It was 2007 and IDE (International Development Enterprises) contacted me about
visiting two countries that they had projects in with the purpose of publishing a book on
each to raise the awareness of what the organization what doing. IDE sold items that were
priced under $10 (US) to help farmers increase their production in what at the time was
substance agriculture. The countries I would visit were Nepal (another chapter) and
Burma. It was time I was earning a living taking a major trip each year and producing a
book on my travels and spending the winter on the speaking circuit sharing the experiences
of my travels. This was a time before the internet, 911, and Covid 19 severely reduced the
business of professional speakers.
IDE had the projects they wanted me to visit and the contacts in Burma, they
would make all the travel arrangements, save one. It was not possible to get a Visa to visit
Burma from Canada that had to be done at the embassy in Bangkok, Thailand just prior to
the visit, so I visited Nepal, and then flew to Bangkok to obtain my visa in person from the
embassy. (another chapter there – Thailand)
This manuscript is not intended as a agricultural almanac or a political evaluation
it is my observation of a visit to the county and recounting of some of my interactions with
the individuals of that country. When I was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship and began to
travel Dr. Clay Glison told me, “if you study the things and practices of the people your
information will be dated in two years, if you understand the people your information will
be timeless.” I took that to heart and in my travels I put much more emphasis on
understanding why than exactly what they were doing.
At the time of my visit Burma and Myanmar were names that were used
interchangeably even by the people of the country itself. It was one of the last true bastions
of communism along with North Korea and Cuba.
Auung San Suu Kyi was being held under house arrest and even though her party
had won the majority of seats in what was called the first democratic election in the
country in years, the communist regime of the day claimed there had been some
irregularities and refused to hand over power.
My guide was excellent and his English impeccable, he met me at the airport and
had an agenda that included visits to some farms that were using IDE equipment and time
to see some of the sites of this beautiful country. It did not take long for me to realize the
only thing that surpassed the beauty of the country and it’s temples was the poverty of the
people as they went about their day to day life.
The next few days were filled with visits to farms to see the IDE pumps in action
and it was impressive indeed. The organization provided a number of products to
underprivileged farmers, they were not charity, but very affordable. The rule was that no
product could cost more than $10 US and that farmers purchased it rather that receive it
free of charge. The feeling of the parent organization was that this gave the farmer a
feeling of pride in that he was making a business purchase rather than taking a hand out,
and it would also mean better maintenance for the item when it was on the farm. From my
view they were right on both counts.
The simple treadle pump was operated by human power that could best be
described at a StairMaster that pumped water. The pump itself had been developed at
Harvard and was as functional as it was simple.
The first farm we visited had an ecstatic gentleman explain to me that with the
pump he could extend the growing season on his vegetable plot and over all his production
was increased 3 fold.
A ten dollar investment had tripped the production of his farm! The stories went
on from farm to farm, and while the investment seemed so minimal to me the farmers
pointed out how long they had saved to attain that amount and how some farmers in the
area were not convinced, but these were in fact the innovators in the community who had
taken a chance on the pumps and were seeing the results.
I could not help but think of how North American companies I knew had targeted
innovators in communities across the prairies when introducing a new product, it was the
same thing in Burma. Get the respected members of the community to buy into the product
and others would follow suit, it was a long term plan that had incredible results.
Another farm I visited the owner told me that he was already planning what he
was going to do with the money that the extra water would bring him. It turned out the the
extra water would take his farm from subsistence agriculture and struggling to raise
enough for his family to eat to the point that he would be selling extra production and with
that money he planned to send his children to school. He was convinced that this simple
pump would allow him to provide an education for his children.
Not once in my visits to farms did I hear any complaint of having to put down
pipes or having to provide the power to move the water, every one was just overjoyed at
the results of having more water to grow more crops.
Subsistence agriculture was not something I was used to, I understood agriculture
in Canada where we consume less that 20% of what we grow and rely on world markets
for income. I had spent the last decade covering the trade war in the grains industry where
Canada and the US tried to find ways to support their farmers while selling grain below the
cost of production into the world market. I had spend the 7 months of my Nuffield
Scholarship in Europe determining that the European Union had no intention of cutting
it’s support to farmers and was now storing surplus butter in caves rather then destroy it,
and here I was in a country where the idea of growing more than you need to eat was a
new concept and they had not even dealt with idea of marketing it off the farm.
