hotels and heavy construction. Acting as locus is the marketplace, a square some 400 meters in length, split into quadrants and with a tiny roundabout at the middle. Nearby, the muddy Namp Ma creek oozes through the town and above, some distinctly Burmese Pagodas dot the hills, arguably the only real reminder that you are not on the Chinese side of the border.

It’s true that many shops still carry the Burmese script, but it’s difficult to see them as much other than a forgotten footnote; the Burmese on many signs often left to fade away with time.

In my early vigor I begin making note of every distinctly Chinese thing I see. The architecture, the signs, the language, the cell phone networks, the shops, the money, the power grid, the food—it all screams China. The town, as my friend puts it, “looks almost like any other fourth-tier industrial Chinese town.”

After our quick tour, my friend and I sit down in a central market drinking station and call over the owner-cum-waiter. A moustachioed man from Nanjing strolls over and brings us two of the house beers: Tsingtao.

I sit back and casually watch the other punters at our host’s bar. It’s suddenly clear that the very tables at which we are sitting also double up as automated electronic mahjong tables. Gambling is technically illegal in both Burma and China, so I guessed everyone was seemingly making the most of any opportunity. I soon afterwards realized that such opportunities are practically everywhere.

Early the next morning, my friend and I decide to venture to the corner of the market where the endangered animal goods are sold. When we arrive just a few sleepy men and women display their illicit goods among fishmongers and vendors of watermelons. The most objectionable artifacts on offer—pangolin hides, tiger penis, bear paws—were surprisingly few in number and of questionable authenticity.

 Animals8

A little underwhelmed, that evening we passed the town’s red light district where healthy looking women handed out business cards and spoke cordially with enquiring Chinese men. Many simply hung out in their open brothels, talking and laughing amongst themselves.

It occurred to me that once this border region’s obscure context is considered, Mong La’s mystical aura quickly disappears and the city’s peculiarities become more typical of the region at large. In Wa, the UWSA have built Chinese-backed casinos too. The signs in Wa and Kokang are in Chinese, and the most common language used is Chinese. Most towns here, like Mong La, are hooked to China’s electricity grid and prefer the use of the renminbi. Yet the commonalities run deeper than just appearances or exploits in the illicit.

After decades of cross-border contact, intermarriages have further clouded already blurry ethnic lines and regional relationships. Many people carry two spellings of their name: one Chinese and one Burmese. The leader of Mong La is a case in point and starting with him, we quickly discern one example of relations that run across the entire borderlands.

Sai Leun (or Lin Minxian) is Shan-Chinese, a known drug lord and the son-in-law of Peng Jiasheng, the long-time ruler of the Kokang region.

Peng Jiasheng, an ethnic Han Chinese octogenarian druglord, commanded the CPB’s Kokang forces in the 1980s, and later spent time in Panghsang, the one-time capital of the CPB, now the de facto capital of Wa State.

The Wa, for their part, are the strongest ethnic armed group in the country. Their 30,000 fighters pose a serious deterrent to any consideration of intervention by the Burmese government. Yet more than their numbers, the UWSA have a capable military arsenal that is almost entirely obtained from China.

A Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) member put these dynamics in layman’s terms when we met before my trip: “The Kokang and Mong La won’t do anything without consulting the Wa, and the Wa won’t do anything without speaking to China.”

Yet with Beijing entering into ever more lucrative deals with Burma proper, the ethnic armed leaders and their business partners in Yunnan – those most invested in consolidating the status quo – recognise a changing landscape. Too much ostentatious chaos could now risk an intervention from Beijing or Naypyidaw; an intervention that would imperil the fiefdoms they have come to dominate and profit from.

These dynamics came to light when Peng Jiasheng was ousted from Kokang in 2009 after the Burmese exploited a split in his MNDAA. Almost none of the other groups stepped in to help. It seemed that at least one group in the region had fallen under the control of the Burmese government. But earlier this year Peng Jiasheng came back with a vengeance. On February 9, just three days before the country commemorated Union Day, he launched a bloody counter-offensive to regain control and the fighting remains unresolved—a nearly impossible feat without some kind of support, or so the Burmese government says.

The accusations have been flying thick and fast: Who is helping Peng Jiasheng to reclaim Kokang? China, the Wa, and Mong La have all had to deny supporting the ageing warlord.

So while the fighting in Kokang continues, and the accusations towards China, the Wa, and Mong La persist, construction grows in the de facto capital of Special Region 4. Chinese tourists are the bread and butter of Mong La, and hotels with names promoting the tripled symbol, jin, or gold, continue to promise riches to their guests. Gambling is the main attraction now.

