LASHIO, Myanmar — Samley Rong and his family live in a tiny village about 20 miles north of this city of roughly 130,000 people, but the two communities are really a world apart.
Reaching his home requires a vehicle capable of navigating narrow dirt and stone roads that twist and turn through the orange-soil hills. Motorbikes and ox carts are a common mode of transport.
Most homes have thatched-grass roofs. Farm work is done primarily with hand tools; there is no electricity.
But Samley’s fortune has risen the past few years. During a recent weekday afternoon, two masons were finishing the last cinder-block wall of the family’s new house. He sat in the shade of its corrugated sheet-metal roof and talked about the source of his increased income: hybrid corn.
Samley is among thousands of farmers in Shan and Kachin states who have benefited from Project Old Soldier, a crop substitution program begun in 1997.
The origins of Project Old Soldier, however, go back decades earlier — when the soldiers were young and fighting in World War II.
“The Kachin sided with us and so did most of the hill tribes — the Karens and Chins,” said Peter Lutken, who commanded a battalion of Kachin Rangers for three years during the Japanese occupation of Myanmar, then called Burma. “They did a bang-up job in playing hell with the Japanese and also in providing information to the other forces, like the British and Americans.”
Lutken, now 92 and living in Louisiana, served with the Office of Strategic Services — a forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency — that was created during the war to coordinate espionage behind enemy lines.
Lutken learned the Kachin language and customs, and he was even inducted as an honorary member. About 20,000 Kachin entered the ranks of the Rangers through the course of the war, he said.
“The operation continued until it was dissolved in July 1945 because the war in Burma was practically over,” he said. “Nothing but a ragged remnant of Japanese was left — only about 185,000 of the 325,000 or so that came in.”
“We felt like we had a debt of honor we needed to pay,” Lutken said of his fellow OSS vets after they’d returned to the States. “That’s where Project Old Soldier came from.”
Lutken said he and several other OSS vets finagled a meeting with the generals controlling the country in the mid-1990s; various military juntas had been in power since 1962. “We talked soldier to soldier,” Lutken said. The generals said they would require a memorandum of understanding first, but the old vets balked at the red tape.
“It would take two years to work that out,” Lutken said. “We told them that all we want you to do is tell us we can go in there.”
The generals soon agreed. Lutken said he believes they did so because they shared a common military background.
But they surely also recognized the dire conditions of rural Burmese.
“This country used to be the rice bowl of Asia,” said Chris Milligan, director of the Myanmar mission of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Today, the majority of families in rural areas need to borrow money at least once a year to feed themselves, he said.
“A farmer makes an average of less than $200 a year from agriculture production,” he said.
A typical rural family spends about 70 percent of its income on food.
This poverty affects a huge number of people, as estimates indicate roughly 70 percent of the country’s 60 million people are rural, he said, adding there hasn’t been a national census for about 30 years to provide precise numbers.
The vets recruited Prof. Edward Runge, then head of the Soil and Crop Sciences Department at Texas A&M University, to develop the project.
The Myanmar government wanted the project to focus on increased production of corn, upland rice or soybeans, Runge said. He spent time talking to farmers in Shan and Kachin states, who told him they were most interested in corn because “We can eat it, pigs can eat it, everybody can eat it.”
Soil tests found that the ground was deficient in nitrogen and phosphorous and would require specialized fertilizer. Farmers also had to be taught new methods.
“What they had done in prior times was plant in hills, five or six kernels to a hill,” Runge said. “I guess they’d always done it that way. I went to a couple fields where farmers had planted corn and they were essentially weed patches.”
The farmers were taught to plant in narrow rows to cut down on weeds and optimize acreage, and the first test plots were planted in 1997.
“We essentially quadrupled, quintupled, their yields,” he said.
The project set up a co-op for buying seed and fertilizer in bulk, which was repackaged into small amounts appropriate for the one to three acres typically planted by a family. The co-op also helped farmers combine their harvests in trucks bound for China, where the corn sold for higher prices than in Myanmar.