Subsistence effects every aspect of your being and I saw it in the market place
where I wondered why people who worked in stalls and seemed the poorest of poor would
their meals from another stall propiertor. I thought surely it would be more economical to
‘pack a lunch’ and then I found that many of these people did not have a home where they
could cook a meal and the 15cent meal they bought from a fellow proprietor might be their
only meal of the day, but resoundingly they had no place else to get food.
The lessons were harsh and it was more than just taking notes and pictures but it
was not without it’s Wow moments. One day when we returning from a field visit and the
heat and humidity had take n their toll on me, I was dozing in the back seat of our car on
the way home.
We pulled out to pass an elephant, now walking but surfing on the back of a flat
bed truck. The behemoth animal had one leg tied to the front corner of the flat deck and
seemed entirely content to rock and roll with the curves in the road. That was a bit of a
suprize but even more startling was that the animals handler was napping on the deck
below the animals belly.
When I questioned my guide about it he told me we were nearing an operation
that used elephants in their logging operation, of course I asked to visit and he obliged.
Yes they were doing the work of what old family albums showed heaving horses doing in
the bush work of the the 1940’s.
I have been blessed with a strong stomach, I am able to eat incredibility spicy
food and enjoy it, I have also consumed food that some people might term “a bit off” and
feel no ill effects. My daughter says, “it might kill other people, and Dad will say it was
okay,” but I met my match in Myanmar.
We were returning from a visit to a farm and this is not a country with a lot of
roadside eateries, so my guide suggested we make it back to Rangoon and have a nice
lunch. We arrived at very nice restaurant a bit late for the noon buffet, and most of the
dishes had had he majority of their offerings removed. The hot dishes were luke warm but
it was well into the afternoon and I was hungry, I proceeded to load my plate with the
offerings of the buffet table and perhaps even went back for a second helping.
Our day of touring was done and my only commitment for the rest of the day was
to catch up on my notes from our morning visits. Nature had different plans, and in a text
book case of food poison, it gave me time to check into my hotel and get my gear into the
room. I was thankful I was in a hotel with a North American like bathroom not some of
the facilities I had visited in the country,
I will spare you the details of the next 12 hours but be assured I did not work on
my notes, I did some paper work of a different sort. By morning I went down to the front
desk to send an email home telling Sandra that if they did sent my gear home the black
pearls were for her. I had already come to grips with the fact I might not be leaving this
country upright, and it was only a so-so chance of them sending my luggage back to
The nurse replied that when this was over I needed to replenish the electrolytes in
my system and if it was available I should try to drink some Coke to get back on track.
Thankfully the next day did not have anything on the schedule and I spend it between the
bathroom and appreciating life, not much sightseeing of the city which is what the fee day
was intended for.
The following day dawned bright and sunny and my car arrived early to head out
on more farm visits. They only question my guide had of me was “Previously you never
had anything, but today every time we stop you buy a Coke, is something wrong?”
Myanmar also provide another first for me, the first time (and only) I chose to go
back to my hotel room than venture out with my guide, and it was a repeat adventure.
My guide was going out to refuel the car in preparation for the next day’s travel
and I said I would prefer to stay in my hotel room while he ventured out. There was a
gasoline shortage in the country and fuel was purchase on the black market. I had gone
with him the previous night and he explained that the empty Jerry can on the side of the
road meant a seller of fuel at the next turn. We went down the next road and turned into a
yard that was lacking any kind of lighting.
While my driver and the attendant filled the car with fuel I could see at least a half
dozen figures standing around and I felt their gaze penetrating very inch of my body. I got
the feeling that the life of one overweight Canadian journalist would be worth very little in
this situation. Truthfully it is the scariest I have ever been, I got back in the car which I felt
provided some protection and waited for my driver. There was no incident and we headed
aback to town, I did not feel we needed to repeat that situation the second night, my hotel
room would be fine.
When I got home I turned my diaries into manuscripts for books, and sorted
through my pictures. The Nepal book was published and served it’s purpose, the book on
Myanmar was never published. IDE felt that my writings might be deemed offensive by
the administration of the day and that wold hamper their work in the country. If memory
serves me correctly it was a line to the effect of “a man with chicken like legs was happily
working the treadle pump and bringing water to his fields”. It was the chicken-like term
that they felt might ruffle a few feathers and so the book was never published.
They were the owners for the material, because they had paid my expenses and I
could accept their decision. It was a real lesson for me, what I thought was a pretty vanilla
description of what I saw risked offending the regime.
I had also learned that the world does not work on my schedule when I tried to get
my visa (that is covered in Thailand) and I was awakened to the value of human life in a
visit to a gas station.
You can learn so much when you travel.