Back in Mong La’s marketplace from my seat at the aptly named Kokang restaurant, I watch while the other men and women ready themselves for yet more gambling. Everyone carries a bulging man bag of cash, slung over a shoulder or tied to the waist. Cars bearing the license plates “SR4…” registered in Mong La, “SHN…” registered in Shan, and several Chinese license plates, registered in Yunnan, once again head out into the night for the chance to make a fortune, or lose it all.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Economics, Politics

An hour long radio documentary from Public Radio International’s America Abroad Media on Burma in the buildup to the elections later this year.  First broadcast on Tuesday 7th April with my contribution starting at 27 mins.

Leave a comment

April 9, 2015 · 11:15

Burma’s Mines Desperately Need Reform as Foreign Firms Implicated in Abuse

First published in Vice News – 10 Feb 2015

Amnesty International has claimed foreign companies are profiting from serious human rights abuses perpetrated in Myanmar’s mining industry, as well as accusing the country’s authorities of violent repression and forced mass evictions in the pursuit of mineral riches.

In a report released on Tuesday, the rights group focuses on the notorious Monywa copper project, comprising the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung (“S&K” mine), and the Letpadaung mine in the country’s central Monywa District. Since beginning operations in the 1980s, the project has fallen short of nearly every good-practice indicator, according to the report, titled Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine.

In 1978, a Myanmar government-owned enterprise began developing deposits at what is now the S&K mine in central Myanmar. In 1996 a subsidiary of the Canadian company, Ivanhoe Mines (now Turquoise Hill Resources) entered into a joint venture with the government-owned enterprise and reaped the rewards for over a decade.

In 2010, the Monywa project was taken over by the Myanmar military company, UMEHL, and Wanbao Mining Ltd, a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned military company, Norinco. As is often the case with mines, it didn’t take long for the first of many abuse cases to spring up, with the initial development in 1996-97 forcibly evicting thousands of people.

“These concerns have been in the public domain since the early 2000s,” Meghna Abraham, Amnesty International’s corporate crimes researcher, told VICE News. “After all that attention, one hoped that the government would finally take some corrective measures and address the issues… and that’s just not happened.”

As well as the forced evictions, Amnesty details the lackluster environmental assessment, the opaque sales of corporate assets, and the collusion of abuse by the foreign companies involved. The report also mentions the harsh crackdowns on peaceful protesters — including the shooting dead of a woman in December 2014 and the infamous use of white phosphorous to clear a sit-in protest in November 2012.

“No one has been held accountable,” continues Abraham. “There has been no accountability of officials who have been implicated… and the companies haven’t been held accountable.”

According to the report, both the Canadian Ivanhoe Mines, and the Chinese Wanbao Mining have “built their business on a foundation of human rights abuse.” With regards to Ivanhoe, the forced evictions of the S&K mines’ inception was apparently done with their knowledge, yet the wrongs were never addressed. Wanbao Mining, meanwhile, is charged with “directly engaging” with the forced evictions and even providing “material assistance” to police during protests. Both deny the charges and wrote full ripostes, attached in the report’s appendix.

Despite the focus on just one project, the issues raised show wider-reaching structural flaws in the investment and development sectors of a country suddenly exposed to the full might of globalized capital. The report calls its own findings, “a cautionary tale for the government of Myanmar and investors.”

Myanmar has a long history of mining, with silver, zinc, lead, tin, tungsten, and precious stones having been mined since the fifteenth century. The country itself is incredibly rich in gems, mineral resources, and oil and gas reserves. Yet after undergoing the military dictatorship’s 26-year-long policy of isolation from 1962 until 1988, coupled with Western sanctions, the country found itself near destitute and with a seriously underdeveloped infrastructure.

In 2012, after sanctions on the country began to ease, foreign companies and investors eagerly spied the country’s potential. In just one example, Coca-Cola immediately returned to Myanmar in 2012 after nearly 60 years out of the country. On my last visit, a large coke poster even welcomed me to the country.

Yet with regards to the extractive industries, a restrictive 1994 mining law has meant that many companies and investors have adopted a more patient, wait-and-see approach. Meanwhile, the promise of new legislation, designed to improve practices and clear the way for further foreign investment, continues to rattle around the country’s houses of parliament.

