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May 19, 2019

Myanmar’s traditional blacksmiths take to reinforcing modern farming machinery for survival

Workers of blacksmith workshop focusing on poduction of agricultural tools in traditional ways at a village in Kawa Township to survive their livelihoods while agricultural machinery are bieng used on a wider scale in rural area for cultivation of paddy and crops.—Photo: Aye Min Soe
Workers of blacksmith workshop focusing on poduction of agricultural tools in traditional ways at a village in Kawa Township to survive their livelihoods while agricultural machinery are bieng used on a wider scale in rural area for cultivation of paddy and crops.—Photo: Aye Min Soe

Kawa, 26 Oct — Myanmar blacksmiths who mainly make traditional farming tools are augmenting their careers as welders for survival as the agricultural sector is transiting from traditional to mechanized farming.
Blacksmiths now often weld metal reinforcing onto Chinese-made power tillers and to do other strengthening to the tillers to increase the machines’ durability even before they are used on the land.
“We have to adapt our career to a modern style to survive because it is impossible for a blacksmith to rely only on our traditional career because the farming tools we make are no longer used by farmers,” U Win Thaung, 56, a blacksmith in Kawa, a country town about 20 miles southeast of Bago, said.
He is one of the town’s six blacksmiths who have adapted to the changes by establishing cottage industries with welding machines and mini drills.
U Win Thaung said an example of the changes is the downward spiral of sickles ordered by his customers, which dropped from around 500 last year to 300 this year. And he has had no orders for tools for ground-preparation work for two years.
According to local farmers, the use of traditional blacksmith-created tools such as ploughs is on the verge of extinction as power tillers become ubiquitous.
The upside for U Win Thaung has been that the number of power tillers needed his reinforcement techniques rose from seven last rice-planting season to 10 during this year’s cultivation season.
Reasons for the shift away from traditional, handmade tools among farmers are two-fold.
Power tillers can prepare the land faster and speed the harvest and they are less labour intensive, an increasingly important aspect as workers who used help on farms for daily wages are increasingly leaving rural for towns and cities areas and leaving behind an acute shortage of farm day-labourers.
“Not every farmer owns draught cattle anymore. Some sold their cattle to pay off their debts. Some sold their cattle to buy a power tiller because the money from the sale of two draught cattle is nearly enough to buy a power tiller made in China,” one farmer said, explaining why there is no longer much need for blacksmith-made tools .
Even farmers who cannot afford a power tiller on their own can hire one.
Blacksmiths in country towns have also faced a fall-off in orders for bullock carts because many farmers are switching to use of trailers to haul goods rather than the traditional two-wheel wood and iron carts.

A worker of blacksmith welding a machine part of power-tiller at the workshop in Kawa Township.—Photo: Aye Min Soe
A worker of blacksmith welding a machine part of power-tiller at the workshop in Kawa Township.—Photo: Aye Min Soe

U Win Thaung said he has not had an order for a new bullock cart in a decade, but, he added, orders for trailers are growing.
“(Now) I build and repair trailers instead of bullock carts,” he said.
Even sales at shops specialising in wooden parts for bullock carts and agricultural tools in Bago, about 15 miles northeast of Kawa, are falling, a signal that traditional carts drawn by oxen will disappear from Myanmar farms before too long, if not even sooner.
“We were very busy this time last year, but, this year the sales figure dropped by a fourth to a third from last year,” said Ko Kalar, 43, who sells wooden parts for bullock carts and farm tools made by blacksmiths.
U Win Thaung concluded, “In the future, only household items such as choppers and knives will remain as works made by traditional Myanmar blacksmiths.” GNLM

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