Because yields are multiplied so greatly, most farmers are able to buy hybrid seed and fertilizer for the next season out of the harvest profits, making the project largely self-funded. But it was able to expand greatly through annual funding of about $250,000 by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. The support was part its alternative development projects in Southeast Asia meant to steer farmers away from raising opium.
“There were a lot of poppies being grown when the project started,” Runge said. “The fallout from growing poppies is that essentially every family has addicts in it, or knows of addicts. The men’s lives were shortened from the addiction.”
The Myanmar government assigned Lahpai Nang Ja, a local agent with the Ministry of Agriculture, to help the Americans. It was a good fit: Lahpai’s father had been a Kachin Ranger. She soon quit her government job and was hired outright as project superintendent.
Lahpai oversees about 30 local project agents who live in the communities they advise. Together they manage roughly 180 local co-ops comprised of about 4,700 farmers.
Lahpai travels the countryside with the project’s only vehicle, a weary four-wheel drive SUV.
On a recent morning, Lahpai and two local agents drove a visiting reporter to several of the participating villages. In Loi Waw Zup Ra, just on the outskirts of Lashio, a dozen farmers packed the home of Maram Hkun Jam to talk about the project.
Most of them relocated to the village in the early 1990s from the east, where conflict — often driven by the opium trade — drove them out. As a result, they don’t own any land of their own.
“Before this project came we were very hard up,” said 40-year-old Lamai La Bung, wearing a red-checkered shirt and traditional longyi. “We worked at other people’s rubber fields as daily workers. But now, after joining this project, we don’t have to go out and work like that as much. We have become united.”
The land they farm — an hour’s walk over a small mountain from the village, to which there is no road — belongs to the Ministry of Forestry. The farmers use hand tools and tote corn from the fields with baskets on their backs.
Lamai said as a young teen he was forced to join the troops of Khun Sa, a powerful Shan State warlord dubbed by the media as the “Opium King of the Golden Triangle.” He eventually escaped.
“But that’s why I didn’t have a chance to go to school,” he said of the violent drug trade. “I am illiterate.”
Raising hybrid corn provides his family with enough money to ensure his children will receive the education he never got, he said.
State Department funding for Project Old Soldier ended in 2008, which has kept it from expanding much since then. Lutken said the OSS association is seeking alternative funding.
For now, the veterans are paying the salaries of the project’s employees, which amounts to about $6,000 a month, Runge said. With the youngest of those veterans in their late 80s, that funding source is fleeting.
Asked if the USAID mission in Myanmar had any plans to support Project Old Soldier, an embassy spokesman wrote to Stars and Stripes that the agency was evaluating existing projects to see if they could be replicated.
“Project Old Solider has reportedly lifted 5,000 people out of poverty using sustainable, market-based approaches to crop production,” the spokesman wrote. “Applying the lessons learned from this and other projects will help USAID promote public/private partnerships to support the transition from subsistence to smallholder commercial agriculture.”
That transition is quite apparent in Hka Shi, which means “new village,” about 10 miles north of Lashio. Lahpai regards it as one of the most successful co-ops.
The village didn’t exist until about 40 years ago when its residents, primarily of the Li Su ethnic group, moved from a conflict-ridden area near the China border to this jungle, which they cleared.
A few farmers joined the co-op in 2004 and began raising small plots of hybrid corn. About 125 farmers are now members.
“At first, when we grew local corn, we could only buy a bicycle or cassette tape, and the money would all be gone,” said Zacchaeus, a farmer named after the New Testament tax collector who, too short to see Jesus speaking, climbed a tree to get a better look. “But now, after starting the project, we’ve bought small tractors and motorbikes” and now jointly own about 30 tractors.
Many of them have been able to replace thatched roofs with sheet metal, and most farmers now own gasoline-engine corncob shellers — a big step up from hand-crank shellers they used to share.
“We’ve gone from manual work to mechanization,” Zacchaeus said proudly.
They have faith in greater things ahead.
About 20 yards from the house where Zacchaeus and four other farmers were gathered, a steel electric pole towers above the village. There are no wires attached; electricity does not yet run to Hka Shi.
The farmers pooled money to buy and erect the pole and in the future plan to buy the high-tension wires and transformer needed to hook up to the grid.
They believe electricity will come with the corn.