“We believe that within the month the law will be [passed] by parliament” U Aye Lwin, secretary general of the Myanmar Federation of Mining Association, told VICE News. “I will say that there are so many possibilities for mining projects now.”

It seems to be only a matter of time before the extractive industry is capitalized on more by both domestic and foreign money, and the worry is that the old structures will continue to oblige social and environmental abuse, even if new reforms and laws are enacted.

“The challenge in implementing those reforms, once adopted, will be lack of government capacity, and lack of transparency,” Vicky Bowman, director of the Yangon-based Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, told VICE News. “But we have to start somewhere.”

Abraham believes that the Myanmar government has begun moving in the right direction, but has shown through Monywa that it is still falling short. “Definitely in the last couple of years the government have taken some positive steps; that is undeniable. I think what we are seeing is a lack of commitment to follow through, especially when, in this context, the military owns the business involved.”

The issue of the military, as well as the country’s omnipresent “crony” cliques, is yet another hurdle for reform. With strong ties to big business, the military, and politics, the cronies of Myanmar are infamous for operating with apparent impunity.

“That’s the question,” said Abraham, “will the government act when the military is involved in some of the business? So far we haven’t seen that.”

“In the case of the Letpadaung mine, this may well have been a contributory factor to the current problems,” added Bowman. “UMEHL, the military partner (in the Monywa Project), apparently has significant responsibility for overseeing community engagement by the joint venture, which is not a good starting point, given their reputation and also their lack of experience in doing this in any context.”

Nonetheless, Lwin is optimistic that with the new law and reforms, mining in Myanmar can be beneficial for the country’s economy and its people, without abrogating the rights of locals or the environment. “Now we are a member of the EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative). We are going to follow the regulations and we will be adhering to them and submitting papers to them,” he states.

Abraham is also hopeful for Myanmar’s future in the extractive industries. “The nature of human rights is we have to be optimistic,” she tells me with a chuckle, before continuing: “When we went to Myanmar, we see a clampdown, we see arrests but there is a change. The civil society space has increased. There are amazing activists and lawyers and others working on this. And I think there are people in government who are trying to make change happen too.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Economics, Rights

Thailand’s Multimillion Dollar Insect-Farming Sector

First Published on November 21 on Vice Munchies

A rising chorus of chirping crickets greeted Aunt Jai as she lifted the blue mosquito netting off the concrete pens outside her house. Bubbling away with enthusiasm, she quickly pointed out every little detail of her modest cricket farm.

“Those are the breeders… These are the young house crickets… There you can see some of their eggs, if you lift that cassava leaf…” For a 62-year-old, she is shockingly nimble, bouncing around between each of her 15 concrete pens, proudly showcasing the insects that have brought her so much success.

She laughed and made a sweeping gesture to the tens of thousands of crickets around her. “I used to be just a normal farmer!”

untitled-27-2

Thailand, like many countries, has a long history of eating insects, or what is called “entomophagy.” But while many of these countries have seen a decline in insect-eaters—due in no small part to insect-eating’s negative portrayal by the West—Thailand’s insect-eating community has actually grown and diversified beyond historical levels, thanks to a changing perception of insects as food.

Today, Thailand is praised by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as “one of the few countries to have developed a viable and thriving insect farming sector” with “more than 20,000 insect farming enterprises … registered in the country.” The sector now constitutes a multi-million-dollar frontier of farming; it is growing so quickly that it continues to outpace academic research and government oversight.

With only two years’ experience, Aunt Jai is among the new wave of Thais entering the insect-farming industry. Yet, unlike some other farmers, she was not aware of its potential, instead setting out with the simple goal of sating her daughter’s cravings.

untitled-4-2

“[My daughter] absolutely loves to eat crickets, so I thought I would buy some cricket eggs and try and rear some for her,” she recalled with an incredulous giggle. “I didn’t know what would come next.”

After receiving a small batch of various cricket eggs in the mail, Aunt Jai placed them in a small blue box and, having never been taught how to rear crickets, struggled to raise them through three months of trial and error. Eventually, she made her breakthrough and started rearing several cycles of crickets. Two months later, word of her crickets was spreading in her rural village near Don Chedi, just 80 kilometers northwest of Bangkok.

“People were coming to my farm and asking to buy some of my crickets,” she told me. Aunt Jai immediately realised the potential of her side project. “It cost me 3,000 THB ($91) to start, and after five months I had managed to make back my money, plus an extra 20,000 THB ($610)!”

