Myanmar's Rural Revolution: Mechanization & Structural Transformation

What's the disconnect between evidence of a dynamic and rapidly transforming economy, and the widely reported low levels of agricultural mechanization? by Myat Thida Win, Ben Belton, and Xiaobo Zhang.

This chapter addresses, empirically, the disconnect between evidence of a dynamic and rapidly transforming economy, and the low levels of agricultural mechanization widely reported. It also seeks to account for regional differences in observed patterns of mechanization. We use a mix of quantitative data and qualitative observations from our own surveys to analyze the current state of agricultural mechanization in four townships close to Yangon and provide insights from scoping in other areas of the country. Historical data from the national Integrated Household Living Conditions Assessment (IHLCA) survey of 2005 and 2010 is also drawn upon for comparative purposes.

Contrary to the findings of the World Bank (2016) we find ample evidence that extremely rapid agricultural mechanization has begun in the main area studied in Lower Myanmar. Our survey data shows that these changes occurred concurrently with greater labour mobility, high levels of out-migration, and rapidly rising wage wages. This confluence of events supports the inference that structural transformation is under way, at least in the main area studied. A particularly notable observed characteristic of agricultural mechanization is the emergence of machine rental services markets, which has made the adoption of agricultural machinery close to scale neutral at the point of use. This finding belies the perception that mechanization is only possible with, or must result in, concentration of agricultural landholdings, lending support to the position that processes of agrarian transformation can occur in ways that are highly unpredictable and contextually specific.

Similarly, we find that agricultural machinery dealerships have increasingly spread beyond the country’s traditional agricultural heartlands to penetrate more peripheral areas of the country, but this process has been far from uniform. Place-based spatial variations in uptake of different types of machinery are identified, linked to differences in physical connectivity, agro-ecology, crop choice, and the economic logic of different forms of farming (i.e. commercial and subsistence). The question of whether mechanization has contributed to rural differentiation, deagrarianization and shifts in the balance of gender relations is important, but cannot be answered with the data available, and remains an important topic for future research.

A version of this study is available here.

Myat Thida Win, Ben Belton, and Xiaobo Zhang, 2018. Myanmar's Rural Revolution: Mechanization and Structural Transformation, in Myanmar Transformed? People, Places and Politics, edited by Justine Chambers, Gerard McCarthy, Nicholas Farrelly, and Chit Win (Singapore: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, 2018).

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