September 4, 2007, The Irrawaddy (Thailand)

Bayer´s Hybrid Rice Testing in Burma Under Fire

Plans by the German biotech corporation Bayer to introduce a new hybrid rice variety to Burma have run into stiff opposition from environmentalists, who warn that the project could plunge farmers into heavy debt.
Harald Printz, country head for the Bayer group in Thailand, confirmed in an interview with The Irrawaddy that the German giant is testing the new rice variety and said it could help Burma rival Thailand as a rice producer.
Printz said the testing program was part of Bayer's long term strategy to secure a good position in the future agricultural market in Burma, which he predicted had fairly high potential.
"At the moment we are seeing the future," Printz said. "We basically want to promote our products, in a professional manner, to the farmers, showing them how to best use them, how to apply them in a professional way. We believe that if the country, if the economic situation improves, then automatically we will have better sales.
"I do not know when the country will open [up]. But we are basically prepared to do this, if it takes 20 years, it takes 20 years. We are really looking at the long term perspective on this. We believe if we do this year after year, we will have a good position in the market, even if it takes us twenty years."
Prominent environmentalists and agricultural activists slammed the Bayer plans and called on Burmese farmers to resist the introduction of the new rice variety.
The internationally renowned Indian scientist, author and environmental activist Vandana Shiva told The Irrawaddy Burma should learn from the experience of her own country, where more than 150,000 farmers had committed suicide after being pushed into debt by multinational companies.
"The multinationals have taken over the input sector in India, whether it is seeds or agrochemicals. When these companies push costly seeds and chemicals, they do it through debt, and that debt can't be paid back by small farmers. So the experience of India is a sign of what could happen to Burma."
Vandana Shiva accused Bayer of worsening the political crisis in Burma and of turning "democracies into dictatorships."
"These agrochemical and biotech companies are creating a dictatorship," she declared. "They are even turning democracies into dictatorship. They should definitely not be in Burma-they should be nowhere. They should not even be in democratic societies because they are turning free societies like India into dictatorships where agrochemical companies and seed companies decide everything rather than the farmers themselves."
Vandana Shiva explained that the problem with hybrid seeds is that they cannot be stored for any length of time, forcing farmers to buy them every year at current prices and pushing them into debt. Hybrid seeds were also more vulnerable to pests and disease and usually need greater irrigation, adding further to costs.
Local biodiversity and traditional agricultural knowledge would also die with the introduction of hybrid seeds, she claimed.
A representative of an international organization representing the interests of small farmers called on Bayer to withdraw from Burma and urged the Burmese people to resist the company's presence there.
The call came from Achmad Yakub, deputy director of policy studies and campaigns at the Federasi Serikat Petani Indonesia (Federation of Indonesian Peasant Unions), which is the current secretariat of La Via Campesina, the coordinating body for the international small farmers movement.
"The first and most important agenda is to organize farmers and labour," he said. "When the government is repressive, the farmers and labor must organize slowly at the grassroots. We can organize a small boycott or something like is dangerous to do something openly like a demonstration. We must have a good strategy against Bayer."
Yakub called for an alternative agricultural agenda, including organic farming, food sovereignty and agrarian reforms.
Paul Sein Twa, director of the Karen Environment Social Action Network (KESAN), said his organization was aware of the threat Burma faced from corporate agriculture and was working to educate community leaders and farmers about sustainable alternatives such as organic farming and seed saving.
He said the Karen people currently had more than 100 traditional varieties of rice, which were under threat from modern rice hybrids. "In all Asian countries, including Burma, rice is our life. We cannot live without rice," he added.
Bayer is one of the few Western multinational corporations still working in Burma. Many other corporations, including Pepsi Cola and Reebok, have withdrawn from the country because of public and political pressure.

Bayer currently runs an office in Rangoon with eight staff, including one technical manager who develops contracts with the Ministry of Agriculture. Bayer's testing of hybrid rice is contracted to the Ministry of Agriculture.
In the Fortune 500 list of the world's biggest corporations, Bayer is rated as the third biggest chemical corporation in the world, with annual revenues of 39.89 billion US dollars.
By Violet Cho