Alec Wilmot sat down with Daw Poe Phyu to reflect on her hometown Mogok and the charity projects that drive her today, from employing underprivileged women to saving the palm plantations of the Myanmar dry zone.
Daw Poe Phyu passionately believes that her native town of Mogok could become a renowned tourist destination in Myanmar, which has prompted her to engage with a number of donations-driven development programmes that cover education, employment, and tourism. It was during this process that she added environmentalism to her checklist, taking up the cause of working to end the clearing of historic palm tree land in Kyaukpadaung and Magway.
While her family has predominantly worked in the jewelry business, trading the famously stunning, voluminous gems that pour out of the hills and mountains of the valley, Daw Poe Phyu had a different path in mind. She opted instead to go to university in Yangon where she attained a physics degree.
“Actually, there were quite a few women in that field”, she said when asked if she faced discrimination studying the sciences. “After that, I went into real estate. It was a good time to join the market when I entered. I traded properties and developed plots for selling on”.
Growing wealthy from the real estate business gave Daw Poe Phyu a certain time to reflect on how she might be able to give something back to the Mogok valley and wider Myanmar community.
“The people in Mogok struggle to make ends meet. I wanted to find a way to help by giving them skills and agency so they could be self sufficient”, she said.
She would become involved in fundraising to create an old people’s home for retired artists. The centre accepts any and all career artists who, as can be typical in Myanmar, have lived on meagre wages that do not lend them financial security in their old age. Leading on from that, she joined the Mogok 800 Years Foundation as vice-chairperson and began fundraising for educational and vocational programmes in the lead up to eighth centenary. The vocational training included education for tour guides, English proficiency training and classes in artistic disciplines and computing.
The Mogok 800 Year Anniversary Event, held last year, was a fundraising effort to put on a full festival in the town to celebrate the vibrancy of local culture and the natural gifts bestowed upon the valley. Singers, performers, artists and thousands of monks collected in Mogok over three days to partake in the celebrations. More than just being a celebration of Mogok’s history, the event is part of a broader plan to put Mogok on the map for tourists and visitors. As Daw Poe Phyu explained, if you can develop a hub for tourism then other areas of focus for development, such as environmental conservation, improving education and diversifying the economy will work in the concert.
So it was around the time of the 800 year celebration that Daw Poe Phyu learned from a journalist that the palm plantations of Kyaukpadaung and Magway were disappearing at an alarming rate (50 per cent loss since 2012 nationally). The reporter informed her that large swathes of palm were being cleared for their wood content and shipped away. Daw Poe Phyu knew full well that sustainable palm harvesting was a slow and methodical business, and that deforestation threatened the entire community. So she decided to act.
“Palms grow very slowly. They do not begin producing juice until they are twenty to thirty years old. Families have a strong tradition of palm ownership. If a grandmother once planted a palm tree, it will be her descendants who own that tree, and can do with what they will. Now, what is happening is that the land is being divided and bought, and families lose their traditional rights”.
Daw Phoe Phyu added that palm roots travel very far underground, all the way to the water-table and draw that water up to the surface. Clearing the palms wholesale threatens to make the top soil destitute, in addition to creating an ugly landscape in the short to medium term.
Her first mission was to go and see the clearing for herself, which she did shortly after the 800 year celebrations wrapped up, and found the reports to be accurate. It is reported that palm plantation owners of the region are facing significant difficulties earning their keep off the traditional crop, and many are losing out against big development and logging, earning only K25,000 for a palm tree that might be up to 40 years old.
“In terms of value, the stumps of the aged palms can be made into furniture pieces which sell for many hundreds of dollars overseas. I saw that all the stumps had been burned after clearance”, she said of her visit to the region.
Using her influence and experience with the 800 Year celebration group, Daw Poe Phyu helped to form the advocacy office Save the Palms which focuses specifically on palm conservation in Kyaukpadaung and Magway. She made contact with the Mandalay Regional Forestry Department and lodged a complaint over the treatment of the local palm owners who were being robbed of their heritage. Today, thanks to her efforts, palm tree cultivation is more closely monitored and the rate of felling has slowed considerably, but Daw Poe Phyu is still waiting to see official announcements on the issue from the Mandalay government, and the threat of further palm destruction still lingers so long as the traditional farming practice remains unlucrative.
Palm cultivation links directly with vocational training and the push for a tourism industry in Kyaukpadaung, which has resulted in the next stage of development for the area; Kyaukpadaung is going to have weaved Buddhas in order to attract tourists. As far as anyone involved with the project knows, weaved Buddhas are not a hallmark of any place in the country, giving Kyaukpadaung the opportunity to seize that mantle.
The weaved Buddhas are an original idea by Daw Poe Phyu. The project will involve 30 trained weaving women from her vocational programme building Buddha statues for an old pagoda in Kyaukpadaung town. Daw Poe Phyu intends for there to be multiple Buddhas, but the biggest will stand at 34 feet high. Originally slated to be 45 feet high, the ambitious size was cut down to save on roofing costs. Each Buddha will be constructed using entirely traditional methods and be coated with organic paints and a fireproof layering. As Daw Poe Phyu put it, everything from the hats and small handbags the weaving women make, up to the biggest Buddha, will be a natural, classically hand-made product that will attract the interest of foreigners and keep those traditions alive in the community.
The project has not yet begun but the pre-construction organising is well underway. Plans have been drawn up for their designs and materials are being gathered.
“In the future, regional Myanmar handicrafts will be very rare. This project is going to help preserve Kyaukpadaung traditional wears, and do it in a way that’s sustainable and healthy for the community”, Daw Poe Phyu said.