She quickly invested another 100,000 THB for the 15 large concrete blocks that make up her farm today. “Today I’m making over 20,000 THB selling around 200 kilos of crickets per month. Next year, I want to double the size of my farm and begin selling to wholesalers in Talad Thai.”

untitled-18

Talad Thai, on the outskirts of Bangkok, is the country’s largest wholesale and retail market, located on nearly 200 acres of land. Walking amongst the hundreds of various wholesalers is a dizzying, glorious exposure to the sheer variety and quantity of foodstuffs available in Thailand.

Mountains of pumpkins shade their wholesalers from the sun, while gourds, lemons, potatoes, and tomatoes line walkways. Onions, forests of green herbs, and bundles of garlic hang off tables. Omnipresent in the humid air is that subtle sting of dried chillies in water and vinegar.

Talad Thai, and markets like it, are a common step in the supply chain of medium- to large-scale insect-farming enterprises. With this one-stop solution, farmers suddenly find it possible to sell in bulk to a wider consumer base. Talad Thai alone generates an average monthly income of over 300,000 THB ($9,150) per month through insects.

Tucked away in one area of the vegetables section is one of the market’s four insect wholesalers. Somnuek, a 54-year-old wholesaler of insects for nearly seven years, has little time to rest as he and his family work hard to serve their stream of customers.

untitled-11

“After awareness campaigns from doctors and the UN, I’ve definitely seen the number of consumers go up, which has in turn meant there are more farms to meet the growing demand,” he explained before quickly reaching over to a mound of slightly damp, cold silkworm pupae and calling an older passerby. “Eat this! It’s good for your joints, especially your knees.”

Gesturing to the glistening bowls of defrosting insects, Somnuek estimated that when he started his monthly profits were in the thousands. Now he always tops 100,000 THB ($3,050) per month.

“I import from Cambodia and China and export to different Thai communities all around the world,” he told me. “I have even sold 100 kilos of silkworm pupae to some Thai people in the USA.”

Thailand’s northeast Isan region, and to a lesser extent the more southern regions, have historically made up the bulk of the insect-eaters in Thailand. And while they may still constitute a majority of the consumer market, that base is quickly diversifying and expanding as attitudes change.

untitled-14

Dr. Yupa Hanboonsong, an associate professor of entomology at Khon Kaen University and a co-author of a 2013 FAO report on insect farming in Thailand, puts this change down to a recent effort in increasing the younger generations’ level of comfort with eating insects.

“We have been throwing food fairs, introducing new recipes, serving them in school lunches, putting the food in nicer packaging, exposing [children] to insects in a more positive way,” explained Hanboonsong. “Through this, we change opinions.”

“Fifteen years ago, this was only seen as something the Isan, the poor, and the old would eat,” said Hanboonsong. “Now, recently I saw a child who was 5 to 6 years old eating insects. I went up to her and asked, ‘Why are you eating insects?’ And she looked at me like it was such a weird question to ask! You know it’s normal to her—she’s just eating it like she would a piece of candy.”

Harn, an 18-year-old from Isan who set up his insect stall in downtown Bangkok, is able to make 20,000 THB per month with a 50 percent profit margin. “I knew I could set up anywhere and be OK,” said Harn, who gets his insects from the nearby Khlong Toei market. “Everyone buys here—all sorts of Thais, Chinese, Western tourists. I used to buy and cook them for myself, but I saw that it was becoming more popular, so I decided to sell them.”

untitled-40

Back in Talad Thai, Somnuek had also noticed the sudden diversity in consumers. “You get all sorts of people buying here now,” he said. “I even had a pretty famous local actress buy from me.”

The unnamed “pretty famous local actress” apparently bought a few kilos of one of the most prized insects —the bamboo caterpillar. In a nearby stall, these caterpillars were selling for 400 THB per kilo—four times the price of the house cricket. Only available seasonally through harvesting in the wild, the bamboo caterpillar is considered one of the more elegant insects to be seen eating, particularly in North Thailand.

Although the FAO estimates that Thailand has some 200 edible species of insect, fewer than a dozen are regularly eaten. Hanboonsong explains that these insects can be subdivided into two groups: farmed insects (such as crickets and palm weevils) and wild-harvested (such as bamboo caterpillars, weaver ants and giant water bugs).

untitled-37

For the most part, the wild-harvested insects are only available in certain regions, or during specific times of the year, and are difficult to intensively farm. As such, their scarcity drives their prices up to even beyond that of chicken, pork, or beef. With refrigeration usage on the rise, however, more of these insects are available year-round. (Frozen insects are still fine after one to two years.)

