One hot, sunny morning in early February, a group of us sat cross-legged on the planked floor of a small wooden farm house in rural Myanmar. U Tin Chit and his wife were plying us with multiple bowls of food – river snails, sea grass salad, spicy mussels and a stir-fried vegetable of uncertain identity. Though keen to try these unfamiliar delicacies, I was not in the least bit hungry and felt bad that these subsistence farmers were giving away food that they undoubtedly needed more than we did.
But these dishes were offerings of gratitude. A UK Government Darwin initiative grant, secured by the British Asian Trust with Elephant Family, is supporting the Human-Elephant Peace Programme (H.El.P) of Grow Back for Prosperity, a Myanmar non-government organisation, and its long-time partner Compass Films. Supplementary support comes from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Shared Earth. A small group of us sat on the floor talking with U Tin Chit so we could assess the impact of the programme.
This well-established programme of several years is helping rural families protect not only themselves but also their crops, the mainstay of their livelihoods, from wild elephants. It is also protecting the lives of the elephants – none have been killed in retaliation for crop-raiding since the programme began.
For the last 20 years, U Tin Chit and his neighbours have consistently lost around 50% of their rice crop to elephants. Rice is as much a delicacy for elephants as mussels are for us. And equally nutritious. In 2016, Grow Back for Prosperity started this programme by teaching rural communities, village-by-village, how to avoid conflict with elephants. In 2020, it began training farmers to install simple but effective electric fences to protect their rice fields from the time of planting to the time of harvest, a period of around four months from July-November each year.
The key to this project is knowledge-sharing and capacity building – enabling villagers of every age and gender to take responsibility for the safety of their families, property and crops, while also protecting the elephants that are sometimes their adversary.
Increasingly, villages affected by human-elephant conflict contact Grow Back for Prosperity for help. Once enrolled, a series of educational events are held to help community members understand why human-elephant conflict happens and how it is caused by their own behaviour as well as by the socio-biology of elephants. In addition to helping villagers avoid being hurt by elephants, raising awareness helps to engender understanding and sympathy for elephants – a prerequisite for coexistence.
If the calculation reveals that it would be worth protecting fields, Grow Back for Prosperity organises a 4-5 day training course in seasonal electric fencing for 12-15 human-elephant conflict affected farmers in that area. The aim is to train trainers as well as farmers so that, in time, experienced electric fencers can train other farmers to protect crops both effectively and safely while also protecting elephants and their habitats.
When this project started, most trainees were men. But more and more women are asking to be trained so that they can help protect homes as well as fields. Fields are vulnerable for part of the year, but homes are vulnerable all year because that is where families store their grain. Grow Back for Prosperity now has four female trainers and in the 2022-23 dry season, it held two training courses for women only.
To ensure that no one electrocutes a person, a domestic animal or a wild elephant, fence safety is as important as fence efficacy. Trainees learn to install, maintain, guard and monitor fences properly to minimise the risk of killing any living being while at the same time deterring elephant raids. They also commit to taking a field fence down as soon as the crop is harvested so that elephants have free passage across fallow land during the agricultural off-season and do not learn to break the fences when they are no longer in use and not as well protected.
U Tin Chit plants rice on 20 acres. This should produce 80 bags of paddy which, after winnowing to remove the husks, would yield 20 bags of rice, the amount he needs to feed his family for a year. In the past, elephants have always eaten half his crop and he had to use his hard-earned wages as an occasional handyman (£2/day) to buy the 10 sacks of grain needed for subsistence costing 600,000 kyat (£240).
The materials for an electric fence cost him 700,000 kyat (£280) plus the cost off the most reliable energizer, a Gallager (£300), bought through an interest-free payment scheme organised by Grow Back for Prosperity.
This year, thanks to his fence, U Tin Chit has harvested a full crop of grain and can use his wages to pay for the energizer which will last him many years. Better still, while the seasonal fencing around the fields will come down, U Tin Chit can extend his fence to protect his house year-round, ensuring that he and his family can sleep more soundly, knowing that elephants will not try to steal their rice store.
U Tin Chit is a happier, richer man. Hence the copious quantity of thanks-giving food.