Regrowing the Garden


June 18, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Life here in Bo Kone, Myanmar, a village of about a thousand people, has never been easy. Located on an isolated island in the Irrawaddy Delta, it's about an hour's boat ride to the nearest town.

And then Cyclone Nargis tore through the village last year, killing about a quarter of its inhabitants and submerging in salt water its acres of rice fields.

Those who survived — including Myint Aye, the village geography teacher and a 47-year-old mother of two — lost everything.

"People were already malnourished," says Hadi Akther, a local agronomist who runs Mercy Corps' food security and livelihoods recovery program in the Delta. "We wanted to find a way not just to restore the rice farms they depended on, but to enable people to diversify their diets and eat more nutritious meals."

Before the cyclone, people had to go about an hour away by boat to get vegetables. The hassle and expense meant few did.

With that challenge in mind, Mercy Corps helped Myint's and 300 other families in Bo Kone establish "kitchen gardens" — small growing plots that will help satisfy household food needs — by providing seeds, gardening tools and technical training.

And as Myanmar moves into its "winter" — when the average temperature is 80 degrees instead of 90 — Mercy Corps is ramping up a winter vegetable program that equips these households to grow a whole new set of crops.

Women are the owners of these gardens. They see keeping their family fed as one of their primary responsibilities. It's the same story throughout the developing world, where 60 to 80 of the food is grown by women — most of it for their own tables.

Myint planted 10 different crops, including green beans, pumpkin, watercress and rosehips. She has two goals in mind: increasing the nutritional value of the meals she cooked, and selling some of the yield to educate her children.

"Without this program I never could have grown such a big, diverse garden," she says. "I want to use the money I make to send my eldest son to college in the city."