While this is positive for the consumers in the short term, it also means that some farmers have an incentive to harvest at unsustainable levels when they are available. Even at the current rate of wild harvesting, populations of both the popular giant water bug and weaver ant eggs are declining.

“We need to have the farmers join into a big group, so that we can ensure they are taught GAPs (Good Agricultural Practice),” explained Hanboonsong. “As well as changing perceptions on eating insects, we have to ensure good practice with wild harvesting and farming.”

After her months of trial and error, Aunt Jai is more than aware of the risks that come with poor farming practice. “I now ensure it’s not too crowded so as to give them space to breathe and to jump. If it’s too crowded, there is more chance that they will eat one another.”

Yet, even with all the caveats that inevitably follow a sprawling sector that bypasses government oversight and outpaces academic research, Thailand has shown that a successful trade in insects is possible, and the rewards are very real for poor, rural farmers like Aunt Jai. “Crickets paid for this farm. Crickets bought my car,” she said, pointing at a relatively new Toyota. “Cricket farming can pull you out of poverty.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Economics

Gaza’s Tunnel Vision

First published on Vocativ on 14 May 2014

Gaza’s infamous tunnels are at once a lifeline and a deathtrap. They connect the occupied territories with areas beyond their closed borders, freeing up trade and working as a conduit for goods to flow back and forth. But the Egyptian and Israeli governments regard the tunnels as a security threat and work constantly to detect and shut them down, so the risks for those working underground are great. They could be gassed, flooded or bombed out of the passages—if they make it out at all. While the tunnels are a necessity in many ways, the Gaza population is extremely conflicted about their existence.

Leave a comment

May 14, 2014 · 18:55

In Cairo’s Garbage City, Illegal Pig Farming is Coming Back

First Published in Vice ‘Munchies‘ Food Section – April 8, 2014

In Cairo’s ‘Garbage City,’ Illegal Pig Farming Is Coming BackAs I scrambled up piles of cardboard and across varied detritus, I eventually peered over a metal barrier into the porcine enclave beyond.  The two dozen or so pigs on the other side quickly scattered away to the shadows before slowly returning to where they were, munching on orange peels and the other organic materials left for them.

“Welcome to Garbage City!” yells one man below me, before continuing on in his business of compressing and packaging used cardboard. “You like the pigs?” he asks me.


Pigs hanging out on a pile of garbage. All photos by the author.

Manshiyet Nasser, or ‘Garbage City’ as it’s otherwise known, is a sprawling town of mostly Coptic Christians and lies under the Mokattam hills just slightly under five miles (8km) from downtown Cairo. With the majority of the population working in the informal recycling and rubbish collecting business, the area is home to some 60,000 ‘Zabaleen’ (literally ‘garbage people’) and the destination of some 30 percent of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output—all 4,200 tons of it. Walking around the maze of streets, you occasionally pass by openings to the makeshift furnaces used for recycling; the blasts of heat and the whirr of metal reminding you exactly where you are—in essence, a recycling industry. Elsewhere, the smell—as one would imagine—is incredibly pungent. Foodstuffs and other organic matter putrefy under the hot sun, offering up an odor capable of burning the nasal hairs. It only takes about 15 minutes for the body to adjust to it, though, and eventually its power escapes you.

Garbage City is also home to the highest concentration of pigs in Egypt—around 50,000 of them. This is nearly double the number of pigs than there were the year before. It is an immense resurgence from five years ago, when Hosni Mubarak’s government culled most of Egypt’s pig population because of a swine flu scare. But even though pork farming is still illegal today, a few bold farmers are attempting to reform the industry altogether.

On April 29th, 2009, amid the growing paranoia over the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, Egypt’s government, under Hosni Mubarak, ordered the immediate slaughter of every pig in Egypt. At the time, Egypt’s agriculture ministry put the number of pigs in the country at close to 250,000.

Photo by Adam Ramsey

Despite the fact that no pigs in Egypt were found to have the new strain, and that the World Health Organization (WHO) stressed that it could not be caught from eating pork that was properly prepared, the decision went ahead. Shortly after the announcement, the government described the move not so much a precaution against swine flu, but a general public health measure. Nearly every pig in Egypt was taken to a slaughterhouse and killed, or, in several reported cases that don’t bear thinking about, either covered in acid or buried alive.

The pig farmers in Garbage City explained to me that it was now legal to own and rear pigs, but against the law to slaughter them to sell for consumption purposes. In other words, pig farming is still illegal. The loophole was an easy one to spot for the business-minded, though, and in the richer and more foreigner-friendly areas of Zamalek and Maadi, a few shops have taken to selling imported items. Slaughtered and processed overseas, the pigs are now sold to a predominantly foreign clientele living in Egypt.

Tucked away along one of Zamalek’s main roads, an otherwise unassuming alcohol shop sells an assortment of German pork products.  In full view of its entrance, a typical meat counter offers foie gras, mortadella, bacon, pork cutlets, and more.

Photo by Adam Ramsey
Above, a liquor store that sells German pork product imports

“Great pork, all from Germany,” says Atalah, an employee of the shop.  When queried on how much of the stuff they sell in a month, he estimates over 220 pounds. “There are a lot of foreigners here and they love their pork!” Assuring me of the legality of the operation, he stresses that he would never risk jail over something as trivial as pork, before continuing, in a whisper, “If you want I can get you good booze? All European stuff: beers, wine, vodka, whiskey. I have it. But keep it quiet, because it’s illegal.”

Back in Manshiyet Nasser, farmers explained the immediate problems they faced as a result of the 2009 killings. “I had around 1,500 pigs before Mubarak’s decision [to cull them].” Says Rezek, a Garbage City resident. “Then they came around and took them all; I must have lost something like 70,000 EGP ($10,000 USD) worth of pigs.”

“But it is more than just the initial money loss,” says Bekhit, an older pig farmer. “It was our way of life: It was the insurance of a monthly income, a source to pay for a wedding, not to mention good food to feed the family, you know, barbecue pork.” Barbecue pork is incredibly popular in Garbage City and it seemed to be a phrase almost everyone I met could say in English. “The pigs are great for all the organic materials we have to get rid of. We can recycle inorganic, you know, the plastics and stuff, but any leftover food would just sit there rotting,” adds Rezek.

Sitting at a café that spread precariously into the road, the men chatted about 2009 and the aftermath. “One of the most immediate things that happened was the price of beef went up. Anyone who still had their pigs would hoard them or sell them at way more than most could afford,” says Bekhit. “Before Mubarak you could buy pork from a butcher for something like 25 EGP/kg ($3.60 USD/kg). Now it’s double that.”

“It was our way of life: It was the insurance of a monthly income, a source to pay for a wedding, not to mention good food to feed the family, you know, barbecue pork.”

Raafat, a butcher in the area with 20 years of experience, estimates that he is one of six or seven butchers who continue to process and cook pork. “I actually had to start selling chicken immediately after the cull,” he explains. “There just weren’t any pigs.”

Before Mubarak, Raafat was going through about four pigs worth of pork a day. “After, it was maybe one or two a week. It is much better, but right now it’s pretty low, maybe two or three a day, but that’s because people are fasting for Easter, and the economy is a mess.”

One of the major issues he is still battling with is the lack of a certified stamp of approval from a health official. “Some people are afraid because it isn’t stamped so they don’t know what it’s like. Before the cull, there were doctors who would certify the meat—now I have to do it myself. That doesn’t worry people here, but outside of Garbage City it puts people off.”

Walking around Garbage City, it seemed as though almost every ad hoc building now had a few pigs tucked away behind the exterior, either in a makeshift sty in the back, on a rooftop, or under some stairs. “I remember when they first came [in 2009], says Bashai. “I hid two piglets in a small room in my house and had to let the others be taken and killed. It wasn’t until Mubarak was removed that things really got better,” he continued, in reference to the coup that overthrew the Islamist President in July of last year. “Under Mubarak, the government was still looking for pigs, but now there are no problems.”

Photo by Adam Ramsey
Pigs in a building in ‘Garbage Town’

Guiding me through to the back of his building, Bashai walked expertly across an ocean of bottles, cardboard, and—I couldn’t help but notice—at least two needles. I stumbled my way after him, desperately trying to not fall. His youngest son skipped past me and they both helped me into their pigpen. “I now have 60 pigs or so,” he stated with some dissatisfaction while the pigs walked around him, nibbling at his feet. “But I hope to have many more soon. Things are looking better now.”

Photo by Adam Ramsey

Rafaat agrees, saying that with the more comfortable attitude now being afforded to pork, sales can only increase. “I’m not afraid of anyone coming to arrest me over selling this stuff anymore.  I actually think the abattoirs will reopen soon.” He smiles. “I still offer chicken if people want it, but almost everyone wants the barbecue pork.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Economics, Politics